Will the real Bill Kurtis please stand up?

November 5, 2009

kurtis

If there were a Mount Rushmore of Chicago television news anchors, the first face I'd put up there is Bill Kurtis. OK, maybe he'd be the second -- after Floyd "The Big Tuna" Kalber. (Who else? You're welcome to suggest others in the comments section below.)

But the point I'm making is that as an anchorman in this town, Bill Kurtis will always be among the all-time greatest in my book. What he accomplished at CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2 -- most notably during his legendary run with Walter Jacobson from 1973 to 1982 -- can never be discounted or diminished.

It's no exaggeration to say that Bill & Walter and their Channel 2 colleagues revolutionized television news with a style and approach that emphasized enterprise reporting, gritty straight-from-the-newsroom immediacy and hard-hitting local commentary.

Thirty years ago, when Channel 2's 10 p.m. newscast hit No. 1 in the Nielsens for the first time, the Tribune proclaimed it "the beginning of a news dynasty" and "a genuine watershed in Chicago TV history." Although the station's ratings dominance would last only six years, the legacy established by Bill & Walter was enduring.

In Jacobson's memoir (tentatively titled Walter's Perspective and due to be published next year by Southern Illinois University Press), Kurtis is quoted as saying in 1979: "We've made broadcast history at this station. Think about it. In the midst of happy-talk and all that nonsense, we went to work and actually covered the news in a responsible fashion. And now we've become No. 1. . . . If we establish a success in Chicago, we'll set a new trend which says that a station can make it by building a reputation for presenting news rather than a reputation for presenting entertainment."

All of which makes Kurtis' latest comeback to Channel 2 so utterly baffling to me.

I get that times are different. I get that Channel 2 is losing money, its ratings are in the toilet, and it has nothing to lose by trying anything to attract an audience. And I get that Kurtis, now 69, has moved way, way beyond the local news arena.

It's fascinating to see how his career and public image have evolved from news icon to documentary host and producer to star of the A&E Network to brilliantly deadpan commercial pitchman.

I'll admit it took me a while to realize that his role as narrator of Will Ferrell's "Anchorman" actually turned out to be a shrewd pivot from perceived pomposity to self-mocking celebrity. But I get that too. And I don't begrudge a penny of what he's making from his AT&T commercials, his Tall Grass Beef or his other entrepreneurial ventures.

As part of its deal to pick up syndicated reruns of his old A&E "Cold Case Files" series (which moved this week to an earlier time -- at 12:35 a.m. weekdays), Channel 2 also got Kurtis to appear at no extra charge in promos for the station's news and its CBS prime time lineup. But here's the rub: He's also turning up once a week on Channel 2's 10 p.m. newscast in a dual role -- first as a hard-news reporter delivering vignettes of unsolved crimes (called "The Cold Case Minutes") and then as an avuncular show-business schmoozer with anchor Rob Johnson.

After recounting the details of some horrific murder or notorious bank robbery at the top of the show, Kurtis returns later to shoot the breeze with Johnson about everything from cherry-lime rickeys and hard-boiled eggs to their favorite movies shot in Chicago. Earlier this week, they laughed over outtakes from Kurtis' commercials with David Caruso promoting CBS' "CSI: Miami."

For years now, Kurtis has been appearing in a variety of comedic cameo bits on Tribune Co.-owned WGN-Channel 9's morning news show. He sang "I Will Survive" with Tom Skilling. He delivered a dramatic reading from the children's book Walter the Farting Dog. He judged a spelling bee that pitted anchors from competing stations against each other. He even performed a parody of "The Night Before Christmas" as a sendup of "Cold Case Files."

So which Bill Kurtis are we getting on Channel 2 now? The no-nonsense newsman who fronted the show in its glory days and wants to be taken seriously -- or the ironic, postmodern mercenary who's playing it all for laughs?

Some have likened Kurtis' persona to that of William Shatner. "We know he knows that we're all in on the act," one astute colleague observed. "But when he's there on the set, it's like he's wearing a funny hat and it just doesn't fit right."

Not so, insists Bruno Cohen, president and general manager of Channel 2 and a veteran of CNBC and local broadcast news operations from New York to San Francisco. "We think Bill Kurtis and our association with him makes our newscast better, and we have enormous confidence in Bill's ability as a working journalist and in his integrity," Cohen said.

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