Anchor Magnetism

Dennis Richmond is retiring after more than three decades on KTVU. Which makes me ponder the longevity of anchors, at least in the big markets. I haven’t lived in Chicago for more than 30 years, and I still seem to recognize some of the people reading the news. Same here in the Bay Area. The mystery is, the one thing about local news shows everywhere is the low esteem in which they’re held–at least among the cognoscenti in other media. So what accounts for the staying power of the same faces year after year after year?

The obvious part of the answer is that despite how shallow, superficial, hollow or misinformed a particular show or anchor is, the programs and personnel obviously develop a loyal following in all those anonymous TV-watching households. With my occasional serious journalistic pretensions and the occasional serious pretensions of my blog, I’ve been bemused to discover that the one subject over the past couple of years that draws readers day in and day out have been items dealing with Leslie Griffith, the former KTVU late-night co-anchor. I’ve noticed that plenty of visitors also arrive on my site after Googling Julie Haener and Sara Sidner and Gasia Mikaelian, Griffith’s successors. Part of the audience is obviously guys who really like hearing about traffic accidents and shootings and the Bush White House from good-looking gals. Period.

There’s got to be more to it than that, though. I think it comes down to the phenomenon of consumer habit. People like what they like, and just as most of us prefer a certain kind of car, a certain kind of breakfast cereal and a certain kind of toothpaste, most tend to stick with a favorite newscast. I think that group is the biggest group, and is very durable (even now, I can tell you which newscasts we watched when I was growing up in Chicago and why). But stations don’t go on hunches; they pay big money to figure out what the audience is doing and why; they pay top dollar to keep their brands intact by keeping a likeable lineup on the air.

The question I have is whether the phenomenon of the anchor who serves for generations, the way Dennis Richmond has, is passing or past already. We have different and many would insist better ways of getting the news now than watching someone in a studio someplace read a sliver of a complex story told better elsewhere. I guess it comes back to the habit: How much longer will we need that comforting daily presence coming to us over the air. When you look at it that way, the answer is maybe forever.

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Dennis Richmond: Adios, muchacho

Long-anticipated news: KTVU’s Dennis Richmond is retiring. Dennis Richmond: the dean of Bay Area talking heads. He just came back from an extended absence occasioned by neck surgery, and his retirement this year was anticipated. His contract was up; and though it’s believable that KTVU wanted to keep him on even at a salary at or approaching seven figures, it sounds like he’d had enough. He’s leaving May 21, five days before his 65th birthday. His replacement–who will sit beside Julie Haener, in all her semi-bland blondeness?–is unknown. Dave Clark, late of L.A. and new at the station in the 5 a.m. slot, could be the man. Or maybe Frank Somerville, a pretty boy with the look of a very earnest deer in the headlights, who was doing fill-in duty for Richmond.

And truthfully, he has looked like he’d had enough for several years, anyway. More and more often he has looked and sounded tired, impatient, and uninterested.

The Chronicle has the story: Longtime anchor Dennis Richmond to leave KTVU in May

And KTVU has a slideshow on Dennis’s many looks over the past few decades: Dennis Richmond through the years

Leslie Griffith Non-Watch: Terminal Edition

Leslie Griffith and KTVU made it official this morning: She’s out, and life and the station’s news shows–from which she’s been missing for 87 days–will go on. KTVU put out a kissy-face mutual press release in which Griffith says she’ll pursue the inevitable “other interests.” For its part, the station professes its undying love for her. The big immediate change on the news shows is that the anchors will no longer have to say, “Leslie Griffith has the night off.” Of course, the untold story is the behind-the-scenes melodrama and nastiness that led to The Vanishing in the first place. The world likely can do without all that, though.

So long, Leslie. Thanks for the memories from your early, bright, relatively carefree years. Thanks for all the fodder for snide commentary. And I hope you wrung every last dime out of the station you and your lawyer (her lawyer is her dad, I hear) could get.

Related earlier posts:

The Case of the Missing Anchor

Newscast Gone Bad

Newscast Gone Bad, Again

Leslie Griffith: The Career

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The Case of the Missing Anchor

[11/17/06 update: It’s official–Leslie Griffith is gone for good from KTVU.]

[10/8/06 update: The San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier and Ross weighed in on Leslie Griffith’s absence. KTVU’s general manager said she’s on leave at least until October 27; in late September, he was saying he expected her back early in October.]

I didn’t catch the top of the KTVU “10 O’Clock News” Thursday night, but the show undoubtedly opened with one of the anchors saying something like, “Leslie Griffith has the night off.” It’s not news when a TV co-anchor takes a vacation day, but what’s odd is that Leslie Griffith, who’s appeared opposite Dennis Richmond for eight and a half years, has had the night off, from both the 10 o’clock show and the 5 p.m. newscast, for six weeks running. Griffith’s departure wouldn’t be shocking; from my perhaps unforgiving viewpoint she’s been giving empty, off-key performances for years and just doesn’t appear suited to the straight-ahead news operation KTVU fancies itself to be.

But if Griffith is out, why doesn’t the station say so?

The reason: Griffith is not out. She’s just not on the air. And there’s no telling when she’ll be back. According to a KTVU staffer, “Management is saying, ‘Leslie is on extended leave, and we look forward to her return.’ ” The staffer added that Griffith “has been gone on her own accord. She has not been forced out.”

[Update: Another source says that while rumors swirl at the station about whether Griffith will return or not, more attention is focused on the upcoming launch of “The 10 O’Clock News” in HDTV. That’s scheduled to happen October 9.]

(Even though most of the local papers seem to have taken a pass on this story–I guess there’s a war on or something–the Contra Costa Times’s TV writer has taken notice: “Where’s Leslie Griffith?“)

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Newscast Gone Bad


[11/17/06 update: It’s official–Leslie Griffith is gone for good from KTVU.]

[9/29/06 update: The Case of the Missing Anchor]

[10/8/06 update: The San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier and Ross weighed in on Leslie Griffith’s absence. KTVU’s general manager said she’s on leave at least until October 27; a week or so earlier, he was saying he expected her back on October 9.]

I grew up in the Chicago area with the now-shocking notion that local TV news could be more than a weak, ill-informed entertainment. But not to rely too much on my memory of how solid those newscasts were or weren’t — of course, everything was better in the ’60s — there’s not much debate that most TV news has devolved into puffs of insubstantiality dressed up to look like they mean something. If these shows — both the locals and much of the stuff you see on network and cable — had to make their living on the actual knowledge they convey, they’d be out of business. But pictures are compelling. We need our weather, sports and advertising and the personalities who present it all. So the shows chug on. 

Here in the Bay Area, the last bastion of news for news’ sake was KTVU, Channel 2. Going back to their unaffiliated, pre-Fox days, the station had a 60-minute newscast it put on at 10 p.m., an hour ahead of its competitors and their 30-minute happy-talk shows. Channel 2 managed to use the 60 minutes well. Stories ran longer and there were more of them. “The 10 O’Clock News” developed a cast of reporters and anchors that actually seemed, well, “reliable” and “trustworthy.” It developed a reputation of seriousness and substance.

But nothing’s forever. Under cost pressure, Channel 2 long ago started cutting back. It started emphasizing easy, cheap stories like traffic accidents, fires, and the latest shootings. Much of the old cast is still there, though many members look tired. One significant change was the departure in 1998 of the longtime co-anchor Elaine Corral, who quit at the end of the broadcast one night without letting anyone know what she was doing. We were watching that night; it was TV to remember. It was also a loss to the show’s chemistry — she and the other anchor, Dennis Richmond, always looked like a good fit — but it also could have been an example of someone getting out at the right time.

Leslie Griffith, a reporter and weekend anchor best known for her wild mane of blonde hair and somewhat goofy on-air manner, replaced Corral. She seemed like a lightweight next to Richmond, who conveys something you might even think of as gravitas if you forget he’s presenting the local news. And no warmth has ever developed between Richmond and Griffith. Richmond is slow but precise; Griffith is someone who once looked like she was having fun on camera but decided or was told she needed to look serious when she became the show’s co-star.

The problem is, she can’t pull it off, and sometimes her performance is ridiculous: She stumbles on the scripts, she smiles when there’s no reason to smile, she hmmms portentously. Last night — we watched right after wallowing in an hour of “Prison Break” — she was nearly helpless from the very top of the show when she and Richmond were alternating reading the live teasers:

“As floodwaters recede in New Orleans … residents are first to return to home … and … but they’re told … not just yet.”

In the first part of the show, she had another couple muffs that sounded much worse than they read:

“Here in the Bay Area paramedics … the death toll from Katrina has reached 973 across the entire Gulf Coast region. It stands at 636 [on-screen graphic read 736] in Louisiana.”


“Police are looking for the reason … or the reasons responsible … the persons responsible … for a brazen daylight shooting.”

Her style when she starts to get lost is to grind on mechanically, like a garbage disposal taking on an avocado pit. Richmond’s typical reaction, displayed last night, is visible annoyance or disgust.

Everyone in the news-reading business has bad days. There’s a mistake in the script or the production rundown, the TelePrompTer has a problem, or they just get lost. But Leslie does so badly so often that she seems permanently lost. It’s hard to understand from the outside why she’s permitted to keep going.