It was rough sailing at first. KXAS-TV (Channel 5), with an assist from ratings-rich NBC prime-time programming, had the most-watched 10 p.m. newscasts from February 2002 until that same ratings “sweeps” month in 2007, according to Nielsen Media Research. The team of McCaa, Campos, Hansen, and relative newcomer Delkus has been No. 1 ever since, a reign that coincides with WFAA’s first-in-the-market shift to high-definition newscasts and the unveiling of its new Victory Park studios at the start of 2007.
“You just have to do your job every day,” McCaa says of his nearly 15-and-a-half years in the 10 p.m. newscast spotlight. “A lot of young people, they think that an audience being comfortable with you comes instantly. But if you really want to establish some integrity, you’ve just got to do it over and over and over.”
===“We were saddled with Scott Sams for a while, and to be brutally honest with you, I really kind of resented that. I felt like they didn’t haveconfidence in John and me to navigate this boat.” Gloria Campos, WFAA-TV!==
“I don’t think we were really looking for love in our lives. It just sort of happened,” says Nora McCaa.
It happened fast. She had been working at WFAA for a year and a half, but was planning a move to Miami for another job when she and John went on their first date.
“It was on Jan. 2, 1999,” she remembers without hesitation. “And three months later we were married.”
It’s the second marriage for both. Nora is the youngest of eight children and John has a 23-year-old son, Collin, who lives in Houston, from his first marriage. The McCaas have lived in a gated Las Colinas community since October 2005. For the past seven years, they have vacationed annually in Bellagio, Italy, always renting a small apartment rather than staying in a hotel.
“We’ve been there so many times that we spend half our days going to the homes of our friends,” John McCaa says.
Their North Texas home is replete with artwork, most of it purchased abroad. It’s not for nothing that his vanity license plate reads “I 4 ART.”
McCaa is especially fond of Spanish painters, but a small black-and-white etching with a “nasty image,” as he puts it, is also part of the décor. For that reason the sexually graphic rendering is somewhat hidden in a downstairs corner, where it still draws attention.
“People ask me, ‘Well, is that the image you like?’ McCaa says. “I say, ‘Well, no, but I can’t afford the images I like.’ ”
An intrinsically more valuable possession keeps him grounded. It’s a drum set that shares second-floor space with a small gym’s worth of exercise equipment. He’s had drums since the seventh grade, when his parents bought him a $119.95 set from Sears, Roebuck for Christmas.
“I got up at 6 a.m. and started playing the drums before we went to church that day,” McCaa recalls. “And I’ve loved it ever since. You go to ‘anchor school’ to learn to read a TelePrompTer. But when you play music, everything’s based on the feel. And when you’re with a band and playing just right, there’s nothing better than that.”
“Hi, Rachel, my name is John McCaa. I work at WFAA in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.”
It’s an early December in the WFAA newsroom, and McCaa is on the phone seeking more information about a Keller, Texas, family being featured on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
He regularly contributes a story to the weekday 5 p.m. newscast before moving behind a desk for the 6 and 10 p.m. editions. The video’s already in the can for this one, with McCaa assigned to write and then read his copy during a live shot from a makeshift post in the middle of the newsroom.
A story like this seems pretty trivial for a big-time anchor in the country’s fifth-largest television market. But downsized budgets and newsroom staffs mean that “everybody’s job has become more demanding, the anchors included,” says news director Michael Valentine.
McCaa sprays on a little HD-ready makeup—“I’m always getting my eyes messed up”—shortly before doing the Extreme Makeover piece midway through the 5 p.m. news. He’s soon seated next to Campos for the 6 p.m. edition. She calls him “The Professor” off-camera, a reference to McCaa’s latter-day pursuit of a Ph.D from the University of Texas at Dallas after earlier earning a masters in politics from the University of Dallas.
These days it pays to be prepared for life beyond TV news.
“I’ve given up trying to predict exactly how this business will change,” McCaa says. “The good news is it’s so much easier to get video in front of people. The bad news is you can’t trust most of the sources. I’m sure there’ll be way more use of this ‘citizen journalist’ stuff in the future. But it’s a little like a lawsuit. Judges always want to know where the evidence came from. And that should be the same standard in news.”
Nearing the 25-year mark at WFAA, McCaa has longevity licked. In his view that also adds up to trust, which “never develops” if an anchor can’t settle in and become part of a station’s DNA.
But by choice or otherwise, “I don’t see people staying in markets for long periods of time anymore,” McCaa says. “And I don’t think local TV stations have any idea if they’ll even be doing the news 10 years from now. Am I frightened about that? Yeah. But it’s such a different world now. It’s just changing so much.”
Whatever happens, McCaa has made his mark. And it will stand through the ages.
“If you had told people 30 years ago that No. 1-rated newscasts in Dallas someday would have Hispanic and African-American anchors, well, they wouldn’t have believed it,” he says. “It says something about how Dallas has changed. And how society has changed, too.”