Q&A; WITH JESS MARLOW : ‘I See a Greater Concern . . . for Harder News’


While others have been sent packing or have left in disgust, Jess Marlow re-signed a multiyear contract at KNBC-TV Channel 4 last week.

In these recessionary times, he had expected the station to try to cut his salary--reported to be nearly $700,000 a year--especially after KNBC lured Paul Moyer away from rival KABC-TV Channel 7 last July with a record-breaking contract that will pay him more than $8 million over six years. But Marlow, who has worked continuously on Los Angeles stations since 1966, said KNBC did not even suggest a reduction.

He was upset that management took him off the 5 p.m. show in favor of Moyer, but his disappointment was assuaged by an offer to anchor the 6 p.m. newscast and to do commentary at 5.

Beyond his own situation, however, Marlow knows that all is not rosy at Channel 4. In the last year, the station has laid off such respected reporters as John Marshall and David Horowitz and demanded cutbacks elsewhere. Anchor Keith Morrison blasted the station on his way out the door for resorting to sleaze and titillation in its quest for ratings.

On a day this week when KNBC would wind up leading its 11 p.m. newscast with a five-minute story on an inconsequential freeway chase, the man whom colleagues describe as “the soul of the station” sat down to talk about the “dark days” of TV news and his optimism for the future.


QUESTION: Why are you staying when so many others are bailing out?

ANSWER: It’s easy to just criticize. But I like working. We need to stay inside and continue to fight to improve coverage. Every newsroom has discussions about what we should and shouldn’t cover, and I’ve always been one who argued for hard news and more depth. I haven’t always won, but I think I’ve been a positive influence.

Q: What do you think of the criticisms of people who have left? Keith Morrison said that the newscasts were so grimy that he felt like taking a shower when he got off the air.

A: I told our general manager, “I never felt like I needed to take a shower--a sponge bath, maybe.” He was not amused. But I don’t feel that way. Our biggest problem is we don’t have a monopoly and the competition is fierce. We’ve had to make concessions to attracting an audience when we didn’t have to do that before. We used to do longer pieces and the audience stayed with us because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. So we’ve shortened stories more than we should have, everything is fast, fast fast, and in trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience, you have to make every story visually appealing and throw in a lot more superficial material. But I’m always an advocate for balance. I don’t mind if we bring them into the tent with cotton candy, but once they’re there we have to give them some substance.

Q: Is the emphasis on winning greater now than before? Has the zeal for ratings gone too far?

A: There is a hell of a lot more emphasis on winning than there used to be, because not too many years ago a station’s newscast was not meant to be a great moneymaker. Newscasts were public service. You had guys like Bill Paley running CBS, and I remember an apocryphal story about “60 Minutes” where somebody said to him, “This won’t make you any money.” And Paley told everyone in the news department, “I didn’t hire you to make money. I make money off Milton Berle.” There was a time when we were a center of pride. Now we are a center of profit.

Q: Under these conditions, is the audience still being served?

A: Not well enough, but on the whole I think they are being served. It’s lamentable that no one does documentaries anymore. I wish we could have more serious debates on local issues, on national issues. Luckily, if you long for documentaries, there are choices. You can watch PBS. If you want public affairs, you have C-SPAN. So television in general serves the audience very well, but no single station does the job alone.

Q: And in the future, do you see TV stations making more concessions to win the audience or do you see it turning the other way?

A: We all tell ourselves that these things are cyclical. I hope that we are on an upswing. Technology is still helping us. We’re able to go live to stories with less cost. And maybe when we discover that the audience isn’t impressed with us going live, we won’t go live for the sake of going live as we do sometimes. I don’t think we’ll be following too many more high-speed freeway chases. I see a greater concern in the newsroom for harder news, for dealing with issues. We have a challenge to present it visually, of course. That is our strength and our weakness. And to do it, you can’t do it on the cheap. You’ve got to have reporters in the field. You’ve got to have cameras. It’s not done by one scintillating personality.

Q: Some would argue that KNBC’s huge investment in Moyer indicates that TV news is all about personality and not much else.

A: Of course that’s why they kept me on--because of my sparkling personality. There are people who do attract an audience. But neither Paul Moyer nor anyone else would do well without an awful lot of support. He has over the years been well received by the audience and if he gives us an extra boost, that extra rating point or whatever will probably justify the salary.

Q: But spending all that money on Moyer when the station was demanding that the rest of the staff cut back on overtime?

A: That has been difficult. They said that bringing in Moyer would not change anything, and in my case they proved it. The fact that they are hiring new reporters suggests that Moyer’s hiring didn’t cripple the news department like some people feared. They are still not generous in terms of overtime, and with our corporate ownership we are held to a different standard of bookkeeping than we were used to. I don’t know if that will change a whole lot. I think we will still be able to wheedle enough out of them to get the job done, but it will require a lot of wheedling.

Q: Do you think anchors are worth the money they make?

A: No question, anchor salaries are generous. Part of it is longevity. (The late KCBS newsman) Bill Stout used to say, “Marlow, it’s not that the audience necessarily likes you and me, but they’re used to us.” Anchors who can attract an audience are a commodity and stations are paying whatever it takes to get that commodity.

Q: What’s the value of commentary?

A: I think it has a real potential to make a difference. I did one on Magic Johnson’s AIDS video, urging young people to see it even though it has been controversial in some schools. But I think it did a terrific job reaching those kids and was very well done. My commentaries may test the tolerance of some producers who don’t like to break up the fast pace of the show, but even when people disagree with you, at least you’re stimulating some thought.

Q: Do you foresee a day where you throw up your hands and say, “I’ve done this my whole life. No more.”?

A: I really don’t. Even during the darkest days, I’ve always found something that was satisfying. I really think the cycle is turning around and there will be more rather than less satisfying days. And some of us have to be inside, challenging the way things are. My wife actually worries about it more than I do. She says, “What the hell will you do if you’re not doing it?” So I think I’ll be like Bill Stout. I’ll go out with my boots on.