Co-Anchors Aweigh
A Look inside the evolving news
format at WTVT

by Jim West
WTVT News Director

          News consultants began making their impact on the industry in the early to mid 1980’s.  In some cases, the consultants from Frank Magid, Audience Research and Development, McHugh Hoffman, and others brought a lagging news department up to date by sharing trends and information that were working elsewhere. But it also had the effect over of homogenizing the news across America.

          In the past, there were unique news operations in markets across the country built around strong personalities such as Cincinnati's Al Schottelkotte, Detroit's Mort Crimm, or Philadelphia's Larry Kane.  

News department monikers were also unique, Pulse13 among them.  As the news consultants became omnipresent, newscasts were being reformatted into “Eyewitness News”, “Action News” and other cookie-cutter formats.  Within a few years, most newscasts around the country began to look alike: the sets became more elaborate; the special series sweeps topics more salacious; the audience researched ad nauseum and ratings became a dominant factor.  'Pulse' had been the title of WTVT's newscasts since 1958.  Soon after I left, focus group results showed that the audience was either confused by the 'Pulse' moniker, or felt that it lacked immediacy or excitement.  'Pulse' was retired and 'Eyewitness News', a title already in use by most television markets, became our branding for the next few years.

       Consultants also began pushing Pulse 13 to add a co-anchor to the team, preferably a woman.  It was a suggestion not entirely unwanted.  Women reporters were ubiquitous in the business by the mid-80's.  At WTVT, Lesley Schissell, Deanna Lawrence, and Leslie Spencer had pioneered as women reporters/anchors. 

    It was becoming obvious that to sustain viewers’ interest for an hour at a time, a variety of faces and voices would help.  Pulse 13 went through a period when reporters introduced their stories either live on a remote, from the newsroom or on the set. That helped create an ensemble feel for the newscast.  But it was becoming clear we needed to take a dramatic leap forward and look for a co-anchor.

       The task fell mostly on my shoulders.  WTVT was a client of Frank Magid and Associates. The firm maintained an extensive talent library at their offices in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where a visit was planned to look through their library of women anchors.  I was well received at Magid headquarters but the task at hand was to look at as many tapes as possible in a short period of time. So the tape collections rolled and in a matter of days I had screened clips of about 500 women anchors.

       I selected about 40 semi-finalists and asked for a composite reel for viewing back in Tampa.  We formed an informal focus group made up of station employees and family members and their friends, with a higher percentage of women than men, believing women might be more prone to accept or reject the first woman co-anchor in the market. After several hours of screening, we came up with two semi-finalists.  I then did some further checking and settled on one candidate in particular.

       Kelly Craig was still relatively new in her broadcasting career.  A graduate of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania,  Kelly took a job at the then smallest market in America,  Victoria, Texas.  Kelly co-anchored the 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. news on KAUV, and after a year and a half, became a reporter and weekend co-anchor for San Antonio's KSAT-TV for the next two years.  We decided to make Kelly the Tampa Bay market’s first co-anchor.  But, just like our plans for debuting the satellite truck, there were plans afoot to upstage us.  

As we were negotiating to bring Kelly to Tampa, word got out to our competitors.  WFLA made a quick decision in October of 1985 to move one of their sports anchors, Gayle Sierens, to news co-anchor.  So our efforts to be first in the market were thwarted once again, and Gayle has gone on to a very successful tenure in that seat.  Kelly became a valued member of the Pulse 13 team for five years.  She went on to a successful career at WTVJ in Miami. 

Roy Leep, Hugh Smith, and WTVT's first co-anchor, Kelly Craig

  The competition brought us to a new era of presentation.   New sets, graphics, music, promotion and other trappings made our newscasts more interesting and compelling for the viewer at a time when the Tampa television market was growing into the largest in the state and on its way to the 13th largest market in the nation.

       Competition is good in the news business.  'A rising tide floats all boats,' as the saying goes. The day-to-day competitiveness made all of the news broadcasts more professional, and kept us on our toes.  We had not joined the ranks of the markets getting “overnight” Nielsen ratings, but we did get increasing pressure from consultants who suggested ways to enhance viewers through proof of performance promotions, special sweeps reports and tie-ins to topical issues in entertainment programs.

    For instance, if a talk show in the afternoon focused on a particular subject, we might find a local angle for a related story in First News.  If a prime-time show featured an important issue, the inclination would be to find some local version of the story for the 11pm news. That was the start off tearing down what had been a Maginot wall between entertainment/sales and news.

       More competition came to the market when WTOG decided to launch a newscast.  John Nicholson left his 11pm anchor slot at Channel 13 to join the effort along with another local anchor, Barbara Callahan.  We filled his vacancy with anchor Terry Casey.  The WTOG effort eventually failed to reach a substantial audience and was cancelled.  

Hugh Smith and co-anchor Frank Robertson in 1989

    In the coming years, we would do other national talent searches for male anchors, one of which brought Frank Robertson to WTVT. As the daily amount of time devoted to news, sports, and weather continued to grow, Big13 grew its stable of anchors and reporters to fill the ever-growing demands of the newscasts. By the end of the 1980’s, the staff size was approaching 100 in number.

BIG 13 thanks Jim West for his memories of WTVT News.

To read Jim's story about the dawn of Satellite News Coverage at WTVT, CLICK HERE

To read Jim's story about a spy in the newsroom, CLICK HERE

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