TV News in a Postmodern World

News Anchors: An Endangered Species

by Terry L. Heaton
Leslie Wilcox anchored the news for us when I was the news director at KGMB-TV in Honolulu in the late 80s. Leslie grew up in Hawaii and could pronounce names with multiple vowels like nobody I'd ever met. This, of course, made her perfect to sit in front of a TV camera and read the news in Hawaii. However, international news in those days was dominated by stories from eastern Europe, where multiple consonants made names torturously difficult for her to pronounce. One night she came up with a brilliant idea just before airtime, while proofing a story with one of those names. "I'll look in the phone book and see if anybody here has that name, call them and get them to pronounce it for me." Sure enough, there was one person listed. She hastily punched the number, now breathing rapidly with excitement.

"Hello," came the voice at the other end.

"Hi," she said quickly, "This is Leslie Wilcox with channel 9. I have a story to read in a few minutes about somebody with your last name, and I can't pronounce it. I'm wondering if you could say it real slow, so that I could write it down phonetically."

There was a pause, then the man said, "Sssmmmmiiiittthhhh." She had dialed the wrong number.

So it is that the most memorable stories of my career generally involved anchors, that peculiar breed of egomaniacs with inferiority complexes that give the news to us night after night — human beings who'll risk unspeakable embarrassment for the strokes that come with being on TV. And "being on TV" is what it's all about these days. The first question I always used to ask young people looking for a job was, "Why did you pick this business?" The answer evolved over my 28 years — from "It's an opportunity to make a difference" to "Ever since the local anchor visited my school in 9th grade, I knew it was what I wanted to do."

And so the communications schools of our country have pumped out anchors and wannabe anchors for the past couple of decades, and the industry is awash in those "cosmetically-suited" to being on TV — regardless of their journalistic abilities.

But all that's about to change.

The industry's obsession with celebrity and the easy marketing thereof is meaningless in a Postmodern world that has demystified the industry and its hype, rejects elitism and doesn't need its information spoon fed by good-looking faces anyway. As the world of video news shifts to a broadband environment, where users can pick and choose what they want to watch and when they want to watch it, there are powerful forces at work that will make news anchors unnecessary.

Firstly, time is precious to the Postmodern (Pomo). It "belongs" to me, and I can read a story faster than anybody can read it to me. I'll read my own stories and make my own decisions about those I choose to explore further. I don't need you to do that for me.

Secondly, in selecting the video stories that I want to watch, I'd rather have the reporter who was there give me his or her take on it than somebody sitting in a studio. This is essential Postmodernism — that if I can't experience something for myself, I want only someone who's been up close and personal with the thing to share their experience.

Thirdly, the only "personalities" I care about are those who share my beliefs and provide the arguments that I need to communicate those beliefs with other members of my "tribe." I don't care what these people look like or sound like. What they say is paramount.

Finally, I'm out here slugging it out with everybody else, and I have little time or respect for people on pedestals, especially those who don't have a clue as to what I'm going through. The pejorative term "media elite" is generally used by conservatives to slam those with a liberal bias, but, for Postmoderns, it goes way beyond that.

Media critic, Howard Kurtz, says it beautifully, "Reporters may once have been champions of the little guy; now they are part of a smug insider culture that many Americans have come to resent." Referring to former ABC reporter, Sam Donaldson, Kurtz wrote, "By his tone, stance, manner, hair, he...maintains: I impart the message (indeed, I am the message)."

In a Postmodern world, where the power is with the information consumer, this elitist gap is a huge liability.

The Pomo's disdain for elites has little to do with counterculture energy, as some believe. Modernists cling to logic and reason and math and science — that which is proven and, therefore, reliable — all of which elevate education and those privileged to have such an education. And what is education if not the acquiring of knowledge? What a lot of people don't see is that the technological advances of our Modernist culture have put that knowledge at the fingertips of anybody, and the need to learn has been replaced by the need to apply. To the Postmodern, that means the playing field is level. All he needs to learn is how to work the gadget.

In other ways, the TV industry itself is guilty of erecting the pedestal that separates news people from viewers. For example, the TV news consulting firm, Audience Research and Development (AR&D) coined a phrase that has been used for years in positioning anchors with the audience — the Command Anchor. The talent side of what used to be AR&D is now called "Talent Dynamics." Here's what their marketing material says about the concept:

"I will guide you through this newscast. You've been busy with your life all day, but you want to know what else is going on in your world. I've been here watching and investigating for you. Sit back, relax, watch and listen; I'll see to it that you are brought up to date."
The Ideal Command Anchor

"Viewers form a relationship with their news anchors. The greater the perception of an anchor in "command" of the newscast content, the stronger the relationship and, therefore, the bond. Longevity in a market is a sure path to Command Anchor status, but we can speed up the process."

In a passive audience environment, this is terribly smart. We build newscasts in such a way that the audience believes the anchor is in charge. Story intros and outros are crafted, so that the most important facts of the story are given to the anchors, not the field reporters. When there's "team coverage," guess who leads the team? Anchors recap or summarize big stories to further the notion that they are in command. They thank and congratulate people in the field, which leaves the impression that the work was done for them. People follow people, the old saying goes, and that's a critical factor in the marketing of television news. Local television anchors are often THE celebrities of the communities they serve. The more popular they are, the greater the likelihood the community will watch their newscasts. So what's wrong with positioning them as such?

The problem is the world is changing, and these strategies are actually driving people away. The audience is no longer passive, and the very attributes that help boost an anchor to Command status are those that create the air of elitism that Postmoderns find so repugnant.

The Pomo says, "I don't want to sit back, relax, watch and listen anymore, and if I do, it's certainly not going to be to hear from your world. In mine, there's not a violent crime on every block, cynicism isn't the rule, and I really don't care if the President is bedding the interns. There's suffering out here, but it's not in the forms you see, and we're getting along in spite of it all anyway. Besides, we know more about 'doing TV' than you think, and we're not fooled by your hype. Thanks, but no thanks."

Howard Kurtz summarizes it this way:

"This is, finally, how an elite loses its position. The members of the elite just start to seem like dinosaurs. Life happens in exciting, interesting, novel ways, but they aren't part of it. They live some past life, or live in memories of some past life. The American people, riding economic and social forces, go one way -- demonstrating an uncanny ability to get hip in an instant -- while the upholders of conventional thinking are, necessarily, left behind."

The television news anchor is an endangered species. Even now, staff cutbacks generated by economic pressures are gutting a local station's ability to gather the news, which places even more emphasis on the personalities delivering it. The more that happens, the more an increasingly Postmodern audience departs, and the cycle just continues. Meanwhile, people are turning to other sources to have their information needs met, and technology is responding to the demand. Eventually, anchors will be reading to smaller and smaller audiences, until they're swallowed up by an entirely different landscape.

Don't get me wrong. I think there will always be a need for anchors during live, breaking stories involving multiple crews in multiple locations. This necessitates somebody to play the role of "hub," tying all of the elements together. TV execs know this, and one of the problems with contemporary television news is that it "manufactures" big, breaking stories to reproduce this effect day after day. It wears thin on a generation hip to marketing, and in most cases, there just aren't enough such stories to justify the celebrity anchor salaries.

The video news people of tomorrow will be very different than those of today. You'll write, shoot and edit your own material. The ability to write will be paramount, for — in an on-demand world — people will read your words before they watch your video. Your compensation will be based on your work, not your appearance or your Q score. You'll make a living, but it won't be extravagant. There'll be a premium on what you say, so your point of view is what'll separate you from the rest and determine your following. You'll likely have a blog and your own Web address.

These are exciting, pioneering times for television news and for the people who work in it. What may appear on the surface to be a tragedy is actually a doorway to incredible opportunities, both for those who do the news and those who consume it. Marginalized voices will have their day, and we'll able to choose for ourselves from an amazing array of new perspectives. And as the consumer guides himself through the news of the day, reporters will have their stories all to themselves, which, I believe, will mean better told, multimedia-displayed stories.

And that's something even Mr. Smith in Hawaii will appreciate.