Robert J. Wussler, the man most responsible for creating the legendary Chicago television news anchor team of Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson, has died after a long illness.
Wussler, who began as a mailroom clerk at CBS and became the youngest president of the CBS Television Network at age 39 before he went on to help Ted Turner launch CNN, died June 5 at his home in Westport, Conn. He was 73.
For Chicagoans, Wussler left an indelible legacy during his two years as vice president and general manager of CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2. Together with news director Van Gordon Sauter, Wussler hit on the idea of teaming Kurtis, a smooth-as-silk CBS News correspondent and former Channel 2 anchorman, with Jacobson, a feisty, dyed-in-the-wool Chicago reporter and commentator, to front a newscast that would emanate from the station’s newsroom. Debuting in March of 1973, the revolutionary format used the slogan “It’s Not Pretty, But It’s Real” as its marketing mantra.
Their success would set a new standard for the industry, making journalistic icons out of Bill & Walter, and helping advance Wussler’s career to the very top of two networks.
In a 1985 interview for the Chicago Sun-Times, Wussler told me he knew he was violating CBS policy when he put Jacobson on the air in the dual role of anchorman and commentator. Recalled Wussler:
“CBS did not appreciate it. The corporate attitude of CBS, including Mr. [William] Paley and Frank Stanton, was their subjective feeling that they did not want their news people editorializing or doing commentary. They wanted a complete separation of church and state.
“However, I was in the fortunate position of having taken over a television station that had fallen on very difficult times. In July of 1972, there months before I arrived, WBBM was in fourth place, behind even WGN and Cubs baseball. There were people at CBS who were ready to swap the station altogether for one in Houston or Phoenix. So risk-taking was a little easier to do.
“Quite frankly, I slipped it by them. I just told them I wanted to hire this guy who’d worked at WBBM previously and who I felt was one of the few personalities then in Chicago who lit up the screen whenever he came on. I sold them on Jacobson as Mr. Rough-and-Tumble and Kurtis as a gentleman.
“After four or five weeks on the air, somebody [from CBS] in New York called and asked, “ËœIs Jacobson doing commentary?’ I said yes. They said, “ËœBy whose authority? That really flies against company policy.’ I told them I had done by mine.
“My argument was that Chicago is the kind of town where news, viewpoint, commentary and editorializing are very important. More important than, say, in New York or Los Angeles, where people perhaps are not as passionate about local politics and local issues. Chicago takes itself, quite properly, very seriously.”