Should anchors be expelled for failing chemistry?

June 1, 2010

Bill & Walter had it. Ron & Carol had it. Back in the day, even Fahey & Joel had it.

Fox Chicago's Amy Freeze, Jeff Goldblatt, Robin Robinson, Anna Davlantes and Corey McPherrin.

But in the judgment of critics and presumably the management of WFLD-Channel 32, Jeff Goldblatt most decidedly didn't have it --  which appears to be the vague but most frequently cited reason for his impending dismissal from the Fox-owned station (as first reported here Friday).

It's the elusive quality of "chemistry" among news anchor teams. As hard to define but easy to recognize as charisma, experts will tell you, it's either there or it's not. In Goldblatt's case, the Tribune asserted that he "seemed to have zero chemistry with either his co-anchor Robin Robinson or Anna Davlantes," while the Sun-Times quoted an unnamed "source with the station" as flatly declaring: "There was no chemistry between him and co-anchor Robin Robinson."

Admittedly, I was a harsh critic of Goldblatt's performance when he was plucked from the ranks of Fox News Channel correspondents and redeployed as a local anchorman. To say that he didn't appear ready for prime time was an understatement at first. But once he settled in, Goldblatt, 41, softened around the edges and eventually grew more confident and comfortable in the role. Besides, was his rapport with Robinson any worse than the strained alliance between Jan Jeffcoat and David Novarro on Channel 32's morning show? Or the forced conviviality between Allison Rosati and Rob Stafford on NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5, for that matter?

Among Chicago's current anchor teams, one that I would single out as having exceptional chemistry is Mark Suppelsa and Lourdes Duarte, who front the 5 p.m. newscast on Tribune Co.-owned WGN-Channel 9. There's something special about the easygoing way they relate to each other on the air. (Although I fear their engaging rapport is becoming overwhelmed by too much technical razzle-dazzle. Enough with the shaky hand-held cameras and newsroom cinema verite already. Just give us the news, please.)

Ron Magers, whom I'd argue is the best all-around Chicago news anchor ever, has been teamed with a variety of co-anchors over his three decades in the market --  including the likes of Max Robinson, Deborah Norville, Linda Yu, Diann Burns, Cheryl Burton and Kathy Brock. But the only on-air partner with whom I'd say he enjoyed truly outstanding chemistry was Carol Marin during their long run together at Channel 5.

Ron Magers and Carol Marin

Granted, Magers and Marin never dominated the ratings the way Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson did at CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2 in the early '80s, or the way Fahey Flynn and Joel Daly did at ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7 in the '70s. But the trust, admiration and esteem they clearly had for each other was just as palpable to viewers. Nevertheless, Magers himself questions the relevance of chemistry --  and doubts its importance to the success of a tightly scripted newscast, anyway. "There is so little opportunity for real interplay that you could do it with anyone --  even one who despises you," he says, alluding to his uneasy yet still top-rated partnership with Burns at Channel 7. Adds Magers:

"A true respect for your colleague may be, somehow, interpreted by the viewer. Think Carol Marin.‚ Still we are dealing with the X Factor.‚ Nobody can quantify it, and rarely can it even be identified. Within a straight newscast I would argue that, absent malice, chemistry is rarely the real issue. I would agree that chemistry is much more important on radio, or in longer form television, such as a morning show with a looser format. In these circumstances it is easier to identify. I truly believe that when management speaks of a lack of chemistry, it is a kind of code meaning that the talent we really want to keep doesn't get along with the talent we don't care so much about. Or, perhaps, one member of our on-air team is so hard to get along with that we've all agreed to get rid of that one. Or, perhaps, we can't think of anything else to say so let's use the 'lack of chemistry' thing."

And in what may be the truest observation of all, Magers concludes: "Besides, if any of us had done well in chemistry, we'd be researchers or scientists."

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