Bill Kurtis & Walter Jacobson
I know I should be jumping for joy now that WBBM-Channel 2 has announced the reunion of Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson, the iconic duo who redefined television news in Chicago nearly four decades ago. Like many who watched Bill & Walter in their heyday, I’ve long respected and admired them as the gold standard of local anchor teams.
So how come the whole getting-back-together thing makes me feel … I don’t know … kind of sad?
Starting Sept. 1, Kurtis and Jacobson will be fronting the CBS-owned station’s 6 p.m. newscast Monday through Friday. On Sept. 13, newcomer Kate Sullivan, who currently anchors mornings at WCBS-TV in New York, will join Rob Johnson as Channel 2’s 5 and 10 p.m. co-anchor. Both moves were more or less telegraphed here last week.
It’s not just the idea that Kurtis and Jacobson are only doing it for the money that troubles me. After all, they’re entitled to cash in if someone’s willing to pay them six figures to read a few headlines and banter with each other for 30 minutes each night. So what if it happens to be for the same company that once had no use for two white male anchors — these two white male anchors, specifically — appearing on a newscast together? Truth be told, that was the reason CBS separated them in the first place.
It’s not just that the return of two white-haired fellows in their 70s (who’ve been out of the 25-to-54 demo since the last century) strikes me as an act of desperation by Channel 2. Let’s face it: It’s a station that’s been mired in last place for so long and has subjected its audience to so much upheaval that the only gimmick left is to turn the clock back and hope enough viewers will think it’s 1980 instead of 2010. But how in the world does a move like this position Channel 2 for the future? I don’t get it.
It’s not just that Kurtis has done such a masterful job of mocking the stereotype of the pompous, self-important anchorman that he embodied in his earlier incarnation at Channel 2. He did it as narrator of the movie “Anchorman,” a silly satire on the shallowness of local television news, and he did it as paid pitchman for AT&T in ads that turned his trademark gravitas on its head, depicting him as a clueless buffoon (“I’m Bill Kurtis — and I just discovered the Internet!”). Yes, of course, we all understood that he was in on the joke. That was the fun of it. But how are we supposed to take the guy seriously as an anchorman now that he’s let us in on the truth, and we know he knows it’s all bullshit?
And it’s not just that Jacobson, our forever fabulous Skippy, has often spoken out about the decline of local news. During the year I was on hiatus and Walter was busy writing his soon-to-be-published memoirs, we must have talked a dozen times about how journalistically bankrupt the business has become. No one lamented it more than he did. If he thinks his comeback with Kurtis will somehow put everything back the way it was, I’m afraid he’s in for a terrible disappointment.
What I think bothers me the most is the nagging sense that this is all just a cynical stunt that’s doomed to fail. Reuniting Bill & Walter for one golden evening of nostalgia last November was one thing. But putting them out there night after night on a newscast of no consequence with scant resources? On a station that has so diminished its commitment to news that it didn’t even bother to extend coverage of the last primary election by five minutes? (Hello, Mike Flannery?) On a station that considers it innovative to air “Monsters and Money in the Morning”? Sorry, nothing to see here. Move along.
Of course, there’s always the possibility of a miracle (say, if WLS-Channel 7 suddenly goes off the air forever). But barring that, it seems highly unlikely that the presence of Kurtis and Jacobson alone will be enough to set Channel 2’s ratings on fire again. If they fail, I fear it won’t just be another embarrassment for CBS. It will also forever tarnish the legacy of two of Chicago’s greatest broadcast legends whom we’ve known and loved, as Kurtis himself might say, lo these many years.