Madison-area viewers are seeing a lot of new faces on their evening newscasts in the last few months. But news is generic, right? Does it matter if there are fresh anchors?
Management at nearly all Madison stations debates the importance of a newscaster's years in the anchor chair, his or her youth and, frankly, attractiveness. While no one will discuss ratings, there's no denying that stations rely heavily on news for cash.
In the last publicly-available "newsroom profitability survey" conducted by the national Radio-Television News Directors Foundation and Association, stations in media markets the size of Madison's reported that, on average, 50 percent of all their revenue was generated by newscasts. (Madison ranks 85th for size in media markets nationally.)
Carmelyn Daley, news director at WISC (Ch. 3), says that giving news a brand name is what a long-term anchor is all about. "Particularly at our station, that is our philosophy, because we've been able to keep people here for so long," she says. "That's been one of the draws. People have come to realize that we have stability in the market."
Yes and no.
"There's a lot more to it than just that," says Al Zobel, news director at WKOW (Ch. 27).
For WB affiliate WBUW (Ch. 57), the widespread turnover "provides an opportunity for viewers to start a relationship with a new anchor," says station manager Tom Keeler. "I think there's an opportunity for us, in the 9 p.m. news business, anyway, to be introduced to viewers who may be confused as to where their favorite anchor went. Their viewing habits seem to be up in the air."
If that's true, viewers can hardly be blamed.
"It is unusual when you have to replace your main anchors," says Zobel. "And we had to do that in '04. It's happened at (WISC)."
At WMTV (Ch. 15), besides fresh faces, longtime anchor Mike McKinney has understandably been slowed by his battle with cancer.
If familiarity counts, CBS affiliate WISC has reason to brag, having lured former WMTV anchor Pam Tauscher to soon come to their airwaves.
"Pam brings viewers a tremendous amount of experience," says Daley. "She was with the competition for 12 years. She knows how to pronounce 'Rio' and 'Lodi' and those things. And there is a huge amount of credibility there."
She replaces veteran anchors John Karcher and Carleen Wild. When Tauscher left NBC affiliate WMTV in 2002, critics questioned the importance of on-air personalities' age and appearance. Perhaps not coincidentally, Tauscher starts as 6 and 10 p.m. anchor on Monday, her 43rd birthday. A search for a co-anchor continues.
WISC also wins for longevity over the course of a broadcast day; Mark Koehn has anchored "Live at Five" for 20 years, and Rob Starbuck and Susan Siman, of "News 3 This Morning," have seven years each. Does experience translate into ratings?
"I think it does," says Daley. WISC's research shows that "having experienced newscasters is very important to the viewers. There is a level of trust when people feel they know the person."
Former WKOW anchor Rachel Kissko agrees. "Especially with the world being as crazy as it is, I think people want to see someone they know, somebody they've trusted for a long time."
But Zobel, at ABC affiliate WKOW, says that history doesn't matter as much as people might think.
"Longevity is always a good thing," he says, but Madison is a very transitional market, with viewers coming and going. Also, "the market's grown tremendously over the last 20 years," he adds.
In other words, with so many brand-new viewers, it doesn't matter nearly as much that WKOW's weeknight anchors, Christa Dubill, Greg Jeschke and Elizabeth Hopkins, began no longer ago than April.
(WMTV did not respond to repeated phone calls, so how long ago its personnel, such as Mike Johnson, have held anchor chairs besides serving as reporters is uncertain. According to its online site, weekday evening anchor Becky Hillier has been employed at the station since October 2002.)
Oddly enough, given Tauscher's absence from television in recent years, 9 p.m. anchors at the smaller network affiliates are the ones who may appear the most experienced to newer viewers.
Zobel is also news director for Fox affiliate WMSN (Ch. 47), which contracts with WKOW for a 9 p.m. newscast. Kim Sveum has been the anchor for WMSN's newscast for four years, he says. WB's WBUW anchor Renee Charles began in September 2003.
But maybe viewers don't care so much for experience as other factors. After all, even at the super-serious network level, CNN in 2002 promoted Paula Zahn with commercials announcing that she was "a little bit sexy," over the sound effect - believe it or not - of a zipper opening.
"You know what? The bottom line is, if you can't do the job, it doesn't matter if you're young and attractive," says James Baughman, director of the UW-Madison School of Journalism. "I suspect the demographic of TV news is a lot older than they care to admit. They tend to be older people, staying home to watch the news at 6 and 10."
Still, if your new favorite anchor looks young and attractive, it may be an accident.
"It's just the way the business is set up," observes Zobel. Madison gets youth because that's what it can afford, he says.
However, Keeler, at WBUW, notes that youth and attractiveness still are factors, whether or not that's journalistically palatable.
"I think people become accustomed to seeing the on-air people in their community as someone to model after," he says. "Someone on-air creates an impression, simply by virtue of being on-air. And with that, I think people are looking for attractive folks."
WB's Keeler, whose newscasts target women ages 18-49, offers entertainment news and anchors standing instead of sitting. Keeler says his station has "a different energy to it that, I think, will appeal more to that philosophy of a trend-setting, good-looking, attractive, cutting-edge news anchor."
Daley, at WISC, disagrees.
"I feel that the Madison market is better than that," she says. "This is really a good news town. The news consumers are savvy."
Are we? Stay tuned.