Extended Interview: Phil Rosenthal
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TERENCE SMITH: It’s now been three months of this new effort at WBBM at 10 o’clock. What do you think of it?
PHIL ROSENTHAL: It’s a work in progress. I mean, I think a lot of us who watch local news and are interested in news, period, really have a rooting interest in this show succeeding. They want seriousness to be returned to local news, network news, all news. And I think, you know, there’s a happy medium to be found–they haven’t quite found it yet–between news you should get and news you want to get, and how you tell the stories that people aren’t necessarily inherently gaga over. I think that’s where the work needs to come.
TERENCE SMITH: Can you think of some examples of either one of those categories?
PHIL ROSENTHAL: Well, I mean, it’s one thing to tell stories that no one else is telling, but sometimes the reason people aren’t telling the stories is they haven’t figured out a way to tell them well, or they’re just not necessarily front-line stories.
I mean, I think one of the problems they’re having at Channel 2 is that–and would have at any station trying to do this–is nobody’s done these kind of stories this kind of way in a long time. And, you know, those skills atrophy if you don’t use them. I think any story told well can be riveting, but it takes a lot to tell it well, and not everyone–in fact, rather–you know, very few people know how to tell those stories well.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, so far, anyway, there hasn’t been any significant change in the ratings. Some improvement, apparently, in the demographics of their audience, maybe some viewers coming back that had stopped watching late-night news altogether. But how do you read that–
PHIL ROSENTHAL: Well–
TERENCE SMITH: –the fact that there hasn’t been dramatic change?
PHIL ROSENTHAL: Well, there hasn’t been dramatic change, but if the demos are good–in commercial television, demographics are what drive advertising rates. They can make more–if they can make more money doing this, then they’ll continue to do it. So that’s encouraging.
I think, you know, one of the lessons that we should all take from this is that if you try to be more entertaining, you know, do more of an entertainment show than a “Friends” or a “Simpsons,” you’re not going to do it. They have professional comedy writers doing those shows. If you try to be more sensational than, say, you know, an “Access Hollywood” or an “Entertainment Tonight,” you’re not going to be able to do that. That’s their full-time job.
So maybe the lesson here is you got to do news. You got to tell people information they need to know on a local basis that no one else is telling them. And you’ve got to be–make it so that people feel like they’re missing something if they’re not getting your show.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, the new gospel, according to Carol, is no promotional tie-ins to entertainment shows, no gimmicks–I mean, she has a long list of things she doesn’t want to do with this broadcast. What’s your reaction to that?
PHIL ROSENTHAL: I think that’s great. I think they could go further. I think there are nights when the weather isn’t necessarily worth two or three minutes. I think there are nights when the sports isn’t worth two or three minutes. There are nights when it’s worth 20 minutes. But, by and large, I think there–you know, there are some things that they’re just not willing to give up completely.
I think, to deny that there’s some element of show business in television is a mistake. You know, there’s lighting and makeup and editing and this sort of thing. I think, to discard everything that viewers–viewers seem to hold on to would be a mistake. But I think it’s a question of being choosy about what you pick up.
There are some entertainment stories that are genuinely worth covering. The night that David Letterman came back after his heart attack I would cite as a night that they could justifiably have done an entertainment story in the newscast. They chose not to. They may have painted themselves into a corner with the new gospel. But that said, I understood the decision and, you know, I don’t think that viewers went unaware that David Letterman had recovered from his heart attack.
TERENCE SMITH: I guess the bottom line of any local news broadcast is that you either miss it if you don’t see it, or when you do see it, you feel that you have got the story of what happened in Chicago that day. Do you get that from the show?
PHIL ROSENTHAL: Well, I think the problem with late-night local news in this day and age when you can get the news from your radio, you get it from your computer, you get it from other television sources, is that by the time 10 o’clock rolls around and the late news runs, you very rarely feel like you’re getting new information. I think that’s got to be the mandate for Channel 2. That’s got to be the mandate for Carol Marin and her cast of characters over there. They’ve got to say, okay, we’re going to generate news stories. They’ve done that with live interviews in the studio. They’ve done that with some investigative pieces. But they need to do more of that.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you see or have you observed any contagious effect on the other affiliates here in Chicago?
PHIL ROSENTHAL: I think early on there was sort of a sobering effect. Everyone sort of looked at all the fuss that was being made about this serious news, and said, well, okay, what are we doing that we’re going to get hit for? Because their sensitivities were heightened with all the discussion.
The night before–or the Friday before Carol’s first show at Channel 2, the ABC station here, the market leader, did a story on foods you crave and why you crave them. Well, they didn’t do anything quite that stupid in the coming weeks. So I think there has been some. I think as–as it’s shown that viewers aren’t leaving their station to go to Channel 2, that Channel 2 is finding a new audience, you may see some of those stories creep back into the mix.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, they’re frank to admit that they have no place to go but up. They’re fifth out of five.
PHIL ROSENTHAL: Well, Bob Dylan said, When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. And I think that’s the case of Channel 2.
You know, it’s funny. At one time they were the standard bearer of quality news, not only in this city but in the country. Bill Kurtis, Walter Jacobson, a lot of people who’ve gone on to network jobs, that was as good a news operation–I mean, it rivaled the newspapers with a lot fewer people. But money came away–you know, they started tinkering.
You know, Ron Powers is the first TV critic to win the Pulitzer, won it at this very paper, and he wrote a book in the late ’70s where he said the biggest heist of the 1970s didn’t make it on the 5 o’clock news. The biggest heist of the 1970s was the 5 o’clock news. You know, the ad men got a hold of it, and the consultants, and they never let go. And they realized this was a potential cash cow, and they made–they made a bundle off it.