May 24, 2000
Anchor Carol Marin took commercial tie-ins and "happy talk" out of WBBM-Chicago's 10pm news. Could this lead to an overall change in local news formats? Terence Smith reports.
Then, participate in an Online Forum on the future of local news. Carol Marin and NewsLab Executive Director Deborah Potter take your questions.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
SMITH: There's a new look to local television news in Chicago these days.
SPOKESMAN: Three, two, one...
CAROL MARIN, Anchor/Senior Editor, WBBM-TV: Good evening.
|WBBM - changing local news?|
| TERENCE SMITH: And Carol Marin, a veteran
anchor in the Chicago market, is the new face at WBBM, Channel 2.
CAROL MARIN: He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the Middle East. Shimon Peres, here in our studio, next.
TERENCE SMITH: A live interview with a former Israeli prime minister.
CAROL MARIN: Mr. Peres, you going to be right over here. Watch these cameras.
TERENCE SMITH: Hardly standard fare for local news. Chicago has traditionally been a hard news town, and the competition amongst its five television stations especially fierce. So WBBM, a CBS affiliate here in Chicago, which used to rank first and now ranks fifth, recently introduced an innovative new broadcast that is radical in its simplicity. It emphasizes news-- not gimmicks, news.
CAROL MARIN: We're not going to give you an obligatory fuzzy animal story every night. We're not going to cross-plug programming as though it was a news story. For instance, the disease of the week off the hospital dramatic series that leads into us. We're not going to do celebrity stories just for the sake of making sure that we have a "people in the news" segment.
DEBORAH POTTER, Executive Director, NewsLab: There is a different sound, a different feel, a different format.
TERENCE SMITH: Deborah Potter is executive director of NewsLab, a nonprofit group that encourages quality in local news.
DEBORAH POTTER: You don't start off with "meet the anchor team and let's play a lot of drums. There aren't any teases at all, to speak of, none of that "coming up next" eight times during the newscast, and when you get to the story is 20 seconds and happened in some other town."
TERENCE SMITH: What the new broadcast does do is sometimes in stark contrast with its more conventional - and, at the moment, more successful - competitors, WLS, the ABC station and WMAQ, the NBC affiliate. The selection of lead stories is often different.
CAROL MARIN: The former city treasurer served time in prison for fraud and extortion.
TERENCE SMITH: When the WBBM 10 PM news debuted in February, the other stations led with a water main break that tied up Chicago's loop for hours. Carol Marin, after leading with a local political story, gave it a brief mention in the middle of the broadcast.
CAROL MARIN: When that water main broke, we said is it an infrastructure issue? Is it going to lead to flooding elsewhere? Is it a big problem, is it a small problem? And the last analysis, it was a small problem, not related to a substantial infrastructure issue. It was 30 seconds.
TERENCE SMITH: The murders, fires and mayhem that are so common on local news around the country are minimized on this CBS-owned station. The sports and weather segments, a nightly staple on local television, are curtailed unless they make real news. The newscast even skips the so- called "happy talk" originated in Chicago in the 1960's by a local anchor, Fahey Flynn...
FAHEY FLYNN: How do you do, ladies and gentlemen, I'm Fahey Flynn.
TERENCE SMITH: That continues today.
ANCHOR: Yeah, baby. I'll come over and pressure wash your patio furniture for a fee.
ANCHOR: How about my deck? (Laughter)
TERENCE SMITH: At 51, Carol Marin is one of the very few "older"-- by TV standards-- solo women anchors in the business.
TERENCE SMITH: Much has also been made about the notion that it's a single woman anchor.
CAROL MARIN: Of a certain age.
TERENCE SMITH: Of a certain age.
CAROL MARIN: Yes, uh-huh.
TERENCE SMITH: And I'm told that you were delighted by a slogan that was suggested, but never actually used in promotion pieces. And what was it?
CAROL MARIN: "Old chicks rule." I thought it was very funny. It tickled me. It doesn't bother me.
TERENCE SMITH: While that promotion never made air, others stress Marin's 27 years in the business, and her toughness.
SPOKESMAN: She was always fair to me when I was in office.
|The 10 p.m. news market|
TERENCE SMITH: Marin is breaking the mold for local television news, which surveys show has become the primary source of news for most Americans.
BILL KURTIS, Former News Anchor, WBBM-TV: If this is successful-- and success being defined in a respectable audience that's easy to sell to advertisers-- it will change the face of local news in this country, absolutely without question.
TERENCE SMITH: Bill Kurtis, now host of the Investigative Reports series for the Arts and Entertainment Network, anchored the WBBM News for 15 years.
BILL KURTIS: Is this the right product, as an alternative? I think if you look at it, what is quality to one set of viewers, myself included, would be boring to another set of viewers. What we may be showing here is that the consultants ultimately were right, that a fire burning, homicides, car chases, are more interesting than someone talking about politics. The consultants have always said, "don't do politics, people really aren't interested in that. Do the fires."
TERENCE SMITH: Marin did her share of fires and more in her days as a reporter and anchor at the NBC-owned station WMAQ. But when she refused to do cross-plugs and read other promotional copy, she was suspended for three days. Later, she quit altogether when the station hired national television talk show host Jerry Springer, known for his outrageous antics, as a commentator.
CAROL MARIN: I could not share a news desk, introduce, or validate a Jerry Springer on a newscast that I believe tries very hard to do some decent work.
TERENCE SMITH: Marin's resignation made national news.
ANCHOR: In Chicago today, a question of principle.
TERENCE SMITH: Today, Marin's career is on a new track. She contributes pieces to the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes II, in addition to her anchor duties. Nationwide, local news formats, including those of WBBM's competitors, are frequently designed by highly paid consultants who advise the stations on how to boost their ratings, and of course, make more money. At a recent appearance at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Dean Ken Bode asked Carol Marin what she thought of them.
KEN BODE: Consultants?
CAROL MARIN: The devil. (Laughter) Consultants-- perhaps not all of them, but many of them-- are those people who don't necessarily have a relationship to your town, or your news circumstance, but they come in to tell you how to jazz it up.
ANNOUNCER: Marin, Weigel, Baskerville, Flannery, Parker, Davis...
TERENCE SMITH: Marin's team of reporters-- nicknamed the Marin Corps-- is among the most experienced in town.
ANNOUNCER: ...Calloway: The Carol Marin team.
TERENCE SMITH: Planning for the 10:00 PM News begins at 10:00 AM, when Carol Marin and her staff assemble in a cramped conference room for the first of three regularly scheduled story conferences. On this day, there were several potential stories in play, including a maternity ward abduction and subsequent killing of a newborn...
WOMAN: He did so-- a very large woman with a baby not her own, with a bracelet that's beeping.
TERENCE SMITH: ...And the return to the mound that night of Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood, who had undergone surgery on his pitching arm.
MAN: This Kerry Wood thing is a medical miracle, the fact that a guy can have two holes put through his elbow, have an entirely different muscle, and still throw a 100-mile-an-hour fastball is a medical story as much as anything else.
TERENCE SMITH: The show had already booked its Shimon Peres interview, but the balance of the broadcast was open, and the subject of lengthy debate.
WOMAN: He's either going to do the nuclear waste override, or he might do Vieques, or he might do something else, right?
CAROL MARIN: Right. That'll settle it.
WOMAN: Boy, that's really... Definitive.
CAROL MARIN: Tonight's one of those nights where we really don't have a clearly defined lead, or think we do. We're on a scouting exhibition right now.
|Selling hard news|
TERENCE SMITH: So far, the broadcast has gotten generally positive critical comment, but Phil Rosenthal, the media critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, feels it's still a work in progress.
PHIL ROSENTHAL, TV Critic, Chicago Sun-Times: I think there's a certain eat-your-veggies quality to this kind of news, that you know you should... you know you should eat it, but you don't necessarily want it. Now, vegetables, like asparagus prepared well, can be great tasting. But not a lot of people know how to prepare asparagus just right.
TERENCE SMITH: Back at WBBM, the staff is preparing the asparagus at their 2:00 meeting.
MAN: We need more time. We're going to be all over that story.
WOMAN: Well, first of all, what are you going to be doing? You know, what you don't know is that Breen is going to be doing miracle surgery-- you know, modern medical marvel.
TERENCE SMITH: The debate goes on for 70 minutes.
CAROL MARIN: I'm exhausted.
MAN: You should be.
MAN: The "but" factor is setting in.
CAROL MARIN: Huge "but" factor.
TERENCE SMITH: The story about the abducted baby, at this point, will not lead the broadcast.
CAROL MARIN: It still is a story, but at this point, I would argue and some others would argue that it isn't the lead, because we don't know enough about it, beyond the awful tragedy of the death of the child, into whether there are significant hospital security issues, whether this is an anomaly.
TERENCE SMITH: People I talk to here in Chicago tell me that Channel 2 had nowhere to go but up, and that what you are doing is a sort of desperation alternative. Is it?
CAROL MARIN: Yeah, but that's okay. If the last resort, or one of the last resorts, is to go back to traditional news, then I'm glad to be here to do it, because for me, it's a great fit. We're trying to experiment, and we have nothing to lose in this experiment, because there are so many things to try, so many ideas out there.
TERENCE SMITH: So far, the viewer response has been tepid, at best. During the current May sweeps period, when advertising rates are set for the next quarter, the broadcast is still trailing its news competition, and on most nights, losing to the entertainment shows The Simpsons and Friends. Although the new broadcast has not been an overnight sensation, it has picked up some viewers that surveys indicate had stopped watching late night news altogether. Significantly, many of them are in the demographically desirable 25-to-54-year-old age group, the group that advertisers covet. Hank Price, the general manager of WBBM, says the broadcast's improved demographics translate into millions of dollars in increased revenue.
HANK PRICE, General Manager, WBBM-TV: If you have five stations with newscasts that in some ways are interchangeable, that creates a commodity. And I don't want to be in the commodity business. So the opposite of a commodity is to create a premium product. Well, in the news, premium means quality. Quality is our most important goal. It's what we have to do. That's different from the way we traditionally do local news.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, in its final meeting of this day, three hours before broadcast, the WBBM crew is keeping its eye on the Cubs game, and surprisingly, the baby abduction story.
CAROL MARIN: I think this is basically a Loyola accountability discussion at this point.
TERENCE SMITH: As it turned out, all of the Chicago news broadcasts led with the same story this night. Carol Marin presented it as more than just a local crime story, stressing the issues of hospital security and accountability, and putting the event into national context.
CAROL MARIN: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says in the last 16 years, 105 babies have been kidnapped from hospitals in this country.
TERENCE SMITH: Kerry Wood's comeback was covered as both a sports and medical story.
ANNOUNCER: In his first at-bat in about two years, hits a home run...
TERENCE SMITH: Even if it has not scored yet in the ratings, the NewsLab's Deborah Potter says the Carol Marin show has caught the attention of local news directors beyond Chicago.
DEBORAH POTTER: There's a secret sort of cheering section going on in newsrooms around the country. I think there are a lot of journalists who would like to see this succeed.
TERENCE SMITH: Both CBS and WBBM say they are committed to the new broadcast, and will give it the time it needs to determine whether there is an audience for a more serious approach to the news at 10:00.
MAN: Thank you.
CAROL MARIN: Good night.
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