No More No-Frills Newscasts  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 2000

No More No-Frills Newscasts   

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     


In the end, nobility gave way to numbers.

Before Chicago's WBBM-TV premiered its overhauled 10 o'clock newscast in February, officials at the CBS affiliate promised something different: a no-frills broadcast that would do away with sensationalism, "happy chat" and the traditional news formula that dedicates set times for sports and weather and allows for feel-good features.

Instead, WBBM and its anchor, hard-news queen Carol Marin, aimed for an in-depth, serious show, one that would set their last-place broadcast apart from the pack. Weather and sports segments were minimal, unless an act of God or fantastic victory warranted more. A dull-but-important story could lead the nightly broadcast, while a more "juicy" story, like a murder, might not see airtime at all. And, critics agree, WBBM largely delivered on its promise.

"It wasn't a perfect broadcast, but most nights it was better than most of the other ones because it tried something different," says Chicago Tribune television critic Steve Johnson.

But it couldn't bring in viewers. Although curiosity spiked ratings immediately after the revamped broadcast began, they subsequently fell, plunging WBBM even deeper into the ratings abyss.

Finally, on October 30, the broadcast was disbanded, replaced by a more traditional male/female anchor team--David Kerley and Linda MacLennan--and the cookie-cutter format seen from California to Connecticut. In a prepared statement, Craig Hume, the station's news director, said he respected Marin for "spearheading this noble experiment."

The cancellation of "The 10 O'Clock News with Carol Marin" marks the end of an era, albeit a short one, in television news history. But the positive side effects of WBBM's broadcast will linger, Chicago Sun-Times television and radio columnist Robert Feder says, because the broadcast ignited debate over the radio waves, in the newspapers and on the streets about how news should be dispensed.

"People started talking about things like story content and tone; and they may not have used those words, but that was the essence of it," Feder says. "That was healthy. This emerges as a legacy of this episode in television history: It forced people not to take for granted what washed over them, to question how the news was presented."

Marin is well known and widely respected in Chicago, where she coanchored the 10 o'clock news with Ron Magers at NBC-affiliate WMAQ for eight years. The pair had a solid audience that put them at No. 2 in the ratings. But in 1997, when management brought in Jerry Springer as a news commentator, Marin and Magers left the station rather than work with the king of "I have a secret and I'm going to reveal it now" television. That move, Johnson says, gave Marin a "sainted reputation," and it's not completely undeserved. Marin then joined WBBM.

"Genuinely, earnestness might be her fault," Johnson says. "She's so serious about news and so committed to it, maybe she doesn't see the need to compromise and let viewers in more."

That's what some viewers said in Feder's November 1 column. One called Marin "smarmy," while another said the newscast was "as dry as a bone."

But Marin and others say the broadcast was constantly evolving and just needed more time to catch on.

"When you deal with a station that has hemorrhaged out all of its viewers, to bring them back is an acquired taste. It needed to be viewed as a long-term, instead of a short-term, investment," Marin says. "I don't mean to make excuses. Arguably, I might have been the wrong person or this the wrong approach, but this short amount of time, truthfully, isn't a true test."

Critic Johnson agrees. "When you do something so radical, eight-and-a-half months is not a reasonable test," he says.

Television consultant Don Fitzpatrick, of Don Fitzpatrick and Associates, says content aside, one of the problems WBBM faced was basic: It's difficult to get people to switch stations. "It's very, very hard to change people's viewing habits," he says. "If [WBBM] had given it seven years, it might have worked."

But more likely, he says, it wouldn't have. Smart television seems to be more popular in theory than in reality. In the focus groups Fitzpatrick has put together over the years, people will first tell him they watch serious news programs like PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" to supplement their local news.

"Then when you grill them, you find they've never watched McNeil-Lehrer and are always watching the local news and 'Hard Copy' and 'Inside Edition' and stuff like that," Fitzpatrick says. "Television has become a place where you go to get entertained."

While there's nothing wrong with that, there has to be a balance, the Tribune's Johnson says. "A lot of the general public likes fluff. I find myself watching [tabloid television] and end up hating myself for it.... But there's got to be room for something like this somewhere," he says.

Some say the broadcast's future was foretold when its loudest cheerleader, WBBM General Manager Hank Price, left in July. Marin calls Price's departure "the beginning of the end."

Says Price, now president and general manager of Winston-Salem, North Carolina's WXII-TV: "In retrospect, maybe it would have gone on longer if I'd been there. This was something I believed in, and it was something I stood up for on numerous occasions."

But even if he had stayed on, the end result--the cancellation of Marin's broadcast and the return to the old formula--may have been the same, he adds.

Bruce Lindgren, president of the broadcast marketing firm Lindgren and Associates, believes there is a place for a Marin-like broadcast in today's market, "whether it's on public television or a station that doesn't have the fiscal necessities that WBBM has," he says. And the Windy City is the best place in which to experiment.

"If there's a market that could be said has a vociferous appetite for news, Chicago viewers certainly do," he says. "They have a hunger for news like no other city."

Because of that hunger, it's a loss that Marin will no longer work on local news, critics say. Although she'll keep an office at WBBM, she'll work as a full-time correspondent for CBS News, primarily reporting for "60 Minutes" and "60 Minutes II." Marin says that next to her eight-month experiment on WBBM, that job is about as good as it gets.

"At the end of the day, I and the others in the newsroom feel good about what it was," Marin says. "It was a risk worth taking. Whatever the outcome, I'm glad we did it."

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