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Filling shoes of retiring TV news anchor John Wilson not so easy

John Wilson, left, will retire as lead anchor from WTVT-Ch. 13 in November after more than 20 years. His son, Mark 
Wilson, the 5 and 11 p.m. news anchor, is a potential replacement.

BRIAN BLANCO Special to the Times

John Wilson, left, will retire as lead anchor from WTVT-Ch. 13 in November after more than 20 years. His son, Mark Wilson, the 5 and 11 p.m. news anchor, is a potential replacement.

TAMPA — They say no one is irreplaceable.

That's debatable when it comes to TV news anchors, who invite themselves into people's homes every day, seeking to build trust and a lasting connection.

The stakes are huge. Likable anchors generate big money for stations. The higher the ratings, the more stations can charge advertisers for commercial spots, TV's top revenue source.

So when John Wilson announced recently he was retiring as lead anchor from WTVT-Ch. 13 after more than 20 years with the station and 50 years in broadcast news, the obvious question was: Who will take his chair?

The microphone quickly pointed to his son, Mark Wilson, the 5 and 11 p.m. news anchor who has worked with his dad for nearly 17 years. But, in the evolving TV news business, nothing is a slam dunk.

• • •

Wilson's retirement comes at a critical time for the industry. Long gone are the days when viewers tuned in at specific hours for the latest news from near and far. Today, thanks to 24-hour network coverage and social media, people get their news any time and from anywhere.

While local TV remains a top news source for Americans, viewership has declined in recent years, despite a boost last year from big stories about President Obama's troubled health care website and the pope's resignation.

Since 2007, morning newscasts — the most-watched time slot for local news — have lost 3 percent of their audience, according to the Pew Research Center. Early-evening news viewership is down 12 percent and late-night newscasts are down 17 percent.

Much like newspapers and other news media, local TV stations are doing more with less. Anchors once content to read news from a teleprompter now must work in the field.

"The expectations of the anchorman have changed over the years," said Michael Bille, owner of Tampa-based Collective Talent, an online employment resource for TV stations, talent agents and on-air professionals. "Stations want you to be able to report, shoot and edit video."

Seeking to create their own news niche, local stations across the country are focusing more energy on investigative journalism, often putting anchors on major stories that can be promoted in advance through radio and social media. Unlike weather and sports reports, investigative stories can be unique and set a station apart from others.

"Viewership of local news is way below what it was 10 years ago and stations have realized that there are a few things that will bring viewers in — strong talent and content," Bille said. "They need to invest in investigative work or they will become irrelevant."

• • •

Wilson is one of two anchors retiring from WTVT. On Friday, Anne Dwyer announced on Good Day Tampa Bay she was leaving the station after 28 years. Her last day will be June 18.

"Her direct and unassuming manner defied the typical definition of a news anchor, and viewers love her for it," said WTVT news director John Hoffman. "Mornings in Tampa Bay will not be the same without her. She is the utmost professional and we will miss her."

The anchors' departures leave big shoes to fill but don't send the station scrambling. WTVT holds a top spot in the Tampa Bay market, second behind WFTS-Ch. 28 for adult viewers watching evening newscasts, based on Nielsen Media Research's latest ratings. Its anchor lineup is experienced and well-entrenched in the community. To many, promoting Wilson's son seems an obvious choice.

"I would be shocked if they didn't put Mark in that chair. He has done a terrific job," Bille said. "It would be counterproductive to bring in a new face when they already have strong (anchor) bench strength."

John Wilson had considered retiring for years but stayed because he enjoyed working with his son and treasured his relationships with viewers, he said. At 73, he decided it was time to focus on his family and volunteer work and write a book about the TV news business. He'll leave the station in November, after the critical fall sweeps.

"It is time for me to make a graceful exit," Wilson said during his weekly ''My View" segment May 23.

WTVT's other top anchor, Kelly Ring, has worked at the station for more than 25 years, including 21 years alongside Wilson, and will likely be around for a while. She's popular and well-regarded, but not expected to do the job solo, as it would be a lot of work for one person.

Ring said it will be difficult not working with Wilson after so many years, but she trusts the station executives will choose the right replacement. "I have good leaders who have good judgment. I know they will probably consult me at some point, and I will give them my opinion," she said. "But I trust my bosses implicitly."

• • •

John Wilson worked at WTSP-Ch. 10 for 12 years before moving to FOX affiliate WTVT in 1993. He and his wife, Mary K. Wilson, a singer and voice coach, do charity work in the community and have three sons: Mark, the anchor/reporter; Patrick, an award-winning actor; and Paul, owner of an advertising company.

Mark Wilson said that while flattered by speculation that he's the heir apparent, right now he's focused on his job and celebrating his father's tenure. "This is not about me, this is about Dad's time," he said. "My time may come in the future."

Wilson's retirement marks the most significant in local TV news since 2007, when Bob Hite announced he was leaving WFLA-Ch. 8 after three decades with the Tampa NBC affiliate. In that case, Keith Cate, who joined WFLA in 1999, was immediately named Hite's successor.

WTVT could wait to name Wilson's replacement as part of its coverage of his departure, which will likely be highlighted through the important November ratings period. It could also look for outside applicants seeking a promotion to news-heavy Florida.

"Being a part of Fox, they have a large pool," said Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcasting and online at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. "It will be a very sought-after job. It's a good town and a good station." Tompkins expects the new anchor will be young but experienced, given the size of the market — 14th nationwide with 1.8 million TV households. Good chemistry with Ring will be a must.

Most likely, Wilson's successor will do a lot of reporting and pick up a beat, such as the environment or consumer issues, Tompkins said. First and foremost, WTVT will want a smooth transition that doesn't upset viewers or, worse, lead them to switch the channel.

It's highly doubtful the new anchor will come from another local station because of noncompete clauses in today's contracts. It's also possible the seemingly ideal replacement could flop or not deliver results, as was the case with Katie Couric, who became the anchor of CBS Evening News in 2006. Although the program produced award-winning work, it failed to lift the ratings and she left at the end of her contract.

Former TV reporter Warren Elly, who retired in 2011 after nearly 29 years at WTVT, said he will miss Wilson's strong work ethic, gentlemanly style and heart for the voiceless. When others sat back, he took initiative and developed his own stories.

"He embodies the term anchor — always there," Elly said. "He was a true news guy."

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

Filling shoes of retiring TV news anchor John Wilson not so easy 05/30/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2014 6:22pm]
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