The Death of the News Anchor

by Russ Hill on April 13, 2011

I vividly remember the first time I walked into a TV news studio.

It was 1988. At KMOL-TV in San Antonio.  The NBC affiliate.

A future mentor of mine, Art Rascon, invited me to come take a look at where he worked.  I was 15 years old and already obsessed with the news business.  So, on a Saturday I climbed in Art’s car and we headed down to a building just a few blocks from the Alamo.

KMOL TVIt was my first time inside a newsroom.  And, it was love at first sight.

The noise of the wire printers.  The commotion of police scanners.  The photographers waiting to find out where they would go next to capture something the audience needed to see tonight.

I decided then and there that I wanted to be a TV news anchor.  To sit at that desk, under those lights, and look into that camera would be the thrill of a lifetime, I thought.

NO ONE WANTS THE JOB

So, why, 20 years later does no one want the job?

I guess we need to examine the model.

It begins to look quite strange in today’s connected world when you step back and contemplate it for a minute.

Put a person in a closed room, fire up the lights, have them sit alone (or maybe with a member of the opposite sex next to them), and then in a deeeeeep voice they announce to you what happened today.

News AnchorThe person can have no opinions.  They can not reveal any more than a sliver of their personality.  And, they must look perfect and perform flawlessly.  Every element of their humanity is stripped from them.

It’s hard to remember that viewers actually used to prefer this approach.  Now, it seems so archaic.  I look back at the time I sat down with Dan Rather for a one-on-one interview in a small room in downtown Salt Lake City as if it was part of some event from way back in history.  And, in a way it was.  It wasn’t all that many years ago.  But, it was a different era.

EVERYTHING STARTS WITH OPRAH

The death of the TV news anchor started with Oprah. She showed that people on TV could talk about news and issues without being stiff and robotic.  She introduced a new format to TV called Real and Raw.  Her success paved the way for people like Jon Stewart, who has done more damage to the traditional TV news model that almost anyone.

And, as Oprah and Stewart grew in popularity so too did the Internet.  Now, people could read news from anywhere in the world at anytime they wanted to.  News outlets, after much debate and hesitation, started publishing now instead of later.

Then, came blogs. People with insight and expertise started to share tidbits of news surrounded by opinion and personality.  While TV news types thumbed their noses at bloggers, audiences embraced the new casual platform.

And, then came social. The significance of this development is not understood in most newsrooms or news management offices.  The Social Web is obviously still in its infancy.  But, there’s a reason they call it The Social Revolution.

Sharing the news is what anchors used to do.  Now, the audience has become the sharers.  Tweets and like buttons effectively blew out some of the light bulbs in the ceiling above the anchor desk.  The studio walls are crumbling.

But, social won’t be the fatal blow to the position of traditional news anchor.

Internet TV will be.

STEVE JOBS’ LAST PROJECT?

Apple managed to find a way to deliver the Internet on a phone and then on a flat, small, mobile touchscreen.

Apple TVAnd, now they, and Google, are working around the clock to do the same to the TV.  Their first attempts left much to be desired.  But, anyone who doubts their resolve hasn’t read what they’ve been saying.

Steve Jobs blames old media’s big money for slowing innovation, “the television industry fundamentally has a subsidized business model that gives everyone a set-top box, and that pretty much undermines innovation in the sector.”

But then reveals he’s put quite a bit of thought into where this is all going, “the only way this is going to change is if you start from scratch, tear up the box, redesign and get it to the consumer in a way that they want to buy it.”

And, one Wall Street analyst who has special access to Jobs dropped this bombshell this week, “we would find it easy to believe that Steve Jobs’ final hurrah before turning the reins over would be to revolutionize video much in the same way Apple has transformed the mobile, computing, and music world.” The man behind that quote says Apple’s stock is about to skyrocket to $450 a share because of a “new device” in the family room.

Google TV

DON’T BET AGAINST GOOGLE

Not to be outdone, Google announced in recent days that some of its smartest engineers are now at work building live TV channels on the site that many people forget it owns: YouTube.

In a day not far from now, your TV screen will look like your smartphone screen with dozens of apps on it.  And, those 300 channels you have now will become 125,000 channels because anyone will be able to create one.

And, then, those who haven’t already discovered that the current model of a broadcast TV network is dead will abruptly come to that realization.

Obviously, there will be news outlets distributing news on the coming TV platform.  But, the way it is packaged, its distribution schedule, and the model for how the person on the screen interacts with the audience will be completely different.

BROKAW WAS MY FAVORITE

Some will read this post and long for yesteryear.  To them the way it used to be is always preferred.  I’ll admit I’m a bit nostalgic when thinking about the bigger-than-life anchor model that gave us Murrow, Cronkite, and my favorite, Brokaw.  But in the information age there is little time for reflection.

That won’t stop me, though, from taking a moment sometime in the not-too-distant future to tell my young kids the story of how news used to be delivered.

I’ll tell them about the bright lights, the scanners, the wire printers, and the legends of the Era of News Anchors.  And, I’ll tell them about that Saturday I spent at KMOL-TV.

Actually, I probably won’t tell this story to my kids.

I’ll post it on their Facebook Wall.

That way… I know they’ll see it.


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