Local News: The PBS Series

The characters and episode descriptions

Local News is a dramatic documentary series that will premiere on Tuesday, October 9, at 10pm ET on PBS stations nationwide. [Check your local PBS listings for a broadcast schedule.] The five-part series takes a critical look at how local news is produced, reported, and packaged at WCNC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina. The series offers a unique, behind-the-scenes look at the many challenges facing the station’s newly hired news director and its new owner, A.H. Belo Inc. These challenges range from ethical considerations to concerns about ratings, race relations, and community involvement. By focusing on the personal stories of WCNC-TV’s news staff, Local News offers a realistic portrayal of how news stations across the country are struggling to either maintain viewership or reverse a decline that has led to plummeting ratings and revenues. The television series prsesents a diverse landscape of participants inside and outside the newsroom including

Keith Connors - WCNC news director
Rick Keilty - WCNC general manager
Mike Redding - WCNC features reporter
Sterlin Benson Webber - WCNC education reporter
Bea Thompson - WCNC reporter
Alicia Booth - WCNC anchor and reporter
Glenn Counts - WCNC crime reporter

Episode One: To Work A Miracle

Newly hired news director Keith Connors stands dead center in the tug-of-war between ratings and journalistic ethics. His first big test comes when a wave of bomb threats rips through Charlotte’s schools. Reining in his newsroom while competitors rush to air with misinformation, Connors loses the big story, but he thinks begins building viewer trust.

WCNC confronts a different ratings dilemma when several white families sue to overturn the city’s landmark 1971 school busing plan. As reporters and producers argue over how much trial coverage is too much, racial tensions in the newsroom are revealed. African-American education reporter Sterlin Benson Webber takes on the role of conciliator for both the station and the city.

Soon after that internal desegregation debate, longtime African-American news producer Wanda Johnson Stokes announces her resignation. While the newsroom and Connors wish her a tearful goodbye, Stokes confides her belief that WCNC management is prejudiced. She lauds Belo’s quality-news mission — but prophesies hard times ahead for Connors as he tries to reconcile the demands of business, journalism, and community.

Episode Two: Change and Consequences

Welcome to boomtown Charlotte, where the banking industry is transforming a sleepy southern town into a major New South metropolis. As Connors urgently recruits fellow out-of-towners to join in WCNC’s makeover, it’s clear that Belo is making a calculated gamble on a city as well as a station. But Charlotte has a surprise in store for the newcomers.

WCNC reporter Bea Thompson is a native Charlottean who 22 years ago became the city’s first black woman TV journalist. Now she’s on the verge of being fired. Perhaps it’s her race, or age and gender, or because she earns too much. Perhaps her homespun manner just doesn’t jibe with the station’s new image. Whatever the reason, Thompson decides to not go quietly. With a word to some of her long-time friends, neighbors, and fans, the beloved reporter touches off a protest that quickly escalates into picketing, boycotts, and a lawsuit. Connors and general manager Rick Keilty scramble to avert a public-relations disaster and sinking morale at the station.

Meanwhile, Webber continues to cover the increasingly divisive court battle over desegregation. Striving to play a constructive role, she finds herself thwarted by the increasing bitterness of the debate — and by Connors’ apparent loss of interest in the case. After Thompson is let go, Keilty and Connors sit down with protesters upset over both her firing and WCNC’s coverage of African-American issues. The meeting becomes an impassioned showdown between two seemingly irreconcilable visions of community.

Episode 3: A Working Team

Months after his arrival, Connors believes he has now assembled a winning team in the WCNC newsroom. Their all-out effort during a hurricane on the Carolina coast-along with the ratings boost their dramatic team coverage garners-leaves Connors exhilarated and optimistic. But beneath the surface, the newsroom’s family is driven by tension.

When Connors passes education reporter Webber over on the day a verdict finally comes down in the desegregation trial, she feels burned. Why is white anchor Alicia Booth entrusted with what should be Webber’s big story? Yet Booth, unbeknownst to the newsroom, has just been dealt her own major blow. After years in Charlotte paying dues to overcome an undeserved “dumb blonde” reputation, Booth is demoted from anchor to reporter. Consultant research shows she just doesn’t click with female viewers.

Another hurricane is the final straw for newsroom morale. Mike Redding, an aspiring Charles Kuralt and Connors’ star hire, openly rebels after being left in the maelstrom to turn “live shots” day after day. Dreams of teamwork within the newsroom crumbling before his eyes, Connors is left isolated, lamenting the sometimes lonely life of the news director.

Episode 4: Grace Under Pressure

The ratings spike passes with the hurricane, and station management turns up the heat on Connors and the newsroom. Hopes ride high for a newly re-formatted newscast, a new anchor (Alicia Booth’s replacement), and a new emphasis on “breaking developments” — especially in crime coverage. When a young boy is mysteriously murdered in a wealthy neighborhood, Connors leans on crime reporter Glenn Counts and back-on-the-beat Booth to turn up new developments at all costs. Booth coaxes some startling information from her hard-won law-enforcement sources, but then must face down Connors over the ethical implications of running with information that might jeopardize the police investigation.

With pressure rising in the newsroom, Webber confronts the most divisive chapter yet in the school-busing case: a fiery, racially polarized school board vote over whether to appeal the recent court order threatening to dismantle all desegregation efforts. Unable to reconcile the interracial bitterness with her own goal of transcending race in her reporting, Webber finds herself nearly paralyzed. As 5:00 and the launch of Connors’ new show draws near, it’s unclear whether Webber’s package will “make air.”

The 5:00 broadcast is a debacle, riddled with technical glitches and mortifying mis-cues. Afterwards, recriminations fly in a back-room meeting; the only thing the news managers can agree on is that how Connors’ handles this will make or break the newsroom. Stepping out to address the entire staff, Connors assumes the mantle of leadership, as he never has before.

Episode 5: There’s No Place Like Home

For Christmas, Connors goes back to Ashtabula, Ohio — a declining factory town and the antithesis of booming Charlotte. There, he realizes the bargain he has made: leaving his one true home for a series of assignments in other people’s communities. Meanwhile, the black community gathers in Charlotte in sorrowful celebration of Bea Thompson’s career, a career limited by the opposite bargain: Bea forsook opportunities elsewhere to serve a home that was rapidly transforming beyond her recognition.

Upon Connors’ return to WCNC, Belo executives visit to assess the success of the news experiment thus far. Their disappointment and frustration are evident. While continuing to tout the quality journalism mission, they insist on a new direction for the newscast: more crime coverage and a new, more aggressive crime reporter. Connors, who until now felt supported by Belo in his attempts to balance the profit imperative with serious news, is devastated.

While meeting with corporate managers, Connors receives word that police have issued a complaint against Glenn Counts, WCNC’s crime reporter, for trespassing on a crime scene. Pushed by the visiting corporate executives and the assistant news director, Anzio Williams, to break something — anything — in the child murder case, Counts trespassed on the cordoned-off murder scene. Connors resolves to stand by his crime reporter in the trespassing case, and to stand up for Counts’ low-key style, against his bosses’ wishes.

As the entire news team gathers to cover the turn of the millennium, they find themselves contemplating their future. Sterlin Benson Webber, stunned by a poor job review accusing her of working poorly with others, wonders if she should leave the business entirely. Out on her own, Bea Thompson produces a pilot for a quirky regional talk show she hopes will preserve her community’s unique flavor. Ever upbeat and forward-looking, Alicia Booth lands an anchor spot in Cleveland and prepares to start over in a new city.

At midnight in the control room, Keith Connors orchestrates his team, his newscast, and his city like an impassioned conductor. Afterwards, he — and the viewers of Local News — is left to wonder: Is WCNC’s experiment the shining hope for local TV news? Or is it an impossible dream?

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