10th Biggest Media Problem of '07: The Death of the Big Anchor in Local TV News
I got an email a few days ago, noting the retirement of WFLA-Ch. 8 anchor Bob Hite and relatively small community impact from the death of top WTVT anchor Hugh Smith, asking the question: Has the era of the big anchor passed from local news?
Funny enough, I asked the same question in a story planned to run with my original story on Hite's retirement about a month ago. When he was arrested for DUI, our game plan changed and that story never saw the light of day. But I'm happy to resurrect it for the blog here, making it 10th on my list of Big Media Problems in 2007.
Indeed, when I asked that question of WTVT anchor John Wilson, one of the few big name anchors still working in the Tampa bay market, his answer was immediate: “The era of the big anchor is gone,” said Wilson, the top male anchor at competitor WTVT, with 25 years’ tenure anchoring at Tampa Bay area TV stations. “(Modern newscasts) are a mix of information and entertainment which makes it very difficult for us…it makes it more difficult for the news to be presented as news.”
Wilson outlined a local TV news environment drastically changed from the days in 1982 when he anchored evening newscasts at CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10. WTVT now offers nine hours of newscasts daily, requiring a squad of anchors to host shows while reducing the impact any one person can have.
The explosion of cable channels offers viewers more alternatives than ever for news consumption and entertainment. And instead of trying to reach the widest audience possible, TV stations are focusing on segments of the audience advertisers find valuable, narrowing their focus, Wilson said.
“At (WTSP) I was a big part of the news process…to the point of sitting in news meetings by conference call when I wasn’t at the station,” he added. “But the expansion of the news has lessened the role of the anchor, because there’s so much more news and not enough of you.”
Wilson’s sentiment was echoed by Bright House vice president Elliott Wiser, who surveyed area viewers on attitudes about anchors while serving as general manager of the cable company’s 24-hour local newschannel, Bay News 9.
He found a station’s brand identity and reputation for news accuracy more often determined which newscast a viewer might choose.
“When you ask people to rank why they watch a station, these days the anchor isn’t even number one or number two,” said Wiser, who has always championed the idea of news content over anchor personality at Bay News 9. “The first place we saw this was the weather. Years ago, people looked for weathermen they trusted; now they’re watching for accuracy, reliability and technology.”
Officials at WTVT noted ratings in October showing their station with a slim lead among key newscast viewers in the early evening and CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10 tied with WFLA at 11 p.m., as evidence that the ratings race is already tight. “Bob Hite’s retirement can only have a positive impact for us,” said Bob Linger, WTVT general manager.
At WFTS-Ch. 28, top anchor Brendan McLaughlin said the station hasn’t specifically strategized on how to take advantage of Hite’s retirement. But it has broadcast advertisements touting him as the longest-running male anchor at 11 p.m. (which neatly avoids comparison to Wilson, whose newscasts air at 10 p.m.).
“Familiarity (with an anchor) breeds acceptance and a comfort level which works to the advantage of the station,” said McLaughlin “When Bob Hite fans pop their head up and decide to look around at other possibilities, it definitely creates an opportunity.”