‘Survivor’ perks: Making it in local news

Nov 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

One might think that after Andrea Thompson’s flameout on CNN Headline News, news directors would shy away from hiring TV personalities in the newsroom.
One would be wrong.
Two news directors in big markets have gone out on a hiring limb recently, taking on former contestants from CBS’s popular “Survivor” franchise and trying to turn them into television news reporters.
The early verdict: so far, so good.
“She is the only person I have ever seen on one of those reality shows who didn’t come across as a jerk,” said KUTV, Salt Lake City, News Director Steve Charlier of his most recent hire, Neleh Dennis.
Mr. Charlier plucked Ms. Dennis, who was a castaway on “Survivor: Marquesas,” from her job at a Salt Lake City department store and after two weeks of on-the-job training placed the 22-year-old college student on the station’s top-rated morning news show.
“She is not a journalist, but for this job I didn’t want a journalist,” Mr. Charlier said. “I wanted a hometown person who knew the area, relates to the audience, and wants to go out and have fun every morning.”
From all appearances, Ms. Dennis fits the bill well. In her first month as a feature reporter, she has driven a NASCAR racer, sat astride a wild bull at a local rodeo, skied an Olympic downhill run and reached new heights explaining to viewers how outdoor advertisers construct those big signs along Utah’s Interstate highways.
“We want to give people something to look forward to in the morning, instead of all the sad, depressing stuff,” Ms. Dennis said. “We give them fun, live stuff that they don’t get by watching another station.”
The experiment appears to be working. KUTV’s “2News This Morning” saw its average household rating in July increase 16 percent (2.4 to 2.8) over last year. Its audience share grew by 20 percent (12.5 to 15).
“Utah does not have a lot of celebrities,” Mr. Charlier said. “We have the Osmonds and we have Neleh.”
Another “Survivor: Marquesas” survivor who can now be found in front of a TV news camera is Tammy Leitner.
“Neleh is probably in a very overwhelming situation, not having the journalism background. It must be very frustrating,” Ms. Leitner said.
Ms. Leitner knows what she’s talking about-she brought a strong background in local print journalism to her new job as the crime reporter at KPHO-TV in Phoenix.
“I never considered TV news as a career, but an incredible opportunity fell into my lap, and I felt that I had to take advantage of it,” she said.
While Ms. Leitner leap-frogged over the usual route to big-market TV, she paid her dues as a respected reporter for the Mesa Tribune, a large suburban Phoenix newspaper. She holds a master’s degree from Boston University and is writing a book on serial rapists.
“She is very much a bulldog reporter,” said Mitch Jacob, KPHO-TV news director. “She wants the story, and she will work to get it.”
Both Ms. Dennis and Ms. Leitner said they have been well received in their newsrooms. And feedback by local TV critics generally has been favorable.
KUTV has positioned Ms. Dennis as a morning audience magnet, but KPHO’s Mr. Jacob shuns offers by other media in the market to highlight Ms. Leitner as a celebrity.
“That’s not what we hired her to do,” he said. “If we had brought her on just to be a ‘Survivor’ reporter, then, yeah, we would have said let’s share the wealth and go for the exposure, but that’s not what we wanted.”
Ms. Leitner remains circumspect about her situation. “I am under no false pretenses as to why I am here,” she said. “I know that the show contributed to my getting this job. These are special circumstances, and I feel very lucky.”
Tammy Leitner
Job: Crime reporter, KPHO-TV, Phoenix
Age: 30
Born: San Diego
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English, UCLA; master’s in journalism, Boston University
Hobbies: Running, weightlifting, biking, kickboxing, photography
Neleh Dennis
Job: Feature reporter, KUTV, Salt Lake City
Age: 22
Born: Heber City, Utah
Education: Attended Weber State University. Transferring to University of Utah. She has studied cosmetology.
Her name: Is her grand- mother’s name backwards
Hobbies: Dancing, camping, boating, snowboarding, mountaineering