A Newscast Featuring Real News
A Chicago TV station jettisons the hype and the gimmicks.
By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (email@example.com) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.
IT'S BEEN CALLED PBS on CBS, a blend of "60 Minutes" and "The Charlie Rose Show," but it might just as well be dubbed "Chicago Hope."
The CBS station in Chicago, WBBM-TV, has reinvented its 10 p.m. newscast, and the hope is that it will succeed. Gone are the annoying, hyped-up teases promising details later. Gone is the preproduced show open with thumping music and a smiling anchor team. In their place is just one anchor: 51-year-old Carol Marin, best known till now for quitting her anchor job at WMAQ-TV in Chicago rather than share the set with newly hired commentator Jerry Springer.
The revamped newscast that debuted in February doesn't just look and sound different, it is different. WBBM has thrown out the traditional local TV news format. Weather and sports don't get a set time slot each night. The forecast often takes no more than a minute. Sports stories can appear anywhere in the newscast, not just at the end.
"We've taken the things out of the newscast which are superfluous to the news," General Manager Hank Price told Chicago Public Radio. What's left is serious news, presented in a seriously different way from the other stations in town.
The distinctions were evident from the first newscast February 7, when WBBM led with new developments in the case of Chicago's former city treasurer, just released from jail. Everyone else led with a water main break in the downtown Loop, which threatened to cause problems for commuters the next day. WLS-TV's late newscast had not one but two reports live from the scene. It was an important story. In fact, the water main had been the lead on WBBM's earlier newscasts. But by 10 p.m. the story was more than 12 hours old, so Marin and company gave it 30 seconds, voice over, after 17 minutes of other news.
Other stories also got dissimilar treatment. WLS, the ABC affiliate and the ratings leader in the time slot, pulled together a reported package on the sentencing of a convicted murderer, complete with slow-motion video. On WBBM, Marin simply read the story into the camera.
What Chicago viewers are seeing on Channel 2 is a radical departure from the standard local TV fare, especially on the late newscasts, where producers typically run shorter stories and cram them into the first 10 minutes on the assumption that viewers want the headlines before they turn in.
One could also argue that what's happening at WBBM is an act of desperation. The station's late newscast has been in the dumper for ages. Earlier this year, ratings were down 16 percent from the year before and the program trailed the competition so badly that syndicated reruns were drawing more viewers.
What did it have to lose? The station had tried tabloid news a decade ago and failed badly. Why not give substance a chance?
It's substance, all right, but without much style. The blue and gray set is, to put it politely, plain, and there are no jazzy graphics. But that's deliberate, reinforcing the station's commitment to making content king. And it's drawn cheers from the press box. The Chicago Sun-Times' Phil Rosenthal called the WBBM experiment "the most promising development in local news in decades, a salvo against the overproduced, consultant-driven, style-over-substance newscasts that have become the norm elsewhere."
Can it last? Well, that depends. "At the end of the day, the public has to respond to this for it to continue," says WBBM's Price. Simply put, that means ratings. The station has to show that its efforts are drawing more viewers.
In the early going, the numbers were up, but not by much. Station executives are now parsing the ratings, claiming they're drawing new viewers to the 10 p.m. program who are upscale and educated--the ones advertisers adore.
Here's hoping they're right, because a solid newscast that nobody watches will last about as long as a soap bubble on a windy Chicago day. But if the WBBM 10 p.m. experiment succeeds, stations across the country might actually consider taking a similar approach.
Forrest Carr, news director at KGUN-TV 9 in Tucson, Arizona, is among those rooting for WBBM. Television news, Carr says, is an imitative business. Just imagine a mad rush at local stations to ditch the crime and grime, dump the movie-of-the-week tie-in and, instead, put substance on the air.
Who knows, other stations might even copy WBBM's decision to feature a solo woman anchor over 50. Now that would be revolutionary.