The man who would be Jerry Dunphy won’t deny that local television stations employ all kinds of chicanery and snake-oil sleight-of-hand to lure viewers into “the church” of TV news. But once they’re there, he vows to do his darndest to give them “the news they need to know.”
Harold Greene, who stepped in as anchor of KABC Channel 7’s 4, 6 and 6:30 p.m. newscasts when Dunphy jumped ship for Disney-owned KHJ Channel 9 (now KCAL) last July, said that television news “is first and foremost a business” and that, as an anchor, he is there to sell Channel 7’s newscasts.
“But we are not here to simply fill time between the commercials,” as a recent Bill Moyers documentary charged, he said in an interview. “We are here to do the news.”
Now firmly anchored in Dunphy’s anchor chair, Greene fosters the kind of down-and-dirty newsman image not usually attributed to local anchors. He arrives in his office early to scan the wires for the latest news developments and to finish editing a special report. And with the vigor many anchors reserve for their on-air persona, he relishes a chance to proclaim that the state of TV news is not as dismal as many media critics would have us believe.
The medium does have its shortcomings, he acknowledges. All the words uttered in an hour newscast wouldn’t fill up the front page of a newspaper, he says, and on many crucial stories, TV can only present a quick and general presentation of the problem.
But he contends that television news takes a bad rap from critics who focus on the fluffy features that are used “to bring viewers into the church,” while ignoring all the harder-edged, substantive efforts to inform those viewers.
Greene is not about to advocate abandoning those features, however, even if such an action would boost the credibility of his news organization.
For one thing, Greene says, he doesn’t believe that the news should make a viewer feel only bad, that everything out there is negative and going wrong. And, second, even if the story is pure salesmanship, included only for its value in luring viewers to the newscast, Greene believes it is worth sacrificing those few minutes of precious air time if that story seduces viewers into watching the rest of the news.
During the last ratings period, for example, KABC included feature stories about ABC’s “thirtysomething” and “China Beach” as part of its 11 p.m. newscasts on the same night that those programs aired. Both stories were “teased” by the 11 p.m. anchors during the entertainment shows in the hope that viewers would stay tuned for the news. (Channel 7 is not the only station using this commercial tactic; that same week Channel 2 did likewise with the stars of the CBS show “Snoops.”)
Sometimes, Greene concedes, all TV stations cross over the line of good taste and into the realm of “exploitation.” During the sweeps, KABC anchor Ann Martin tried to tease viewers of “thirtysomething” into watching the station’s 11 p.m. newscast by reporting during a news break that the son of a famous actor had died--but she didn’t say who it was. Viewers had to stay tuned to find out it was Jason McCallum, the son of Jill Ireland and David McCallum.
“There’s no question in my mind that teases are exploitive at times,” Greene says. “If possible, I make the effort to change them. One afternoon they wanted me to read, ‘There’s been a collision between a school bus and a dump truck,’ and I said, ‘No way I’m going to read this. Do you think I’m going to scare the holy hell out of every parent watching this television station this afternoon?’ It’s like saying, ‘There’s been a cop shot today.’ That’s another one I won’t do. We can get the same impact if we just use our heads.
“But the importance of teases is not lost on me. I want people to watch my newscast and this company wants people to watch my newscast. It’s no different than the L.A. Times saying, ‘In Metro we have this, this and this,’ and I turn there and I see a whole packet of advertising. We’re in a competitive situation. This is a dogfight.”
Led by Dunphy, “Eyewitness News” had dominated the battle, crushing its competitors in the ratings for more than a decade. But within the last year, well before Dunphy departed, the station had slipped badly, allowing Channel 4 to overtake it in all news time periods.
The recent sweeps showed that the station’s ratings were down significantly from the previous year, when the station was stillNo. 1 in several time periods. But ratings for Greene’s three newscasts were about the same as what the station had been getting in May, when Dunphy was still on board. Channel 7 still trails Channel 4 by a wide margin and is only slightly ahead of Channel 2 at 6 p.m, but Greene is nonetheless confident that, even without Dunphy at the helm, “Eyewitness News” will thrive once again.
“I wish Jerry had stayed. He was Channel 7. But we collectively feel that there is life after Jerry. And it’s not like they brought in some guy from Poughkeepsie that looks the part, and has the deep baritone voice and postures and does the Ted Baxter routine. They put a reporter in here as an anchor man. I don’t feel any added pressure because I’m replacing Jerry. I look forward to doing the job. Some might suggest that maybe the time was right. He made a hell of a career move. But I think it’s my time now too.”
Unlike many anchors, Greene started out as a news writer, cameraman and producer in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego, where he grew up, before moving in front of the camera. After stints as an anchor in San Diego and San Francisco, Greene teamed up with Dunphy on KABC’s 5 p.m. newscast from 1978 to 1980. He also served as host of “A.M. Los Angeles,” KABC’s morning talk show, and anchored the station’s weekend newscasts from 1984 until moving over to weekdays last summer.
Greene says he still insists on participating in all phases of the newscasts, even though the “Broadcast News” reputation persists of the anchor as a face, who strolls into the newsroom a few minutes before air time, picks up the news copy, reads it and goes home. Though that image still applies to some anchors, Greene says, he arrives by 11 each morning to write much of his own copy and to voice his own news judgments.
It wasn’t always that way, however. Recent cutbacks in the size of TV news staffs and his own assertiveness, Greene says, have made management more amenable to anchor participation in the behind-the-scenes construction of a newscast. When he started on the air at KABC in 1978, Greene says, anchors were seen as “talent, and talent only,” expected to look good, read copy and cash their hefty paychecks.
“I hated it. Bored me stiff. My deal is I want to be in the news business. The fun part of doing the news is putting it together. When I leave here, I like to feel that today was a day when we kicked a little tail and I was a part of it. To come in and read and then go home--I’d audition for soap operas if that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”