Sunday, October 25, 2009

Can TV News Do Without Anchors?

Variety reports that local television stations across the U.S. are laying off high-paid anchors, cutting newsroom staffs, consolidating news operations from previously competing stations, replacing salaried reporters with stringers, and even making anchors operate their own teleprompters. Lost in all this is a way to potentially retain qualified reporters and editors while cutting costs--getting rid of anchors altogether.

The role of the news anchor is an anachronism that dates back to the earliest days of television, when live feeds from reporters in the field were impossible and most news stories were either read from wire service copy or films that the anchor narrated. Over time, anchors became the "brands" of local stations and television networks alike. The most popular anchors turned in the best ratings, and at the national level, a change in the anchor chair (Dan Rather replacing Walter Cronkite, Brian Williams replacing Tom Brokaw) was the subject of endless analysis.

Today, however, the news anchor is truly an anachronism that stations should consider doing away with. Stories can easily be introduced and narrated by the reporters themselves, whether in the newsroom or in the field. Wire service stories and stories without video can be reported from a desk in the newsroom. More and more stations bring reporters onto the news set to introduce their own stories and answer questions posed by the anchor, so why not "hand the ball" to the reporters and let them do the whole job? Couldn't they ask each other questions?

In my opinion, anchors are becoming less and less important for drawing an audience as the anchor position itself increasingly becomes a revolving door. As the Variety story points out, the show that precedes the late local news (the "lead-in") is perhaps the single most important determinant as to which news program a viewer will watch. NBC's local stations have lost a scary percentage of their late news audiences due to the weakness of The Jay Leno Show and NBC's overall prime time schedule--for example, KNBC, the Los Angeles NBC station, has lost 25% of its late night news audience.

If stations are replacing high-paid anchors with younger, less-experienced substitutes in order to save money, why not experiment with getting rid of anchors altogether? Use the savings to retain more of the experienced beat reporters and editors who really form the backbone of a successful news organization.
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