TYLER, Texas—As Lauren Jones fixes her blond hair in the glassy reflection of a TV monitor before the 5 p.m. news broadcast, her fellow afternoon anchor signals from across the room.
“You’re showing too much,” whispers Annalisa Petralia, as she gestures for her buxom colleague to button up her shirt.
But Jones, a former bikini model and the 24-year-old star of Fox’s newest reality TV show, “Anchorwoman,” brushes off the suggestion as cameras nearby capture the partially scripted dialogue.
Jones, the newest reporter and anchor at CBS affiliate KYTX-TV in Tyler, was one of Bob Barker’s beauties on “The Price Is Right” and a ring-card girl for World Wrestling Entertainment.
For the past few weeks, the Parsons School of Design graduate traded in her placards and two-piece bathing suits for a teleprompter and pantsuits. She just wrapped up her monthlong stint a few weeks ago.
“Some people are going to say I’m just a bimbo,” said Jones, a former Miss New York who says her idol is Katie Couric. “But we’re just having fun. This is also an opportunity for me to learn a new profession.”
Media critics say the show—the fledgling station’s latest attempt to boost ratings—flies in the face of even the most basic journalistic standards.
“It’s got nothing to do with journalism. It’s just a clown show,” said Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcast journalism and ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. “It certainly does nothing to help the craft of journalism, it demeans women and it demeans every broadcast journalist who takes their job seriously.”
But KYTX station manager Phil Hurley calls “Anchorwoman,” which debuts Aug. 21, a legitimate journalistic endeavor. Jones conducted several on-air live shots, delivered the program’s medical-news segments and occasionally sat in the anchor chair during the 5 p.m. broadcast, which is generally reserved for soft news and features.
“I’ve had a Miss Texas and a Miss Houston here, and I know of actresses and lawyers who have got their start with no journalistic experience at other markets,” said Hurley, who started the 25-person news department three years ago after working at the ABC and NBC affiliates in Tyler. “We don’t have her anchoring the 6 or 10 o’clock news. And she’s doing the job and doing it well.”
“Anchorwoman” is not the station’s first off-the-wall attempt to grab viewers.
A 2-year-old furry gray mutt named Stormy, adopted by the station from the local humane society, helps out with a nightly “dog-walking” forecast. Cameras follow Stormy as he leaves his studio doghouse and the weatherman delivers the forecast. Stormy, who sleeps in an attic at the station, is a fan favorite, with his own line of dog food, treats and stuffed toys.
“We’re not doing it just for the money,” Hurley said. “These are strategic decisions done to create sampling, to see what our viewers want.”
But Judy Jordan, an afternoon anchorwoman at KYTX and a former anchor at KDFW-TV in Dallas, said broadcast news is trying old tricks to entertain viewers.
“This is not a new concept. I used to say news directors would put a dolphin on air if they thought they could see a tidy profit,” Jordan said. “Believe me, we’ve come a long way from the balding boys of radio reading no-frills news.”
Some residents are angry at the new show—and its depiction of Tyler and neighboring Longview.
Giant billboards put up near downtown advertised that a sultry-looking Jones would be “Coming Soon.” And promotional literature said she would be leaving New York for “tiny Nowhere, Texas” to cover “cow pie-tossing contests” and “county fairs.”
“We told them that whatever they wanted to do with the reality show is fine but that we don’t appreciate the way Tyler’s being depicted,” said Tom Mullins, president and chief executive of the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce.
Producers removed the negative references to Tyler in the show’s online brochure and tried to assure city officials that the show would not make fun of the East Texas city, which has a population of 100,000.
“This is not `Simple Life’ or Paris Hilton poking fun at rural, small-town America,” said executive producer Dan Gadinsky. “If anything, this is more like `Legally Blonde.’ Lauren’s being underestimated and surprising people.”
The show’s creators came up with the idea two years ago and lined up another model, magazine centerfold and actress Amber Smith, for the role. But Smith’s demo tape was leaked on YouTube.com to mostly negative response. The Tyler station nearly backed out of the project altogether.
“It looked bad,” Hurley said. “It wasn’t what a news station does. It looked like Paris had come to Tyler.”
But KYTX stayed on board and producers looked for another actress. More than 400 people tried out for the role in a casting call in New York and Los Angeles. Six finalists were selected, then reviewed by Hurley’s staff, with Jones eventually chosen.
“We liked her,” Hurley said. “We didn’t have a choice on who we would have liked, but that would have been our pick, so it worked out great.”
As for Jones’ on-air performance during her monthlong stint, the station’s news director says the model-turned-reporter fared surprisingly well.
“When I first heard she was coming, I was scared,” said news director Dan Delgado. “I didn’t know if she could type, let alone write. But she developed. She’s a raw talent, not refined, but there’s something there.”
ANYTHING FOR RATINGS
Stations around the country have tried various gimmicks to increase ratings—some more successful than others. Here are a few examples:
In November 1987, KXAS-TV in Dallas aired a five-part “Honesty Test” series in which the station put area residents through a battery of truth-telling tests:
In one segment, the station dropped 10 wallets around town, each containing $20, a phone number and a bogus birthday note from a grandfather to a grandson and watched to see what people did.
In another, hidden cameras were placed at freeway entrance ramps to see if motorists would obey the signal lights. The stunt dramatically increased the ratings for that week’s 10 p.m. newscasts. But the series’ sequel in 1988 failed to draw viewers.
The Tyler TV station’s dog, Stormy, is not the first canine to help with Texas weather forecasts:
KPRC, the NBC affiliate in Houston, used a weather dog, Radar, from 2004 until earlier this year. Radar, a Wheaton terrier mixed breed adopted from the Houston Humane Society, was 4 months old when he joined the station. Viewers helped choose his name (other possibilities included Sunny, Twister and Muggy), and the station aired a number of segments centered around the dog, including live obedience training classes and puppy birthday parties.
A competing station got its own dog—a furry Chia Pet named Doppler—in a not-too-subtle jab at Radar. But poor ratings and a change in management prompted producers to let Radar go in February. He was adopted by a staffer at the station and now works part time as a greeter at the John C. Freeman Weather Museum in Houston.
Three TV news stations in Orlando, Fla., have hired their traffic reporters through open-call auditions and taped studio tryouts that were later aired on news broadcasts.
Viewers in Orlando chose the new traffic reporter at CBS affiliate WKMG-TV in May a la “American Idol,” from 10 finalists. Five finalists for the job appeared on the news each day for one week before viewers voted for their favorite. Forbes magazine, the station’s general manager and Traffic.com, which supplies the station’s traffic data, made the final selection.
Cincinnati’s NBC affiliate, WLWT-TV, went a step further and allowed the audience to select the station’s top five stories for air on its 11 p.m. broadcast. But fewer than 150 people participated in the daily poll and the idea was eventually scrapped.
And WROC-TV, a CBS affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., allowed viewers to select the dress that one of the station’s meteorologists wore to last year’s Grammy Awards.
The KABC-TV news department in Los Angeles presented coverage of a fake earthquake in the late 1980s, complete with reporters acting out scripted parts. The station periodically labeled the broadcast a simulation, but some viewers and many of the city’s Spanish-speaking residents thought the earthquake was real. TV critics and city leaders protested.
As part of a five-part series on crime on Oklahoma City’s KTVY-TV, now known as KFOR-TV, station employees committed on-air criminal acts. A fire chief watched as the station intentionally set fire to a building and waited for firefighters to respond to the “emergency.” Viewers were promised a live auto theft the next night.
SOURCES: KPRC-TV in Houston; John C. Freeman Weather Museum; NewsBlues, a television news Web site; Dallas Morning News research.