WBBM ANNOUNCER: This is the 10:00 news.
TERENCE SMITH: After eight months...
CAROL MARIN, former WBBM anchor: A change to announce here at Channel 2 News...
TERENCE SMITH: ...Chicago anchor Carol Marin, said goodbye.
CAROL MARIN: The last eight months have been some of the most rewarding I’ve ever spent in a newsroom. I've been privileged to work with wonderful professionals who care deeply about doing the news and doing it well.
TERENCE SMITH: The innovative attempt of WBBM-TV to present straight local news fell victim to poor ratings.
PHIL ROSENTHAL, The Chicago Sun-Times: I think there's a certain eat your veggies quality to this kind of news.
TERENCE SMITH: Three months into the experiment, critics such as Phil Rosenthal of The Chicago Sun Times, questioned whether the straight news format would appeal to viewers' tastes.
PHIL ROSENTHAL: You know you should eat it but you don't necessarily want it.
TERENCE SMITH: The broadcast focused on longer pieces, on local investigations, political news...
CAROL MARIN: It's primary elections day...
TERENCE SMITH: ...International and national news; along with commentaries and debriefs from reporters on the set. "The Marin Corps," as the reporting team at the CBS affiliate was known, shunned traditional consultant-driven local news fare.
WBBM ANNOUNCER: The Carol Marin team.
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.
CAROL MARIN: Buzz, are we hitting the desk?
TERENCE SMITH: It was a different formula, and critics around the nation applauded it. But few Chicagoans watched. By the time it was canceled, the program's overall audience was about 20 percent smaller than that of the broadcast it replaced. Worse yet, it lost ground in the demographically desirable 25-to 54-year-old age group. It ended its run as it began: Fifth in its time slot, behind two other local news broadcasts and two entertainment shows-- "The Simpsons" and "Friends." Despite Chicago's reputation as a hard news town, veteran broadcaster Bill Kurtis questioned whether the broadcast was giving short shrift to legitimate local news.
BILL KURTIS, former Chicago news anchor: 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.
TERENCE SMITH: But does the end of this broadcast suggest that serious local news won't work? Not necessarily. All around the country, stations are trying to distinguish themselves by doing quality news.
KTVU ANNOUNCER: The number one primetime newscast in the country.
TERENCE SMITH: KTVU, the Fox affiliate in Oakland, California, is hailed by critics for its no-nonsense hour-long program. The station's dedication to quality recently earned a top ranking in a study of local news conducted by the project for excellence in journalism.
WEHT ANCHOR: And tonight, that fight to keep that shelter open goes public. It's our top story.
TERENCE SMITH: In the small market of Evansville, Indiana, WEHT-- an ABC affiliate-- has committed itself to an unusual amount of community coverage, which studies show viewers crave.
SPOKESMAN: It's time to find out what you've been telling viewer rep Haley Eigun this week.
TERENCE SMITH: Some stations such as KGUN-- an ABC affiliate in Tucson, Arizona-- have signed on to a viewer bill of rights, which details what a viewer can expect. Promises such as: ethnical news gathering, a right to privacy, a right to positive news, relevant crime coverage, solution-oriented journalism, and accountability. Despite the push for a different breed of newscast in Chicago, in the end, the viewers were faithful, but few.
CAROL MARIN: And I thank all of you who watched, who wrote, and who offered your support. I am forever grateful. That's our news tonight. Good night.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining to us discuss the status of local television news are Carol Marin who, having left the anchor's chair at WBBM, remains a correspondent for the newsmagazine broadcasts "60 Minutes" and "60 minutes II" on CBS. Marty Haag, a veteran television news executive is Senior Vice President for Content and Innovation at Audience Research and Development. Carl Gottlieb, a 22-year-old veteran of television news, studies local TV news at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which like the media unit of the NewsHour is funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. Welcome to you all.
Carol Marin, with the advantage of hindsight now, what do you think of the broadcast that you put on, and why it failed to build an audience?
CAROL MARIN: I'm very proud of the newscasts that we tried to put on. And I think we expected, believe this or not, to hemorrhage out our audience before we built the other. It was going to be a question, it was going to be a question of time, and we figured we would need at least a year to begin to build that. Audiences for local news are diminishing all over the country and that has been part of the problem. It isn't who is number one or number two, but who is there at all to watch local news. We knew that our audience, the one that we were likely to get, were the people who weren't watching local news, who'd left it. But that was going to take us time to build. We still believe, I still believe, we could have built it, but it was going to take some time.
TERENCE SMITH: If this isn't too awkward a question, Carol, why did management pull the plug after only eight months?
CAROL MARIN: I think it isn't just about television in that sense, Terry. Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize- winning film critic, came by right after the newscast was canceled, and he said, "you know, 'Chariots of Fire' which received national acclaim, only opened in about four theaters when it started. And it traveled by word of mouth. These days a film like 'Chariots of Fire' has got to be in the top-ten in films and in the first couple of weeks or it gets yanked." I think that we don't have the time. Whether it's television or it's an industry product or it's the NASDAQ, we want very quick rewards and they are hard to come by.
TERENCE SMITH: Carl Gottlieb, you study television news and its nature. What was lacking in the 10:00 news on WBBM?
CARL GOTTLIEB, Project for Excellence in Journalism: I think the most critical thing that was lacking was local relevance. There were a lot of stories just not about the Chicago area, and in local news that's really the game. I'm not sure why that happened, but at 10:00 at night before people go to bed in that market, what they are really looking for is a good wrap-up of what happened in their city that day.
TERENCE SMITH: Marty Haag, what did you like and not like on Carol's broadcast?
MARTY HAAG, Audience Research and Development: Well, I think the first thing that I did like was the serious tone of the broadcast and the fact that they really tried to do significant stories, substantive stories. What I didn't like was I really think that the pendulum swung too far, and I think they threw out considerations for pacing that are just integral to the broadcasts of the 1990s and the 21st century. I think not teasing stories later in the broadcast is just a little holier than thou, frankly, but the main thing I think is the issue that Carol and certainly Bill Kurtis in the other piece brought up. I think that eight months is certainly not long enough to try any format. I think it was like, "okay, well, if this works, we'll all look great." But they never gave it a chance.
CAROL MARIN: Terry?
TERENCE SMITH: Yes, Carol.
CAROL MARIN: If I may, in responding to each of those, Carl Gottlieb and Pew-- and I have a great deal of respect for Columbia, Pew, and their research—with all due respect, I don't think they watched enough of our newscast to be able to say what they say about that. We did a huge amount of local news. The kinds of things, the enterprising kinds of things that included milk price fixing in the Chicago area, section eight housing and poor people being disenfranchised -- we did a lot of local news, and an awful lot of local politics, but the fact of the matter is that I think some of the definitions of enterprise and localism need to be really reexamined by Pew in its own paradigm studies. With regard to what Marty is saying about pacing and teases, I know people felt we weren't fast enough, we weren't sexy enough. But I also believe that the thing that resonates with a lot of viewers, and I think this would have paid off in time, is they are tired of teases. They are tired of being teased all the way through the newscast. And when they finally get to the story, the story isn't much longer than the tease was. And so they are exactly right when you say we threw out some of those pacing kinds of models, and maybe we were wrong, but the truth is I don't think so.
TERENCE SMITH: Carl Gottlieb.
CARL GOTTLIEB: If I might respond, what we found was not a problem with some of those longer stories. I think a lot of the longer stories we saw were really well done. However, because the broadcast tended to do some very long stories, more so certainly than the national average, what happened is you weren't able to tell a lot of those stories that you would tell in say, 30-45 seconds, that would give people more of a sense of what went on in the community that day. WBBM at one point was the jewel or the gem of Chicago, and it didn't fall on hard times in eight months. It took many years for that to happen. I'm not saying it is practical for anybody to give WBBM the many years, but again I wish that more time were given.
TERENCE SMITH: Marty Haag, let me ask you to broaden this out a bit and tell us what you think this portends for serious local news around the country.
MARTY HAAG: Well, I don't think that one broadcast in one market, Terry, necessarily makes a trend. What I think it does say is that there are certain markets that are used to a certain type of news, and I think San Francisco, for example, has embraced KTVU over the years, and there are longer packages on that broadcast. There are other cities where the news is vastly different. For example, Dallas/Fort Worth is much different from Miami. But if you say a world wrap and it's three different video pieces of 20 seconds each, and it's a plane crash in Copenhagen and a bridge collapse in Turkey, it doesn't mean anything. Those are the pacers, but the pacers have to be in the broadcast. But God knows they should be significant stories. They should be relevant to the audience.
CAROL MARIN: Amen.
TERENCE SMITH: Carol Marin, when you look more broadly at that serious efforts at local news around this country and your own experience, what conclusion do you draw?
CAROL MARIN: The same one, Terry, I had when you and I first talked and before we even launched this. That local news in plenty of markets is in fine shape, and there are plenty of local broadcasters who commit great acts of journalism everyday. I've always believed that and I believe it to this moment. I think what has happened though is we've sent the public such a mixed message in terms of local news that localism comes to mean exactly what Marty is talking about. It's, "see this warehouse that is burning, this is a local story. It was actually burning eight hours ago and, I’m standing in front of it now but, boy, you should have seen the flames before." Those aren't local news stories, those aren't stories of any particular relevance. So sometimes when a fine investigative piece is woven into a newscast, but the rest of the stories are cross-plugs involving the movie of the week or "Survivor" or, you know, millionaire kinds of shows, the public doesn't get a very clear message what we are about and worse still-- I think this is the most profound problem, and it really will undermine any credibility we have-- are the continued partnerships that are now going on across the country with commercial interests -- local hospitals pairing with local stations, when it's not really a medical story it's a way to promote a hospital or a group of doctors or a vitamin or a drug. I think those are the things that assail local news. It isn't that there aren't fine news directors and great reporters out there because there are.
TERENCE SMITH: Go ahead, Marty. I’m sorry.
MARTY HAAG: I'm sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to second that. I think that a battleground in the future is going to be the area of potential incremental revenue. And from being a lost leader certainly, news in the entertainment industry-- which it is, television is entertainment first of all, and it's commercial, but news is going to be asked to generate more and more revenue as... certainly in the year 2001, it's going to be very tough, everybody is saying it's going to be a tough year out there. And so the question will be, what is allowable in your news broadcasts in terms of logos and sponsor identification and things of that, and which is a conflict of interest? And I think as time gets tight, and this isn't the first time that this has happened, but journalists, strong journalists are always going to have to stake out a certain ground and say, "not on my watch, you don't."
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Carl, a final world from you. You look around the country at this. Where are the hopeful signs?
CARL GOTTLIEB: I think there are lots of hopeful signs. I think some of the broadcasts you showed earlier-- KTVU, KGUN, WXIA in Atlanta-- certainly all do good work, but I would go back to something Marty said that's incredibly important, and that has to do with the issue of credibility. If we start to see more logos, if we start to see less solid news on the air, you have a business that basically now relies on local news for a good portion of the revenue stream -- that is going to commit suicide, that is going to shoot itself in the foot, because viewers will no longer be able to separate the fact from the fiction, the promo from the news. And I think that is not the way to go.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Carl Gottlieb, Marty Haag, Carol Marin, thank you all very much.