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Local news veterans keep viewers tuned in

Apr 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

While the words “young demos” seem to be the governing phrase at the network level, stations around the country still believe in having local news icons-anchors who have been part of the market for years and have high visibility-to help fuel ratings.
In Portland, Ore., CBS affiliate KOIN-TV recently hired longtime anchor Julie Emry back to the anchor desk after she left rival ABC affiliate KATU-TV. In September she will reunite with KOIN anchor Jeff Gianola, who anchored with Ms. Emry at KATU for 12 years. The two hadn’t worked together since Mr. Gianola left KATU in 1998. Ms. Emry left shortly thereafter to spend time with her family. The pair, who will be the longest-paired anchor team in the Portland market, will share KOIN’s 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. weekday newscasts.
KOIN’s early-evening newscasts have been in the No. 2 spot in recent books. KOIN General Manager Peter Maroney is hoping the new anchor team will help boost the station’s ratings to No. 1.
“Julie has been an extremely highly regarded, well-known anchor in Portland throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s,” Mr. Maroney said. “There’s no current co-anchor team that comes close to ever having been this highly recognized or regarded. In ratings, they were dominant No. 1 for well over 10 years at KATU. What they’ve always offered the Portland audience-and what’s been so respected-is just a very complementary way of presenting the news. They just complement very well on the set. Their communication as a team is strong and positive, and the audience always responds well.”
On its team, KOIN also has Mike Donahue, who has been at the station since 1968 and was its main anchor until 1998. He now handles lead reporting duties and some anchoring.
Anchor John Pruitt at ABC affiliate WSB-TV, Atlanta, has been in the market since 1967, and his co-anchor for the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news, Monica Kaufman, has been at WSB since 1975. The station is the dominant news outlet in the market.
“There’s a benefit to having experienced anchors and experienced news people, period,” said Louise Benjamin, University of Georgia’s associate professor of telecommunications and associate director of the Peabody Awards. “They know their markets. They know the people, events and history of the area. They’re much better able to report on the events to viewers. I think in Atlanta the expertise and reporting does translate to more viewers.”
“When viewers see Monica Kaufman on TV they know immediately that they are watching WSB-TV,” said WSB General Manager Greg Stone. “She’s totally tied to Channel 2 Action News; she’s become a part of our brand. When viewers think of Channel 2, they think of her. She’s a part of this area’s fabric and-frankly-history. When you sum it all up, Monica has become the icon that she is by serving her audience and her community, consistently giving of her time and efforts to help others.”
In New York, veteran anchor Kaity Tong and meteorologist “Mr. G” bring loyal viewers to WB affiliate WPIX-TV. Ms. Tong’s former co-anchor from two decades ago, Ernie Anastos, is now at WCBS-TV, where he is joined by other veterans, which include weatherman Ira Joe Fisher and sportscaster Warner “Let’s Go to the Videotape” Wolfe, who has inspired many sportscasters of this generation.
Role models
At the No. 1 station in New York, WNBC-TV’s 11 p.m. power team is made up of Sue Simmons, who has been there for 22 years, and Chuck Scarborough, who has been with the station since 1974. For political coverage, Gabe Pressman is the senior correspondent and one of the most recognizable TV journalists in town. Mr. Pressman, 78, started at the station in 1956, when it was still WRCA-TV. For his 70th birthday, WNBC aired a five-minute promo on Mr. Pressman, showing clips from his days covering the sinking of the Andrea Doria in 1956, the Beatles invasion and the entrance of Robert F. Kennedy into New York politics.
“If you walk around the street with him, it’s an experience. People just call him by his first name,” said WNBC News Director Dianne Doctor. “The great thing about Gabe is he sets the standard for all the other reporters. It really is exciting when a new reporter comes in here, and they just look up to him so much. He takes the time to explain what he is doing. There is never a point where he is too busy.”
But his work schedule is packed. WNBC sent him to Israel three times in the past four months. While in the embattled area, Mr. Pressman works 18-hour days, initially surprising his younger crew members.
“He has high energy, and he likes to be very productive, and he likes the work he does and he cares-and that’s all reflected on the air,” Ms. Doctor said. “When he goes there, he gets the Israeli prime minister on the phone. No one has that access. He’s gotten exclusives on [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon in the past. He’s so well known and he’s well respected by all these public officials.”
Mr. Pressman recently went to the White House with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to find out what the financial aid package would be for the city. “[Sen.] Hillary [Clinton] saw him and said, `Gabe!’ and [Sen.] Chuck Schumer said, `Gabe!’ The whole press conference stopped,” Ms. Doctor said.
The fact that WNBC remains the strongest station in the country’s No. 1 market may be credited in part to its iconic on-air talent. “I think that there’s a comfort factor. There’s a sense of familiarity and a sense of trust that someone can be on the air for so many years,” Ms. Doctor said. “After Sept. 11, there is a need from the public for a sense of reassurance that these people who’ve given them information for so long are there for them. Between Chuck, Sue and Gabe … I don’t think there’s anyone like that in this market.”
Barbara Frye, VP of talent placement services at Frank N. Magid Associates, said as local news has expanded with more on-air talent, there are fewer so-called market icons on the air. But for the most part, longevity lends credibility, she said. “It always helps. As you know, this isn’t the business known for longevity. It’s unusual when you have people who are on the air longer than five years.”
Longevity does not always translate into ratings success, however, because the news is a collaborative process and the burden does not fall on one person’s shoulders.
Familiar faces
In the Los Angeles market, where Hollywood images suggest youth is key to success, there are, in fact, two recognizable deans of local news who defy that on the air-Hal Fishman and Jerry Dunphy. WB affiliate KTLA-TV anchor Hal Fishman is in his 60s. Some say he is the inspiration for the character of newsman Kent Brockman on “The Simpsons.”
At soon-to-be Viacom-owned KCAL-TV, anchor Jerry Dunphy, who is 80, has been rumored to have inspired the Ted Baxter character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Mr. Dunphy says the character is modeled after newscaster George Putnam, however. Mr. Fishman and Mr. Dunphy began their TV broadcast careers in 1960.
“When you have an anchor like a Jerry Dunphy or a Hal Fishman, a lot of them came from radio,” Ms. Frye said. “I think that’s why they have such distinct styles. Because many are coming from TV now, their styles are not as distinctive.”
Mr. Dunphy, who anchors the 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. newscasts, began his career in broadcasting in 1947 at a Wisconsin radio station. He has since appeared in 75 movies and is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. He is also scheduled to appear in a cameo role in an upcoming episode of HBO’s “Arli$$.” He has no agent.
In the 1970s, Mr. Dunphy had a show on KCBS-TV called “Jerry Visits.” He did 39 shows that were syndicated where he interviewed celebrities in their homes. Subjects included Henry Fonda and Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor. During World War II, Mr. Dunphy flew B-29s in Japan.
Experience counts
He is unapologetic about his age in a business where it wouldn’t be unusual for talent shave off a few years from their resumes. He has been on KCBS, KABC-TV and KCAL and still writes his own copy.
“They [KCAL] h
ave got somebody who has a hell of a lot of experience who knows the business very well,” Mr. Dunphy said. “I’ve had a working paycheck for 42 years in news in L.A. I’m still having fun, it’s still challenging, it keeps my mind alert, and I’m damn good at what I do. I’m not just a reader. Sometimes I look at a story and it needs total retelling, and I rewrite it.”
Hal Fishman got into broadcasting by accident. He was working toward his doctoral degree in political science at UCLA when he began teaching a televised course, “American Political Parties and Politics,” in the summer of 1960 on then-independent KCOP-TV. California State University Los Angeles students could watch the course on TV, take an exam, and earn college credit. The course, which he taught five days a week that summer, was the first of its kind and coincided with the Democratic National Convention that was held that year in Los Angeles.
Mr. Fishman said, “At KCOP they were getting very good reaction to the course. People all over town were tuning in, not just students. They invited me to anchor my own section of the news as part of their news. I have not left the airwaves [since].”
After the September 11 attacks, Mr. Fishman started doing regular commentaries almost every night on KTLA in addition to his anchoring duties. He believes the role of anchor is vital to keeping viewers informed. “Our job is to provide the information for the electorate to make the decisions they feel are necessary for their own lives.” Mr. Fishman doesn’t believe age is an important factor in where people get their news.
“They want to get their news from people they trust and believe in,” he said. “I do believe that young people, middle-aged people and old people want to get their news from people who know their business.”