|THIS LATE FLASH HAS JUST BEEN HANDED TO US: On February 17th, during a prime ratings week, Mort Crim left the country. It was announced that Crim was on “medical leave of absence.” Station officials said he was sick. Inside sources said he was sick, all right—sick of station officials.
We now join our story, already in progress.
3:28 PM SOON IT WILL BE DARK, and at night, when all the tungsten stars are strung out in the firmament of Tinsel Town, and the lights of the 40-watt successes beam red across the Delaware to all the ships at sea, then it will be cold and soon it will be dark and then morning will follow by a probability of 50 percent, depending on the isobars in Iowa.
It is Thursday, the 23rd of January, 1974, a day not unlike all other days, a day that will be filled with turning points and colored ketchup. And here on Independence Mall East, at what used to be known as 5th and Market, in a brown brick building decorated with long black chains, there is a meeting in the Eyewitness Newsroom, the newsroom of the news team that has been rated number one in Philadelphia for a whole three months in a row now. The notice for the meeting is written in pencil on the back of a sheet of white paper Scotch-taped to the door.
It is a small room, the newsroom, much too small and instantly obsolete for a building so new. It was supposed to be bigger. But then the city planners came along and looked at the plans and said no, no, the lobby for this pri son has to be much bigger to fit in all the ladies in the pillbox hats who’ve come to see Mike Douglas. There had to be a cut made somewhere. And so, to make the lobby larger, they cut the newsroom in half.
There is the news director’s office, which is mostly glass, and there are five rows of desktops, separated by five partitions into ten cubicles with 20 chairs. There are small, semi-private offices in back of them, small enough that three people can’t stand in them at once and not face the danger of a sexual encounter. They have no doors, just these tacky blue and white plastic accordion closures they got on sale at Two Guys. Jessica Savitch and Marciarose and Al Meltzer live here.
In a room off to the side, a room with a real door, is the shared office of Vince Leonard and Mort Crim. It used to be the film editing room. Before that it was headquarters for the staff of the Marciarose Show, which no longer exists.
Most of the field reporters are in from their assignments by now. They’ve all stopped by to talk to Don Shoultz, a man with a green shirt and a polyester tie who produces the 5:30 news, and then to Jim Boyer, a man with a white shirt and a silk tie, who produces the 6 o’clock. Both of them are working on their rundown sheets, trying to figure out all the news that fits. The newsroom is alive with a calm panic now. Faceless voices are yelling out of a squawk box that connects to the editing room upstairs. The art department needs some description for the chroma-key slides.
“Anybody ever been to the Oxford Valley Mall?” Carl Ward, who produces the 11 o’clock news, yells. “What kind of place is it? We’ve got a murder there.” An intern says that she has shopped there once and that it is a pretty decent place. The art treatment will reflect that research.
“Who’s handling the mall murder?” a voice from editing asks.
“It’s me,” Robin Mackintosh says, “Captain Suburbs. That and five other stories.” He sits down at his typewriter and starts talking to himself.
Jessica Savitch has just blown in from an interview with Alice Cooper for a rock and roll series she’s doing. Before she sits down to write her half of Newswatch 5:30, she stands in front of Marciarose’s mirror and brushes her hair and touches up her makeup. “I don’t understand it,” she says, frowning at the blonde in the mirror. “All this work and that’s still not Faye Dunaway in there.”
3:32 PM ALAN BELL, THE GENERAL MANAGER and the voice behind all those crusading editorials about pretzel vendors, and Bob Sutton, the program director affectionately known around the newsroom as “Slick Willie,” walk in. With them is Jim Topping, the news director who helped make much of this possible. Topping came here a little over two years ago, when the station’s news operation had been stampeded into a distant second by the charge of Larry Kane and his very light brigade. And now, in a scene from The Lone Ranger, Jim Topping, having made the town safe again for quiet news, was getting back on his white horse and heading where he was needed next, CBS in Los Angeles.
Topping would not be that easy to replace. The people in the newsroom had gained a great deal of respect for him. He was a working newsman who knew what it was like in the trenches. The search for his replacement was long and hard.
“After what you know has been a long search,” Bob Sutton said, “we’ve found our new news director. His name is Joe Harris. He’s a young guy, but he’s fought the battles. He was with WABC and he took Beutel and Grimsby to number one in New York City. Then he went to CBS and turned their news operation around. And then he went to Cincinnati for the Taft people. He got frustrated there and went to Europe for about a year. But now he’s back and we’ve got him. By the way, I know for a fact that Channel 6 wanted him as their new executive producer. So we know this is the type of guy who can give us the next right step.”
No one was quite sure just what that next step would be, especially the people in the newsroom. They only work there. But many had felt increasing pressure from the people upstairs, especially Sutton, to have a bigger say in the news operation. Jim Topping had fought that off for a long time. But now Topping was a lame duck and the people upstairs were starting to take advantage of the situation by making some moves of their own.
There had been an opening, a couple of weeks earlier, for a sports reporter. Al Meltzer, the sports director, made his recommendation. He wanted to shuffle in a good guy from Buffalo. Other people who’d worked with that man seconded the idea. Instead, management went to New Orleans to pluck a guy named Rod Luck. It seemed like a small decision in the scheme of things.
THERE WAS THE MURDER at the mall. There was the supermarket strike. There was a big pile-up on the expressway. The 5:30 news was going along well. In the control room, Don Shoultz’s stopwatch was right on time.
“What’s next?” he asked himself, looking at his log as they came out of the commercial. “Okay, we open cold with Jess, then we go to Mort and he gives the intro to Luck. And he’s got a short lead into the three minutes of belly-dancing film.”
The film started nicely enough with a fairly pretty girl belly dancing. The photography was good, the music was pleasant and she did an informative talkover about the meaning of it all. Then, as the music got louder, there was a quick cut to Rod Luck. In case you have not noticed Rod Luck before this, he is the one without the head, the one whose eyes come right out of his neck, the one whose neck is bigger than Jessica Savitch’s waist.
And Rod Luck is now belly dancing his way into 318,000 households across the Delaware Valley. He is wearing a turban and pantaloons and he has a jewel in his belly button. He looks like an explosion in a Silly Putty factory. In the control room, Don Shoultz’s jaw has dropped about a foot. “Holy shit,” he says.
5:46 PM One of the cue monitors is showing a shot of Mort Crim and Jessica Savitch. Savitch is just holding her head in her hands, shaking it very gently. Crim is a stone face of emotion. His face is white under a silent stare of embarrassment and anger. Mort Crim has worked a long time to get where he is, making almost $100,000 a year to anchor the news. Mort Crim prides himself on the fact that he’s a professional. He, maybe more than anybody else, is the reason Channel 3’s become number one. And now Mort Crim, as it is programmed on the rundown sheet, has to do one minute of banter, 60 seconds of “happy talk,” if you will, with Rod Luck about his belly dancing.
About an hour ago, Crim was talking to a writer about the whole concept of gimmicking up the news. The writer asked how one determined the fine line between gimmicky news and pure hokey shit. Crim said that it was a very fine line indeed and that even he had trouble sometimes defining it himself. But that he would know when he crossed over it. That was the look on his face all right, a knowing look, the look of a man who’d just gone over the edge.
7:24 PM THE LAFAYETTE HOUSE is down the block and around the corner. It’s a glorified sandwich shop with a bar. Tonight, everybody had a drink. It was not the usual custom, especially with the 11 o’clock news still to come. But nerves were just a little shot tonight. Nobody wanted to be the first one to bring up the belly-dancing bit, but it came up quickly. ”I guess I just don’t understand things sometimes,” Al Meltzer said as he pushed aside his lox and smoked fish platter, opting instead for a Bass Ale. Meltzer himself has been accused by many sports purists of hokeying it up. And certainly he mugged for the camera, practicing Jack Benny timing with his stares, using vocal pauses for dramatic effect, calling himself Big Al. It was all part of his shtick, a presentation that made him right at home with the new folksy KYW approach. He was certainly not your stereotyped former jock who read you the scores with a mouthful of broken teeth, mispronouncing half the names along the way. Meltzer was just a fan who made it to television. The folks at home could identify with that. He was outspoken and often wrong. And when he was wrong, he said he was wrong. That was part of the charm that made him a highly sought-after property, part of the charm that ABC in Los Angeles wanted, part of the charm that got KYW caught up in a very hot bidding war.
Sure Meltzer was corny, but he was intentionally corny. And sure it starts to wear thin after a while, but that’s why the sports reports are only on for five minutes at a time. And now back to real life. Meltzer was a professional who knew when to harvest his corn. There was only so far he would go. And that did not include masquerading as an overweight George Plimpton or Jack McKinney or Little Egypt. With stuff like this, Los Angeles was looking warmer all the time.
Bill Kuster, the weatherman, turned a cold shoulder to the whole thing too. Some ten years ago, Kuster started substituting for Wally Kennan The Weatherman. This was before the days of happy talk, but Kuster was always a happy talker, a very folksy guy who gave you the weather in terms of two and three-blanket nights and who spoke of snow flurries coming down thicker than fleas on a hound dog’s back. And that was all part of the Kuster charm, back in the days when you got your weather either from a university meteorologist or from a girl with a very bulgy sweater.
Kuster, who’s more becoming in a vest than in a sweater, took it the backwards route. He was a booth announcer who became a full-time weatherman ten years ago, and then proceeded to become a licensed meteorologist, the only one on the tube here. To most viewers, it was like watching an old friend go to night school to make something better of himself. And Bill Kuster, long before it was popular from a programming point of view, became just one of the guys. He never gave in to the competition’s bent toward wearing funny hats and delivering standup comedy routines with the barometric pressure. Sure he’d do the old “How cold was it?” lines. But belly dancing? No, that was something else again. Kuster ate his veal parmesan and tried to change the subject.
Leonard was a meat and potatoes man and Crim, well, Crim had lost a lot of his appetite tonight. He was just downing a quick roast beef and Swiss cheese special and grumbling to himself. They would talk about many things, like how they were all going to take the plane that Leonard and Crim shared and fly out to the Indy 500 this May, just as they had done for the Kentucky Derby last year.
They were a strange group for a news team. They were all friends. They didn’t pull off the phony buddy system and then go their separate ways when the red light went off. They were friends who cared about each other’s families and knew about each other’s problems.
But tonight they weren’t even sure what their problems were. So much had happened so quickly. They had a new boss who was 27 years old. Vince Leonard had been broadcasting the news longer than that. And they had a new sports guy whom some of them had decided they didn’t want to work with. They’d hoped it wouldn’t have to come to a showdown. They talked quietly and firmly about the changes, the pressure from upstairs, the hotshot new news director and the belly-dancing buffoon. Was this really where they were headed? It sure wasn’t where they came from.
They were a strange group for a news team. They were all friends who cared about each other’s problems.
FOR A LONG TIME, this had been a business where the people upstairs didn’t pay much attention to the news. The only way the general manager would be aware of the news was if the transmitter fell over and hit his car.
Television news, as a big-time money-making enterprise, is still a pretty new thing, certainly on the local level. By and large the people on the Eyewitness News team represent the first generation to grow up with television as a full part of their lifestyle.
Certainly no one worried very much about ratings. Up until a few years ago, only three ratings books came out each year. Competition was almost academic. News was something you had to throw in to keep your FCC permit. For years, most local news was tied almost umbilically to the network product.
The local angle to the news used to be the man in the street. A tax increase came down from Washington, and the local stations did a man in the street thing and sent a reporter out asking, “What do you think of the tax increase?” And the man in the street hadn’t even heard of the tax increase because the reporter had just gotten it off the wire. So the reporter would then explain to him the answer he wanted him to say. And that’s what local television was all about.
The classic television story was borrowed whole hog from the newspapers. And when they got past reading the news, they started manufacturing the news, making something important just by having a camera there. It might be an item that would make a three-paragraph subhead in print, but turn on the camera and suddenly it’s an event. That’s why you don’t see a lot of regular City Hall reporting anymore. Most stations used to station a whole crew there. Which means you’ve got a $12,000 camera and $100,000 worth of manpower there for six hours. And if something didn’t happen, you’d be out a big investment. So you went to a city councilman and said, “Hey, did you hear what the mayor said about you?” And the councilman would say, “Why, that stupid ass,” and you’d go to the mayor and say, “Hey, did you hear what the councilman said about you?” and you’d have a story.
Television, thanks to expansion and increasing importance, doesn’t have to manufacture the news anymore, which is not to say that it doesn’t.
Channel 10 made a big splash a few weeks ago when it introduced its latest news savior, Barney Morris. Evidently, Channel 10 felt it only fitting that Morris lead his first newscast with an exclusive. And so, if you happened to be watching Channel 10 that night, you probably ran right out to your local gas station and got in line. The lead item, based on an interview with a local Sun Oil executive, was that we were on the verge of another major gas shortage, that gas station lines and rationing would be as bad or worse than ever and that it was all imminent.
If you were watching Channels 3 or 6 that night, you missed that big story and probably went right on driving your car just like nothing was happening, which in fact it wasn’t.
Of course it’s a little too early to tell whether this is going to be Channel 10’s new approach to the ratings war. They’re still getting their act together. For the viewers, it’s kind of like going to a debutante ball. Don’t look at them as they come down the stairs. Wait until they’ve been waltzing a couple of hours and see how they hold up.
It’s an identity crisis that every news station in town has gone through. Channel 6, always an aloof and distant third, finally found its identity some four years ago with Larry Kane and the shotgunning Action News. When Kane took off, Channels 3 and 10 were shoved into a competitive situation that hadn’t existed before, not as a three-way contest anyway.
The tendency at Channel 3 was to sit back and consider Action News a fluke. And by the time they realized it wasn’t, the positions had hardened. And then, in almost a panicky way, they started reacting, shifting talent, changing time slots, doing some very stupid and foolish things. There was a flood in the basement and they were running around turning off the taps instead of finding out where the water main was broken.
Then the station went through a catharsis of upfront changes. Managers and news directors suddenly found themselves worrying about their mortgages. When the front office changes didn’t produce much, it was thought that maybe this thing couldn’t be fixed with Band-Aids, that maybe treating the disease itself meant reevaluating the whole product.
Channel 6 had Larry Kane and a lock on the number-one rating. Chan‑
nel 10 was floundering, trying to balance John Facenda with a seemingly never-ending string of his grandsons. And Channel 3 had good old steady Vince Leonard, who’d taken them to number one before, and a guy named Tom Snyder waiting in the wings. Some people thought that Snyder might have been the answer back then, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Not to mention Vince Leonard’s contract.
KYW needed a format, a recipe, as they call it in show biz. To people like Jim Topping, the recently departed news director, it was fairly simple. Take one graying Vince Leonard and whip him up enough until he loosens up. Add to that a slightly younger, somewhat slicker Mort Crim, mix gently with a good supporting cast and you’ve got something cooking.
“The show,” Jim Topping says, “is basically designed around two or three ultimate professionals in the business, real journalists, who then have one God-awful great second team. And they are so good that some of the second-team players become first-team players, the classic example being Jessica Savitch. The audience, hip as they are, can perceive certain things, and they can warm to them as real people. It’s not hard to spot a phony on television. Which is television’s response to where a whole lot of life is going. Real things, real people, lack of artificiality, a setting which says, ‘Goddamn it, if you’re going to come into my living room or my bedroom, you’ll act like a guest. I don’t invite missionaries, preachers and assholes in here to sit and yell at me.’
“We had a lot of consultants do a lot of studies about this. And then we read all the studies and tossed them aside and went with the feeling in our guts. We couldn’t take Vince Leonard and turn him into Larry Kane.
“We’ve grown past that now. We’ve grown past a lot of things. Mostly television news broadcasts used to try to compete with The Washington Post or The New York Times. Well, you’re going to get awfully hungry in Philadelphia competing with The Post and The Times. That was always our problem. We were too elitest. We should be competing with the Daily News. Even the other newspapers in town are realizing that now. You’ve got to loosen up and break things down to a common denominator. You’ve got to look people in the eyes, not over their heads.
“Most people aren’t touched by federal allocations and oil depletion allowances. They’re touched by gas stations with closed signs. You’re touching the right button. You’re hitting them where they live. We used to lead the news by telling people that Amstar has raised its bulk sugar prices and then go on to the next item. But that’s not telling them anything.
“We sent out Trudy Haynes to do a story about a high school Home Ec class that made Christmas cookies without sugar. They were forced to use substitutes because the price of sugar was so high. And there was Trudy Haynes eating a sugarless cookie on television. And at the end of the piece, she mentioned that if you wanted the recipes we could probably get them to you. Within four days, we had 3000 pieces of mail. And that’s the difference between where it was and where it is.
“If there are three inches of snow on the ground, then that’s the biggest story of the day because you had to track home in it that night and you’re worried about whether you’re going to get to work or the kids are going to get to school the next morning. Sure, there might be a murder or a rape, but it would be ludicrous to open the newscast with anything but the snow. We should be talking about what people are talking about.
“Along the way there is a definitive responsibility for us to broaden horizons, but that’s always been the problem and the best interest of any good journalist. The problem we had in television is we forgot about discussing what we already knew.”
Jim Topping came to KYW in mid-1972, right about the same time as Mort Crim and Jessica Savitch and Al Meltzer and Alan Bell, right about the time the station started to make its move.
And Topping might just be the one person most responsible for building the station’s new news image, something he calls populist. Others call it humanist or folksy. What it is is real.
“Three or four years ago,” Topping says, “we would get calls for Mr. Leonard or letters saying, ‘I really like Mr. Leonard’s delivery.’ Now, Vince goes next door for a sandwich and people come by and say, ‘Hey, Vinnie, how’s it going?’ And that’s the difference.”
VINCE LEONARD HAS BEEN a big name in Philadelphia broadcasting almost as long as Jerry Blavat. When he came here, in April 1958, he was the new kid in town, up against such formidable talent as John Facenda and Gunnar Back. Gunnar Back, of course, had some help from Mort Farr, who used to sell refrigerators live between news bulletins.
Vince Leonard was used to that sort of thing. Back in Indianapolis, where he’d come from, he was one part of a three-person news team. The second was a “weather gal” who displayed her cold fronts nightly, and the third was an announcer dressed in a Shell Oil uniform, doing live commercials.
Leonard got off on the right foot as soon as he hit Philadelphia. Management tried to play him up big as a guy who really knew the city. They took him out with a film crew and made a little promo for him. “This is Vince Leonard in Fairmount Park,” he said in the spot. Close. He was in Rittenhouse Square.
It didn’t matter much then. There really wasn’t that much competition, anyway. Channel 3 and Channel 10 fought back and forth for whatever local news market there was. For all intents, Channel 6 didn’t exist. Vince Leonard, always a very calm, conservative and professional newscaster, knew what it was like from all positions. He’d come in low, worked up to number one, held it, lost it, and regained it. It was a two-way Ping-Pong match for most of the ’60s.
It wasn’t until 1969, after he’d been here a dozen years, that people really started to wake up to local news. And the folks at KYW managed to misjudge that interest. In January 1970, they went to a full hour of local news. It was a disaster, unless you liked to watch a lot of five-minute fillers about cattle farming in Wyoming.
At the same time the build-up was starting at Channel 6. A news director named Mel Kampmann, who has since semi-retired to South Dakota to do some of his own cattle farming fillers, came up with a concept called Action News and then, rummaging around the station, came up with a young kid named Larry Kane, a kid with a fresh face and a sharp delivery. And Channel 3 said goodbye to number one.
Action News took everybody by surprise. Was it the wave of the future? And what were they going to do with Vince Leonard? Was he too stiff? Was he too stodgy?
Leonard was always network nice. He dressed impeccably, he spoke impeccably, but you never cracked through that. You always got the impression that Vince Leonard was a very mechanical person. He would never drink a beer or have to urinate. Somehow there must have been a relief tube built into his pants cuff.
So here he was up against Larry Kane, a guy who laughed and joked and probably even went to the bathroom. People at KYW were sure Vince Leonard would have to change, but no one was quite sure how. There was a lot of pushing and pulling and people saying, “No, be green; no, be blue; no, wear a funny hat, have a horn.”
“They finally told me to just be myself,” Leonard says. “They told me to lighten it up a little and to feel free to ad-lib if I wanted to.”
There was another change they wanted to make at Channel 3 in 1970. They wanted to bring in someone to co-anchor with Vince Leonard. Leonard told them he didn’t want that, and even had a clause to that effect inserted into his contract. Around the newsroom, it became known as the Tom Snyder clause. Leonard just didn’t think that he and Snyder had the right chemistry. Snyder, who was doing well on other newscasts with Marciarose, saw the handwriting on the contract and started looking around.
But Vince Leonard knew the co-anchor was coming sooner or later. When they brought Mort Crim in from Louisville to co-anchor the noon news and inaugurate the market’s first 5:30 slot, Leonard told people, “Now there’s one guy I’d co-anchor with in a minute.” Well, it took a little more than a minute. It was closer to a year. But they finally got Crim and Leonard together.
“We hit it off right off the bat,” Leonard says. “I invited him to be a partner in my airplane. I admired the guy right from the start. I think most people thought all along that the pressures were on me, that they were trying to ease me out. And I wasn’t absolutely sure that wasn’t happening. But we managed to click as a unit. And I think it’s simply that if you get along off the air, it’ll work on the air. But if you’re got to phony it up and pretend on the air that you’re really good buddies, people are going to see right through that.”
Vince Leonard, to his credit, never did wear any of those funny hats they tried to put on him. Although he did change his hairstyle a little. But then so much has changed. When he came, there were no reporters, no camera crews and just a few writers to rewrite wire copy and police reports. But that was a long time ago. Leonard has been here through three sets of call letters, seven general managers, ten program directors and 11 news directors. And he’s won his share of awards, including broadcaster of the year a few times. But those things change too. Last year, Mort Crim won that award.
MORT CRIM, MAYBE MORE than anybody else who’s come to this town as a newsman, was real. He looked at home and very natural in the happy-talk banter that became part of the new news programming. He was a guy with a quick wit and a homespun philosophy. And he was a guy people identified with easily. A good-looking man, he was always a few pounds overweight, never television perfect, always the waistline battle like the rest of us.
Crim, an active church layman from West Frankford, Illinois, came here with 20 years of television and radio news behind him. He’d travelled halfway around the world before settling here. He’d covered space flights, foreign summit conferences and secret presidential visits to Vietnam. And before he got into television, in the late ’60s, he was a network anchorman for four years with ABC radio in New York. He’d become a much sought-after talent.
There but for fortune, Mort Crim might be making Channel 10 number one right now. His old friend, news director Bob Morse, wanted him very badly. But Crim had some other deals working. One of them was a syndication company that was making a lot of money syndicating Mort Crim. He started a series of short radio think pieces called, “One Moment, Please,” and got them into a couple hundred markets. But the CBS people wouldn’t let him keep the syndication, so Crim came to KYW. Westinghouse wasn’t so picky. And he came here with a certain mission.
“All we’re trying to do,” he says, “is relate to people in a way they’re hungry to be related to. This is such an impersonal era and we’ve got the medium that can relate to them on an eyeball-to-eyeball level.
“Our so-called folksy approach is equivalent to a magazine’s typography. Layout is important. The cover, the headline, it’s all got to be right if you want to get the message across. You run a danger here, of
course, in letting the package become the dominant force. And you can’t let that happen.
“We can get into depth on some things, through features and series, but we’ve got to get across to people those fundamental things they have to know to order their lives. Like whether their taxes are going up next month. I feel very sorry for anybody who depends on television news to be informed. All we can really do is whet their appetites to the point where they’ll head to the newspapers or the magazines for the in-depth stuff. This may seem like a very elitist point of view, but I don’t think the masses of people are ever going to be terribly concerned about things we may view in the journalism trade as being overriding issues.”
Crim says he doesn’t worry much about the ratings because he’s too busy doing other things, like writing his own copy. Most of the Eyewitness News people do that now. It adds to the personal touch. And while it’s certainly great to be number one, he says the people upstairs are really more concerned with things like that.
ALAN BELL IS THE main man upstairs. He came here in 1972 from the Westinghouse station in Baltimore to be the new general manager. Bell really wanted to get close to what the people out there were thinking. One time, in his zeal, he got a little too close for comfort.
He tried watching market research interviews with the public behind a one-way glass. It was during his first summer here and he locked himself into a little booth to listen to all the terrible things people had to say about the station. They managed to pull him out just before he asphyxiated.
Bell has done a lot more sophisticated studies since then, but he still prefers the seat of the pants approach. It’s something you just can’t get in a study.
“You need an atmosphere,” Bell says, “a suppleness, a resilience, a feeling of zest. We’ve got some very talented and temperamental people here. We’ve got to keep feeding them challenges. That’s why we’ve gone after people with depth. Anyone who’s ever expected a pretty face, either male or female, to make a news program a success is in for a rude shock.
“A guy like Mort Crim is a real person. The 5:30 show he started on gave people a chance to view him as a real person, more than just a news reader. This whole thing has been an evolutionary sort of thing. It’s all a matter of timing. There’s a time to move someone in. You can’t do it too late.
“It’s a chemistry you can see on the air. A frightened group of people do a frightened newscast. And that’s transmitted several times a day in living color. You can smell it.”
Bell, a Harvard man with a business background, has tried to stay close to the public pulse. He’s become an on-air personality in his own right with a continuing series of editorials, opinions that keep bringing in a lot of response.
But his main job has been learning to live with success. Other stations are constantly trying to raid the Eyewitness News team. Bell has had long and drawn-out contractual disputes with people like Al Meltzer and Jessica Savitch. Savitch has had many offers to go to New York, to go network, to take over Sally Quinn’s old job. To keep her in Philadelphia, Bell has had to double her salary. “She’s really worth all the aggravation,” he says. “She’s just an extraordinary person.”
JESSICA SAVITCH JUST TURNED 27, which makes her too old to be news director. She grew up around here, in Kennett Square and then in Atlantic City. She went to school in upstate New York and talked herself into a minor job with CBS before heading down to Houston, where she quickly became the youngest anchorwoman in the country.
KYW landed her two-and-a-half years ago, primarily as a field reporter. The expected blonde-bombshell-sex-symbol terms started to be thrown on her immediately and she would get letters from people who watched the news with the sound turned down, just to see her face.
The quick recognition got her to drop anchor on the weekend news, where she showed a lot of people that she was a hell of a lot more than just a pretty face. The weekend anchor led to substitute anchoring during the week and finally to her own spot as a co-anchor with Crim on the 5:30 news.
“She fit in perfectly,” says Jim Topping, who helped push her along. “Her appeal was very specific for our needs. She represents a hip, young, bright, involved human being. She has certain advantages as a role model. She is not an unattractive person. And if I were sitting and watching this from South Philly, I would rather identify with someone who seems to be living a life, seems to look like, react like and talk like somebody I’d like to be, rather than Joe Schmuck. Not that we don’t have our Joe Schmucks.
“But Jessica doesn’t come in in patched-up jeans, even though she responds to the populist view. So we get the best of both worlds. She represents someone who is perceived as human, caring and interested in populist concerns, but maybe just a cut of the pie slightly above populist.
“Yes, she can afford to dress nicely. Yes, she does look attractive. Yes, she does wear her hair well. And she is a sexy lady. She would probably go into great fits of pique about having that word attached. But if it had been my first adjective rather than my fifth or sixth, she’d have cause for concern. But it’s not a bad thing to have all those other things going for you, plus be attractive.”
Jessica Savitch has a lot of things going for her. Most of all, she knows where she’s coming from. “I’m the co-anchor,” she says. “Mort and Vince take the lead. The world isn’t ready for anything else. As enlightened as the viewers might be, they’re really not ready for a dominant female anchor.”
She quickly learned that you can’t go past what the people are ready for. She did a series a while back where she spoke about someone stuffing himself with Béarnaise and Beaujolais. The line was edited out. “You don’t say things like that to our viewers,” she was told. “All they know is steak and wine. Probably more like hamburgers and beer.”
Savitch takes much of this in stride, but is still baffled by a lot of it. She doesn’t like all the corny gimmicks that have seemingly helped make the station number one. “I really don’t think my contemporaries find a lot of the stuff we’re doing appealing,” she says. “There’s a fine line between this and silly.
“In Texas, I did straight dyed-in-the-wool reporting. And then the circus came to town and they ask me to ride an elephant in the parade and do a report on it. I said I wouldn’t ride anybody’s elephant. And then the general manager sort of twisted my arm. I’ve always regretted that bit. But that was tame compared to some of the hokey stuff that’s going on now.
“Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’ll work. But don’t we have an obligation? Aren’t we a watchdog? It’s like feeding a kid a steady diet of candy. It’s fun for a while, but you start to get pretty sick of it.
“Every time I think we’ve finally stepped over the edge, we do something worse. I don’t know. Where is it? Where’s the last frontier?”
FOR SOME PEOPLE, the last frontier has meant the last roundup. Marcia-rose is a prime example. When the new wave came in to try to put together the winning puzzle, some of them treated her like an extra piece. She was always a person of great talent, great warmth and realism. But despite her top ratings, management seemed to feel people were getting tired of her, that they needed a change. The first change was the cancellation of her daily talk program in favor of some inane game show. And while her noon news is still a big audience grabber, she can certainly see the shape of things to come. She’s got too much talent to take so much crap. She’s gotten into writing now and a couple of other ventures. And a lot of people would be very surprised if she doesn’t make a move soon. The powers that be are very philosophical about the whole thing.
“Popular taste,” Alan Bell says, “is a factor that all people who appear on television must cope with. Nothing is forever. As long as there is a need being filled for the audience by a program or a personality, then things will continue. And when it is no longer relevant, sooner or later it has to stop. And that’s an inexorable law of communications. We’re very much like chefs here, and this whole thing is really an omelet-making activity. And when you’re trying to make the perfect omelet, you’ve got to break some eggs.”
Jim Topping seems to think things are headed the same way. “Where will TV news be in two or three years? I think we will still be real, but we’ll probably be a little younger than Mort or Vince. And you’ve got to bring in someone now to work with those guys, because if one of them should leave in a couple of years, you’ll have the continuity. The transition is what screwed them up at Channel 10. They went from Facenda to Tuck and Jones. It’s like the folks were there one day and there was a cathedral, and they came back the next day and they had this plastic thing that had lots of angles and looked like a quonset hut.”
Everyone is expecting changes at Channel 3. Maybe a lot of them. There’s just no telling when Leonard will get tired of the whole thing and retire to his ranch in Arizona, or when Crim will finally get fed up and concentrate solely on his radio and TV syndication, or when Savitch will go network, or when Meltzer will go to L.A. There is increasing unrest with just about everybody now. And recent moves haven’t made things any easier.
The backup people, the reporters, are feeling it too. There are some good reporters in that lot. Dick Sheeran came from the Daily News and they stuck a funny hat on his head and made him the Energy Warden. Malcolm Poindexter came from the Bulletin, where he was a top reporter. He doesn’t see much room for that in television now.
“Television news today, ” he says, “is like a big assembly line. The visual content is most important. Yet I always feel I’ve left something out. I feel I didn’t do the subject justice. It’s frustrating.”
Lou Wagner is another old newspaper hand who’s turned to TV and had it turn back on him. Lou Wagner, besides being a top-notch writer and producer, is Captain Lou, the guy who puts on the funny little boating hat and does the fishing reports.
“This whole thing,” Wagner says, “is half news and half entertainment. Christ, I’ve been in the news business for 25 years and what do I get a reputation for? For wearing a fisherman’s hat and being Captain Lou. But look, your hair starts thinning out, you see all the changes, you do what works. And it starts becoming fun. For some reason, people really love it. I go out in a fishing boat now and I have a flotilla following me figuring they’re going to get on television or at least find out where the fish are biting.”
And you have to give the people what they want, or at least what you think they want. Knowing when enough is enough is the real trick. Those were Jim Topping’s parting words.
“You can’t keep playing on the gimmicks forever,” he said.
Even though a lot of the gimmicks, things like Dick Sheeran’s Energy Warden helmet and Robin Mackintosh’s inflation-fighting Superman suit, got Topping’s blessing, he knew when to stop, something his successor hasn’t seemed to learn yet.
But the funny hats have seemingly helped KYW get into more living rooms and bedrooms than the competition. The ratings for the past few months show them to be a very comfortable number one at 6 and 11 and a runaway at 5:30. But ratings are very fickle things.
The folks at Channel 6 aren’t panicking yet. They say there are different ways to look at ratings. Their strongest appeal is in the 18 to 35 age group. They say these people were just coming back from vacation when the last ratings came out. They say the winter and spring months will be the true test.
There have been some changes at Channel 6, too. They almost lost Larry Kane a few months back to a major anchor job in New York. There are constant rumors about sportscaster Joe Pellegrino leaving. And weathermen tend to change quicker than the weather.
They just got a new news director, too. It’s like matching pairs. His name’s Ron Tindiglia and he’s 27 also and he used to work with Joe Harris in New York. Tindiglia says he doesn’t plan any format changes.
“We’re great ” he says, “and we’re going to get better. I’ve been watching Channel 3 and they’ve been doing a good job, but they’re a little too soft for me. I like things harder.”
And the hardest thing Ron Tindiglia has to do right now is becoming number one again. And that’s a job that’s even harder for the folks at Channel 10. Their latest hope is a guy named Barney Morris, a slick professional from Los Angeles whose pre-arrival promotional ballyhoo was equaled only by the promos for The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.
With Morris now captaining the ship, WCAU is taking a direct run at KYW, even to the point of a look-alike contest. “Barney Morris,” someone at KYW says, “looks like the last test model they rejected before they perfected Mort Crim.”
With Morris’s arrival, Mike Tuck was pushed to weekends and Jack Jones was moved to the back of the bus. Jones was purposely put at a desk a few feet behind Morris on the Newsroom set, making Morris clearly the anchor and Jones the co-anchor. And no one at Channel 10 would be too surprised right now if Jones were to ride that bus right to another city.
Which brings everybody to the crossroads. The news operations have never been more competitive in this city than they are right now, this month. This is when Barney Morris starts to make it or break it; when Larry Kane finds out if all those young viewers were really on vacation; and when the folks at KYW find out what new ways their new additions have of belly-dancing their way into your hearts.
“We can’t tamper with success,” Joe Harris, the new news director, says, “but I’ve got to keep us fresh because everybody else wants our ass.”
It would be bad reporting here not to note that there are a lot of people at KYW who would like to get Harris’s ass. His first days at the station were full of loud grumbles and large fights. Matt Quinn, a fine and talented writer and reporter, was among the first to explode when a five-part exclusive interview he did with former first assistant DA Dick Sprague was knocked out because it “was too dead visually, just a head talking.” Quinn’s head did a lot of talking after that, none of it very complimentary.
Mort Crim refused a Harris assignment that would have made him a garbage collector for a day. Leonard and Savitch refused similar assignments, feeling they were too hokey and unprofessional. When Harris and company kept pushing, Crim took an unexpected and indeterminate “vacation.” And young Harris called a meeting to tell all these older folks just who was boss. The meeting helped prompt some threats of resignation and a “he goes or we go” stand by some of the news team. As we go to press, the anchor situation is a very touchy question mark. And the big sports news is a fight story, the one inside the sports department. The best we can promise you about the Eyewitness News team is that there is an 80% chance that at least Bill Kuster will still be there when you read this. But Joe Harris keeps telling us that this doesn’t mean anything. That they’re all one big happy family.
But say, you know how they always end the news with one of those cute little stories? Well, don’t feel cheated, we’ve got one for you, too.
It seems that while Joe Harris was in another part of the building telling us how great everything was going to be, one of the members of his big, happy family walked into his office and urinated on his rubber tree plant.
Say goodnight, Mort.