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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