TELEVISION NEWS ANCHORS SUCCEED BECAUSE THEY PLAY TO SOME KIND OF FAMILIAL STEREO-type-reminding us of varying kinds of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles, and family friends. The better among them are instantly familiar to us all because they connect in the audience’s subconscious with these archetypes, And the closer these family/friend archetypes come to matching up with members of the nuclear family, the better they seem to fare: fathers trump brothers, mothers trump sisters, sisters trump cousins, and family trumps friends.
Among the local permutations: The Mature Daddy is best exemplified locally by Tracy Rowlett (S) and John Criswell (4). Looking at these old boys, we know that they will tell us everything we need to know-and we can tell them our deepest, darkest secrets. In any team of anchors, we instinctively sense who’s the “daddy,” and who are the kids. If you don’t believe it, tune to Channel 8 tonight and watch old Tracy work his frumpy-faced, basset-hound daddy magic, and you’ll instantly see why 8 remains, after all these years, still the one everybody else is working to beat: You expect him at any minute to quietly, reasonably but firmly tell the Kid Sister type, Gloria Campos, to go clean up her room or she’s gonna be grounded. Rowlett Knows Best.
But things in TV land are seldom what they seem. While Rowlett is no Dale Hansen (see below, under Black Sheep) he has had his innings-and his innings stand out all the more because of the straight-arrow image he projects into our living rooms. Except for the time, of course, he got in a wee bit of trouble with his Real Family Patriarch, WFAA, because sometime between 6 and 10, old Trace knocked back a few. Now who hasn’t done that a time or two between 6 and 10, or at least known someone who has? After management came down on him about getting tipsy in front of the kids lus viewers), our big fear was that Rowlett would lose his sense of humor and sense of proportion as well. Happily, he did not.
There are several other factors that make Tracy-and thus Channel 8-the Boss Hoss of Dallas TV. One is his mild but ever-present sense of humor. Another is that he knows when to use it-and when not to. There is nothing more darkly amusing than watching a segue-happy news anchor smile cheerily at the end of a harrowing report on, say, a lO-fatality fire, as Mike Snyder has done a time or two.
Tracy and 8 are on top for another reason: The man radiates integrity. In tact, integrity brought him to Dallas in the first place. Rowlett quit his job as a reporter for KWTV in Oklahoma City in solidarity with fellow reporter Byron Harris when the station refused to run Harris’ story on crooked car dealers, for fear of losing their advertising. That’s part of the Rowlett legend, and it’s helped him become the voice of Genuine Authority. He may not be able to tell you the absolute truth, but if he tells you something, it would certainly appear to be the truth as best he knows it-which is about the most you can ask from your daddy.
Watch for 8’s John McCaa and Brad Watson to evolve as Rowlettian father figures as they gain years, jowls, and facial crevices. Mike Snyder on 5 also aims for this patriarchal niche, but doesn’t quite make it yet. He’s still too commanding and imperious for us to really want to confide in him. That may come with time, but right now he’s the Older Brother Who Just Got Back from Desert Storm wanting to know why we haven’t done something with ourselves.
What makes the 5 News team work is the easy familiarity of the well-nigh-marital banter between Snyder and Jane McGarry Unthreateningly pretty, Jane is The Girl Next Door, the one who let you kiss her in the treehouse when you were in junior high; then both of you fell in love with someone else, but you remained friends.
We know nothing about her personal life; she may be the biggest shrew and harridan ever to make some unfortunate man miserable, but that Girl Next Door is what she projects, and in TV, the projection is usually what counts (call me, Jane, and let’s get caught up on old times).
In a way, Channel 5’s lead anchor staff should be the Dream Team, but they somehow keep waking up in second place in the ratings. But why? Snyder is handsome, commanding, resonant; McGarry is entirely professional, and probably the most glitch-proof reader in the market. They make a Handsome Married Couple, and one problem may be that most of us can find no such thing anywhere near our own nuclear families; they become, for most of us, the ” Handsome Married Couple in the Next Car Waiting for the Light to Change.”
Another part of Mike and Jane’s “family problem,” their seeming inability to get their little nuclear family going over on News 5, is that we take alook at them, and then get a load of their “kid,” David Finfrock, weather geek, and we know he’s just got to be adopted.
Finfrock, a competent meteorologist for whom the forecast is always “bad hair day,” seems to be trying to fit into The Brainy Bachelor Uncle niche. Come weather-map time, if Dave got a trim, we could see more of Oklahoma. He may someday make it to full-fledged unclehood, but right now he’s the Nerdy Older Brother Honors Student Ail Your Friends Made Fun Of, or that unmarried uncle of yours who taught junior high science,
The Brainy Bachelor Uncle honor falls to Channel 8 weatherman Troy Dungan I know, Dungan in real life is married, with children. And at social gatherings, he’s surprisingly loosey-goosey and hip.
But he’s the one who chose to wear the bow tie and the librarian glasses (he can’t afford contact lenses?) and that’s what he projects from the Channel 8 news set. That tie, those glasses. Not quite a nerd, but just a tad eccentric and asexual in a non-dangerous kind of way. Definitely bachelor uncle.
The Black Sheep of the Family. There’s only one in this market who amounts to anything, and I think you already know who we’re talking about here: That rascally rogue, Channel 8’s sportsmeister-with-attitude, Dale Hansen. Depending on your age, you will see him either as a brother or an uncle, but either way, he’s the family member who alternately keeps the family in stitches and busily occupied with the bondsman, or just winds up wearing stitches.
Several years back this very magazine studiously (and tediously) counted the number of beers (nine) Hansen consumed at an informal occasion prior to a sportscast, without reporting that the beers were lite and that the hulking Hansen must have weighed at least 300 pounds at the time.
Sure, Hansen likes his beer, but that doesn’t justify the disservice done to him by the Dallas Observer, which went to great pains-with fairly little success, in spite of its strident, exposé tone-to prove the man’s alleged extramarital improprieties.
Again, even if such nocturnal excursions occurred, that’s Hansen’s private business as long as it does not af affect the public performance for which he is paid. For the media to concern itself with such is evidence of a growing sniffy, smarmy attitude among our number.
The fact that Hansen is still willing to speak to print journalists is proof of a gigantic affability. It is that same magnanimity that both his sources and his viewers see on their screens, and that keeps him the No. 1 sportscaster in the market. There is, furthermore, no really close second.
Lecture over: The point is, the Observer could find precious little wrong with his sportscasting, other than he was tied awfully close to the Cowboys. And il: we’re talking about homers, get a load of the New Fox 4 Texas’ Mike Doocy He’s the Boy Cousin Who Goes Out for Cheerleader. Talk about a sportscaster who’s tied right up with the Cowboys.
When the Cowboys were on KDAF 33, back when it was Murdoch’s and Fox’s, there were no sportscasters over there to swoon over the Home Team, because there was no newscast at all. Not so today.
Fox is at 4, and so are “our” Cowboys, and since it’s hard to imagine Rupert Murdoch saying, “Oh, please, no, please don’t tout the Boys,” 4 is for the Cowboys big time. Doocy and his “doozies” will not let us long forget that; it’s the most slavishly lavish coverage since 8’s Gerry O-herrrr left Valley RRRANCH-ch-ch-ch…at Hansen’s behest. Thanks again. Dale. Gerry Oher. who’s now at Channel 4, is The Cousin That You’d Sorta Like to Kill and Then Bury at a Crossroads at Midnight.
Where does John McCaa fit into the 8-familial mix? Think about it. He’s aloof. He’s unflappable. Ever notice how his eyes focus just short of the camera, neither looking into it nor even really at it, but toward it? It is as though he has no desire to invade our space, but actually finds our space mildly distasteful, in a vague, nonjudgmental sort of way,
He is pleasant, but reserved; he gets no more excited about World War III than he does a puff piece on a little girl whose pig won the prize at the State Fair. In fact, he would have the same demeanor telling Troy or Tracy that they had cancer and only six weeks to live as he would informing Dale Hansen that, no, not to worry, it really is just a fever blister.
In other words, he is the Family Doctor-the trusted professional Not particularly loved, and not exactly a big old barrel of fun, but trusted, and extremely necessary to the life of any healthy family, which is what 8 would have you believe it is: One big, healthy, happy family.
From here, we get outside of the nuclear family and even the extended family, and meet some folks who lodge themselves in our subconscious for a variety of other reasons, the first and foremost of which, for males at least, is sexual. So let’s take a look at Major TV Babes, and some of their subtypes. In the case of 4’s Julia Somers, let’s take a look at her-please.
In terms of looks, Somers may be queen of the Major TV Babes locally, but she’s got a problem. For boy viewers, she’s the high school cheerleader/prom queen you were secretly dying to die for throughout your junior and senior years; but she was also the one who ran off with the football captain and broke your poor little old heart.
For girl-viewers, she’s the one who ran off with the football captain you happened to be dating, and who you then secretly wanted to kill.
Females are instantly inclined to dismiss -Somers-as just another “bubble-headed bleached-blonde on the evening news.” But the ladies have perhaps missed a key asset of Ms. Somers. She’s got this thing she does with her eyes every time she wants to make a point or underscore a story; they kinda go POP, POP, FLASH. FLASH. It’s a gimmick, sure, but.. .mmrnm, those eyes.
And then there’s Girl Next Door, Version Two-The Vulnerable Kind: Channel 11’s Midge Hill
Among Dallas’ media types, she used to be known as “Poor Midge.” Pretty, petite, polite, personable, professional-and put out the door by Channel 8 some years back when she was bumped as an anchor to make room for another pretty face, that of Chip Moody, who had a sudden whim to return to Dallas from Houston. Anyway, after her departure from 8, Midge bounced from pillar to post in PR and other gigs; then, eating no small measure of crow, she returned to Channel 11, which was at the time still Dallas’ third-rate fourth station. But Midge hung in there with the woebegone little independent and unaffiliated station, bringing that same pretty, polite professionalism to 11-and her patience paid off.
The only really good thing that can be said about Fox running 4 is that it bumped CBS to a new home at Channel 11-and suddenly elevated 11 from minor to major, and in the process shot her ratings through the roof. Deservedly so. Channel 11 has a lot of growing to do, particularly in its writing department, which at times sounds very, very small market. Midge has had to read some pretty bad lines; it’s a tribute to her that she reads them so well.
And while we are over at 11, if Midge and her co-anchor, Cameron Harper are going to start some kind of fetching little TV family, we need to do a little work on Cameron.
We’re not quite to “daddy” yet, Cameron. We aren’t even quite to “husband.” We are more at Married Guy Who Keeps Tiring To Pick Up Midge Hill In A Bar That Looks Like the Set of Channel 11.
I mean, Harper is a nice looking fellow, big blue eyes and all, and he reads his lines without biting his tongue off most of the time, but every once in a while, he gets a rabbity look on his face. The kind of look you’d expect from a deer in your headlights or, well, an adulterer, or something. He vapor-locks and looks kind of sidelong into the camera; his usually pleasant smile suddenly freezes on his chops and a look of panic dawns in his eyes as if he s thinking, “What if my wife catches me up here with Midge, or what if the management finds out I lied on the application…”
And the scary thing is that Midge and Cameron already have a child. In fact, a fairly cute one. Channel ll’s weatherman Bob Goosmann, the Eager-Beaver Kid Brother seems to get down on his little knees every night before going beddy-bye with his teddy bear so that he can pray for rain. And snow. And sleet. And a hurricane? Oh, goody-goody-goody. A meteorite the size of the World Trade Center hitting Arlington? That would be way-cool. This kid likes to see stuff falling out of the sky.
Goosmann can barely hide his disappointment when a hurricane peters out and fails to come crashing into the Texas coast, heading off instead to fluster some seagulls. Every day he gets to go fire up his super-duper Triton 1-7 weather simulation generator with the Silicon Graphics Inc. enhancing computer on the side so he can tiptoe up to that Chromakey wall and just go crazy over the golly-gee whiz-bang electronics show they let him put on every day.
And ll’s weather maps rule. At 4, 5 and 8, they’re just maps that show the usual giant arrows and lines and Hs and Ls and all that stuff flying over our houses (don’t we just hate it when that happens?). But when Goosmann gets hold of one of these graphics-generation machines and flips the switch to torque and the display way up into high, high res, Channel ll’s maps aren’t maps at all, but dramatic side-views of the whole planet.
Goosmann’s biggest problem, he says, is not getting too excited. “Hurricanes? I love them. But there’s a fine line you have to try not to step over. When you’ve got hailstorms and tornadoes coming into the area and knocking the shingles off of people’s roofs, you can’t say, ’Oh, great!’ But 1 want to.”
Finally, Channel 8’s Chip Moody doesn’t seem to occupy any family pigeonhole, yet he’s long been one of the most popular anchors in town. That’s because he fits the Jungian archetype of the Universal Nice Guy. In TV, almost all is appearance and projection-except with Chip. Lots of people have their Chip Moody stories. Here’s mine.
In 1983,I was working the dismal night police beat at The Dallas Morning News, maybe making $20,000 a year. Chip Moody was already the big time Channel 8 anchor knocking down the big six figures, and moreover, he had not yet suffered the health problems which he is still fighting to over come.
The gnawing fear of any lowly nightside cop reporter is this: Something horrible and newsworthy will happen, but the reporter who is supposed to be covering it will not blunder into a knowledge of it until after the paper’s final deadline, when it’s too late for anything short of a nuclear holocaust involving the mayor to make it into the paper. The editors expect the reporter to stay up all night long if need be to get the grim and gory details of the murder, accident, suicide, whatever.
This was the situation: A monstrous car crash on I-30 at about 1 a.m. (which I did not discover until 2 a.m.) left the limp bodies of several adults and children scattered about the roadway like broken dolls. There were five of these bodies, if memory serves; an entire family had been wiped out in an instant. No survivors. And, of course, there were the police officers and the paramedics, helpless in the face of such carnage, and the people from the medical examiner’s office, whose sad task it is to bag up such broken packages to take to the morgue.
And there was Chip Moody.
I’ll admit I was more than a little in awe of him at first; I was young, green, and self-conscious; he is as big, good-looking, and charismatic as he appears to be on television-and he is something more, as I learned that night by watching him.
He had no real compelling professional reason to be there, doing what he was doing that night at that ghastly scene: Nobody in their right mind among management at 8 would hold their top anchor even remotely responsible for missing a story about a car wreck.
But there he was, going from officer to officer, paramedic to paramedic, asking them questions and writing the answers diligently down on a pad, in great detail.
At first, I thought he was just manifesting a kind of “firehouse horse” syndrome-a reporter’s instincts kicking in involuntarily, causing him to reflexively get back in the harness. I watched him a while longer, and realized after a while, no, that wasn’t the case at all.
Chip Moody already knew what I, at that point, had only recently learned: That sometimes the value of a journalist has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with journalism, and absolutely nothing to do with the content of the subsequent day’s report. He knew that the story was in fact far less important than the lives of the living people it affected, there, in the Now.
He should have been home in bed. Instead, he was going from officer to officer-downloading them, to use a ’90s term. He was trying to help these men and women, these professionals, discharge their grief, pain, and shock by helping them get some catharsis in the midst of such a heart-wrenching scene. He knew that no matter how hardened these police officers might be in other circumstances, they are always heartbroken by anything which harms children-the little people that caused many of them to enter that rough profession in the first place, so that they could serve and protect.
As 1 watched big, charismatic Chip Moody covertly comforting these cops, giving them a legitimate and “official” outlet for their suffering, 1 became somewhat mesmerized-and thus I forgot to ask any questions of my own, or to make any notes, or record one single fact for later publication.
And then the last of the ambulances went away, silent and unlight-ed because the passengers were beyond any need of hurry, Chip finished offering this catharsis to the very last few remaining officers, and then it was pretty much him and me standing there among the shattered glass while the wrecker boys hauled the larger debris to the junkyard.
I was in trouble, and I knew it. I hadn’t recorded a thing. I hadn’t a clue as to the nuts and bolts and flesh and blood and bones of what had happened.
So I did what every reporter does in such a circumstance. I started trying to desperately ask all the other reporters every question I could think of; but there was only one left-Chip. He answered my nervous queries cheerfully, reading from his pad and perhaps needing a little catharsis and downloading of his own. But it was getting late, threeish, maybe fourish, as I recall. And so with no hint of dis-missiveness or condescension, he smiled, handed me his notepad, said goodnight, and went on home.
I could not have been more surprised if he’d handed me a thousand-dollar-bill. Those notes of his, freely and generously given, probably saved my job. They probably didn’t mean much to him- but he knew they meant a whole lot to me.
If Chip Moody seems like a nice guy on the air, it’s because that’s exactly what he is. If we keep getting people with instincts like his to come to work in this fractious, crazed, dollar-driven market, no matter who sells what to whom. I think we’ll all be all right.