When real news lost its 'last, best hope' in Chicago

July 12, 2010

Editor's note: Robert Feder is off until July 13. While he's away, we're running "The Best of Feder." The following post originally appeared on Feb. 10, 2010:

"This Channel 2 experiment serves as a referendum on straightforward, no-nonsense news, a genre that fell out of favor with the ad salesmen who run most TV stations, the consultants who advise them and the ratings-hungry news directors who do their bidding. If it works, as in all TV, it will be imitated. If it fails, our last, best hope for a return to real news will have been squandered, maybe forever."

Those prescient words were written 10 years ago this week by Phil Rosenthal, then the television critic of the Sun-Times. The experiment to which he referred was what many of us purists wanted to believe would fulfill our vision of a "dream newscast" at WBBM-Channel 2, the CBS-owned station that seemed to be in a permanent ratings slump.

Just down the hall from the site of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 at the old CBS cavern on McClurg Court, history of another kind was made 40 years later when Carol Marin solo-anchored a 35-minute report at 10 p.m. unlike anything we'd ever seen before.

It was a newscast devoid of all frills and hype. No celebrity puffery or promotional partnerships or water-skiing squirrels. Stories were reported in depth, followed by Marin's probing questioning. Commentary came from a stable of knowledgeable voices, led by the wise and revered John Callaway. On any given night, sports and weather got only the time they deserved -- and not one second more. Above all, viewers were treated with intelligence and respect.

Launched amid high hopes and great fanfare on Feb. 7, 2000, the experiment lasted all of nine months. Despite repeated assurances of‚ patience and time to develop an audience for such a radically different format, Marin's bosses flew the coop in fairly short order, and their successors pulled the plug before the start of the November sweeps.

Some said the effort failed because viewers missed all the bells and whistles they'd grown accustomed to seeing on local newscasts. Others‚ blamed Marin's serious demeanor on camera, mistaking it for a lack of warmth. In an editorial titled "Cod Liver Oil at 10 O'Clock," the Tribune condemned the newscast as "dull" and "a bore," calling Marin "somber to a fault."

In the end, the New York Times speculated that the failure "could be taken as reaffirmation that a serious format cannot succeed --  that people need to be drawn in through celebrity gossip and miracle diets introduced by bubbly anchormen and anchorwomen." But I prefer to think that it really wasn't a failure at all. It simply wasn't given enough time to succeed.

Today --  three general managers, three news directors and 10 years later -- Channel 2 is back to a single anchor format at 10 p.m. But that (and the return of commentary in the form of Walter Jacobson's "Perspective") may be about the only similarities to the noble experiment of 2000.

By my count, there have been 10 changes in Channel 2's 10 p.m. anchor lineup in the past decade. Here's a trip down memory lane:

  • Carol Marin (2000)
  • David Kerley and Linda MacLennan (2000 to 2001)
  • David Kerley and Tracy Townsend (2001 to 2002)
  • Antonio Mora and Tracy Townsend (2002)
  • Antonio Mora and Linda MacLennan (2002 to 2003)
  • Antonio Mora and Tracy Townsend (2003)
  • Antonio Mora and Diann Burns (2003 to 2007)
  • Rob Johnson and Diann Burns (2007 to 2008)
  • Rob Johnson and Anne State (2008 to 2009)
  • Rob Johnson (2009 to present)
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