There came a time in my career when I began to recognize that I excel in two areas of TV news – the first is in finding, mentoring, and producing personalities. I’m not referring to newsreaders or prompter-jockeys, but true personalities. In addition to the The KTLA Morning News team, I’ve been fortunate to have worked alongside some of the best news personalities in television.
They include Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, Charlie Gibson, Bill Ritter, Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, Ryan Seacrest, Sam Donaldson, Dick Shapp, Larry Potash, Giuliana Rancic, Barry Pintar, Claudia Simon, Lisa Williams, Sunda Croonquist, Dana Tyler, Bob Orr, Mort Crim, Greg Wolf, Ty Treadway and Jerry Springer. Some of these you know. Some you may have never heard of. Each is their own individual character.
I loved producing Robin Roberts on Good Morning America Sunday. Having a sports background, she didn’t have the “news pretense” that anchors often have. She was cool and down for anything.
When I watch Robin now, I get so frustrated with the way she’s produced and directed. On the current incarnation of Good Morning America, Robin gets maybe one or two close-ups in an hour. That’s obscene for a lead host. The show is so rushed there’s no time for her to just talk to viewers. It’s a parade of comings and goings and often she’s relegated to nothing more than traffic cop.
GEORGIE GARDNER & KARL STEFANOVIC
A few of my absolute favorite news personalities are far from my reach. First are Georgie Gardner and Karl Stefanovic of Australia’s Nine Network Today show. These two are the best it gets – although the show us undergoing massive changes. Georgie stepped into the co-host role after Lisa Wilkinson left the show. When all three were together, the show was just outstanding. I would watch and feel myself getting envious because it was firing on all cylinders so flawlessly – they’d reached the same peak we had during the KTLAMN days.
Then there’s Mélissa Theuriau of M6 (the highest paid news anchor in France). She anchors the evening news. She’s a furnace of warmth. I don’t understand a word she says yet I’m still in awe. That’s how authentic she is! It’s true – she is hot. But much more importantly, she’s warm!
Locally, there are some good examples of shows producing their talent perfectly – again, mainly in the morning because evening newscast are still trapped in that “seriousness” mode. Check out Rosanna Scotto on Good Day New York. I don’t know her, but I love this woman!
LARRY POTASH & ROBIN BAUMGARTEN
Larry Potash and Robin Baumgarten on the WGN Morning News are world-class examples of well-produced local news personalities – people who jump off the screen. I’ve known Larry for years but have never gotten the chance to meet Robin. WGN was a sister station to KTLA so their show started up shortly after the success of the KTLAMN.
In another clip from WGN Morning News, watch how reporter Tonya Francisco, through sheer use of her personality, makes it very clear that it’s cold outside!
There’s another former local news anchor I want to talk about who had hit newscasts at 6 & 11 on WLWT in Cincinnati – simply because he was allowed to reveal his personality in all its shades and colors. That’s where my TV career began. Imagine little Ray the news intern, dressed up in his Sunday best, answering phones and making beat calls in the crappy basement of an old Elk’s Lodge in downtown Cincinnati in 1983. The station, then owned by Multimedia, was a years-long number 4 loser (behind old sitcom reruns). News Director Bob Yuna was brought in to make some changes just before I arrived. Bob recognized some undiscovered talent in a young man who had recently held the position of Mayor of the city. His name was Jerry Springer.
Jerry had been a councilman, then the mayor and then ran for governor of Ohio. He lost the primary and began doing commentaries on WEBN, the cool AOR radio station in town. Bob heard Jerry on the radio and immediately hired Jerry to do commentaries on Action 5 News during its newscasts. These weren’t the yawn-inducing types of editorials station managers used to do at the end of ‘70’s newscasts. Jerry’s commentaries were relevant, insightful, and very well thought out. His daily segments nudged the needle a bit in the ratings. Yuna then promoted Jerry to co-anchor alongside Norma Rashid (“Normer” as Jerry calls her). Jerry’s promotion to news anchor was the lead story all over town.
News directors come and go and WLWT was no different. Yuna was out, Tom Kuelbs was in. Kuelbs built on the Jerry & Norma team with strategic changes to the way stories were told, presented and packaged. He replaced under-performing reporters with well-known Cincinnati personalities. People like Top 40 DJ Pat Barry doing weather, former Bengals wide receiver Chris Collinsworth as a sports contributor, Civil Right leader James Meredith’s wife Judy Alsobrooks became a general assignment reporter along with Lauren Chesley, daughter of well-known Cincinnati attorney Stan Chesley who had handled cases involving the Pan Am Lockerbie terrorist attack, the Bhopal gas leak tragedy in India and the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire which killed 165 local tri-state residents who came to see John Davidson perform. Tom revised how stories were chosen and reported, how the newscasts were presented and promoted, and ultimately how he launched the renamed News 5 from worst to first in less than a year.
Jerry took the town by storm – not because he could read a teleprompter, but simply because the station allowed him to be himself. How did they do that? Jerry continued doing commentaries during his newscasts. He covered news with the impartiality of a newsman, and then at the end of the show, he’d give you his thoughts about the big story of the day. Unheard of! A huge risk for WLWT – and a huge payoff.
Forgive me for sounding “Disneyesque”, but those first two years – my cherry-popping introduction to the world of local TV news – was utterly magical. To be so young and on the ground floor of a number three news operation that suddenly takes off like a runaway freight train was a game changer for me. I watched Tom Kuelbs produce Jerry into a personality. I saw how he tweaked our news coverage, how he packaged content, how he reinvented the concept of sweeps series into franchise-building power packages, how he scrapped an ultra-high-tech NewsMat set and replaced it with a toned-down look that didn’t compete for the talent’s attention but complimented them. I saw how he shot his talent. I was this know-nothing intern getting a first-class education on how to create a hit show. I was ultimately hired on as a writer and then producer. And when I left, I had graduated from little WLWT-News Five University magna cum laude.
Looking at personalities would not be complete without mentioning three people I’m sure you’ve comes across during the last few years. They are news makers. Their personalities were so defined and distinct – shining through even in the short soundbites that hit the air – that they became viral sensations.
Remember Sweet Brown, the woman who woke up to get a cold pop, thought someone was barbequing, and then, Oh, Lord Jesus, found her apartment on fire? Ain’t nobody got time for that!
The passion she shared while telling her story made her a YouTube Sensation. She’s someone you cannot forget.
Same with Antonie Dodson, who raked up 64-million views as he tells the story of how his sister was nearly raped.
Look at that number. At the time I write this, that video has had more than 69-million views! That should tell you something.
And finally, there’s the “apparently kid”, little Noah Ritter…
33-million views! Why did we, the news media, go nuts with these three whose stories originally aired in local news pieces? Simple. They’re genuine, unedited, 100-percent authentic personalities. You can spot them a mile away. People are drawn to them. True, you might not want them anchoring your newscasts, but the sheer volume of views they attracted clearly proves they’ve got something that captures eyeballs. When was the last time your local news story raked in 33-million views? It’s a fair question – and relevant as well – as TV news transitions to the internet.