CBS 2's Friday night flashback: Kurtis & Jacobson

November 13, 2009

Tonight's reunion of legendary news anchors Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson at 10 p.m. could well deliver the biggest audience ratings WBBM-Channel 2 has seen in years.

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In fact, a large enough Nielsen number would move the CBS-owned station ahead of NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 among viewers between the ages of 25 and 54, the demographic most prized by advertisers. (Both stations trail ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7.)‚ But even if that happens, Bruno Cohen, president and general manager of Channel 2, insists there's no future role in mind for Bill & Walter. "It's one night only," he said. "That's all there is to it."

As first tipped here Thursday, Kurtis, 69, and Jacobson, 72, will be anchoring Channel 2's marquee newscast together for the first time in 20 years. From 1973 to 1989 (except for the three years Kurtis anchored "The CBS Morning News" in New York), they were the definitive anchor team in the market.

On the newscast tonight, Jacobson also is expected to reprise "Walter's Perspective," a staple of his dual role as anchor and commentator, while sporting his trademark shirtsleeves and suspenders. "To tell you the truth, I had to run out to Macy's and buy a pair of suspenders today because I couldn't remember where I'd put any of the old ones," he said.

Rob Johnson, who normally anchors Channel 2's 10 p.m. newscast solo, will be away tonight at the wedding of a friend in Indianapolis. To underscore his endorsement of the two celebrity substitutes, Johnson made the official announcement to staffers at an early morning newsroom meeting.

"This is a great opportunity for one night to have people that showed us the way so many years ago," Johnson said. "The reason we're here today is because of people like these two. I know where they've been is where we want to be again. I'm honored that they think enough of our product to say: "Hey, we'd like to anchor the news Friday night when you're gone at 10 o'clock.' "

Reaction to the news was generally favorable among Channel 2 staffers, who said they were energized by the attention that the Bill & Walter reunion was drawing. Competitors and critics, however, were far less awestruck.

One rival station executive expressed bewilderment at the latest example of Channel 2 wallowing in its fossilized past rather than executing any new or original ideas. Earlier this year, Kurtis was brought back as a special contributor, and Harry Porterfield, 81, was rehired as a midday news anchor and reporter.

Another competitor questioned Channel 2's judgment in deploying a "Breaking News" alert Thursday to announce what is essentially a promotional stunt, adding: "Why spend all that time trying to get viewer trust and throw it away like this?"

Among critics, the Tribune's Phil Rosenthal labeled Kurtis and Jacobson as "WBBM stuntmen" in his headline and dismissed the pairing as "the latest effort by [Channel 2] to remind viewers of better days." The Sun-Times' Lewis Lazare played it straight, although the home page of his paper's Web site promoted Bill & Walter's "Return to Radio" for some time before it was corrected.

For viewers middle-aged and older, tonight promises to be an exercise in nostalgia and a throwback to a time when "The Ten O'Clock News" was appointment viewing for hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans. For those who were still in diapers or not yet born when Bill & Walter anchored their last newscast together --  and may know Kurtis only from his AT&T commercials or his role in Will Ferrell's‚ "Anchorman," and Jacobson only from his last gig at Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32 --  it'll be a chance to see for themselves what all the fuss was about.

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