Fox stirs up controversy with reality show ‘Anchorwoman’

[28 June 2007]

By Cary Darling

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

TYLER, Texas—It’s the third day in the first week of Lauren Jones’ trial by reality-TV fire, but the former Miss New York, “The Price Is Right” “Barker Beauty,” swimsuit model and WWE hostess is keeping her cool.

The late-morning heat—punctuated by the occasional sting of mosquitoes—that’s bearing down on the Lake Tyler Marina & RV Park, a concrete lot and low-slung building on the water’s edge, has some of those around her sweating and swatting like sharecroppers in July. But Jones—being trailed by cameras in her taupe jacket, bedazzled turquoise top, platform stilettos and white pants tight enough to pass for shrink wrap—doesn’t seem to notice.

Just like she doesn’t notice the guys in their F-150 and Ram pickups whose heads swivel like oscillating fans as she walks past.

Instead, the newest news anchor at the local CBS affiliate and star of the upcoming Fox reality series “Anchorwoman”—a show premised on a buxom, big-city fish with no journalism experience being dropped into small-town media waters—is concerned about writing her voice-over for the story she and cameraman Wilton Johnson are putting together on rising lake levels.

Well, she frets over that and where to lay her purse, as she is surrounded by what seems to be the results of someone’s failed effort to curb their pet.

“I don’t want to want to put my purse in poo,” she tells Johnson, scanning the ground for a free space.

“I don’t want to spend too much time out here,” she says a few minutes later. “Look at the doo-doo!”

No doubt, it’s just this type of Fox-worthy footage that “Anchorwoman” producers were itching for when they hatched the idea of taking someone who’s known for looks, not Pulitzers, and parachuting her into a TV newsroom for four weeks. The series, which doesn’t air until Aug. 21, has already caused consternation and hand-wringing from Texas to Tampa Bay.

Some people in the Tyler-Longview area, home to around 300,000 people, worry about being portrayed as bumpkins. Some in the news business argue that the whole concept cheapens the work of real journalists. Some of Jones’ new co-workers haven’t been overly thrilled with her presence—especially when, on her second day, she unintentionally ruined another reporter’s live shot by dancing in the background.

“I got in trouble with a lot of people,” she says, seated in a conference room back at the station, KYTX, “the eye of East Texas.” “No one was happy. ... I learned the hard way. Last night, I cried a lot.”

Producer Brian Gadinsky knows his unscripted TV. Having worked on “American Idol” and other reality shows, he’s always on the lookout for new concepts. Two years ago, while at a TV programming convention in Las Vegas, he struck up a conversation with KYTX president/general manager Phil Hurley. “I said, `Wouldn’t it be funny if you brought in some really beautiful, supermodel type with no experience,’ and we kind of laughed about it and exchanged cards,” Gadinsky recalls.

Hurley, who’d just recently the purchased the Tyler station, was looking for a way to ramp up interest in his programming. “In a market this size, you especially need to do local news, and when you do it, you have to spend a lot of money. It’s a slow ratings build, because you’re changing (viewer) habits,” Hurley explains. “I ran into him, we got to talking and I said I’d be interested, because what it does for me is it creates an interest to sample my product.”

Hurley emphasizes that the intention was to experiment only with the 5 p.m. broadcast, which already had a soft news/features slant. Harder news is reserved for the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. slots. “Our feeling was that we’d protected our news product, from a hard-news standpoint, and were using the 5 p.m. as a laboratory.”

Gadinsky’s original anchorwoman choice was model Amber Smith, but neither Fox nor Hurley thought she was right. An initial test, or “sizzle reel,” featuring Smith—which ended up on YouTube—almost caused Hurley to pull out of the project. “It looked like hicksville comes to `Simple Life,’” remembers Hurley, referring to the reality series starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie as rich airheads dropped into a small-town setting.

After a “traditional Hollywood casting call,” says Gadinsky, they found Jones.

“I always wanted to be an anchor ever since I was a little girl,” says Jones, 24. “My biggest idols were Katie Couric and Connie Chung. I also like Ryan Seacrest. He’s got that comedic thing going on.

“I got a bit sidetracked because, when I was in college, I wasn’t exactly sure what to major in. I was modeling to pay my way through college. ... I kept thinking, `This is great, but I’ve got to turn myself around.’”

The obvious, surface comparison may be to Paris Hilton, but Jones, who has a degree from New York’s Parsons School of Design, isn’t having it. “I went to college. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon,” she insists. “I’ve had to work my way to the goals I’ve achieved.”

Gadinsky, too, waves away the “Simple Life” chatter. “That’s not my interest and never has been,” he explains, saying the aim is for more of the more nuanced sensibility of sitcoms such as “The Office” and “30 Rock.” “There’s ha-ha funny, which we were not going for, and there’s smart funny, and that’s what we’re going for.”

Though, by all accounts, Jones has acquitted herself well in her first couple of weeks in the field and in on-air anchoring segments, angst has been running high among some of her co-workers. “For the most part, everyone wants to see me succeed but, you know, girls can be catty sometimes,” Jones complains. “I’m sure there are some girls out there at the station who want to see me fail.”

The main 5 p.m. anchor, Annalisa Petralia, while saying Jones is “very smart and very nice,” acknowledges that she’s very dubious about the concept. “The biggest conflict is my strong belief in credibility, experience and having journalistic ability before you put someone in the anchor desk,” she says. “It’s not a personal conflict. ... I wouldn’t call it a rivalry ... I’m the credibility and she’s not, and we’re trying to build that in her.”

News director Dan Delgado has had to ensure that his newscast doesn’t mutate into a comedy routine. “The way it was explained to us is that Lauren is the butt of the jokes, and I’m good with that because I certainly don’t want my people, my employees being the butt of jokes,” he says.

Hurley says the staff, some of whom will get paid for their appearances in “Anchorwoman,” may enjoy other benefits. “This gave some the chance to make extra money, and it will also help their careers,” he says. “I realized if the show was sold to a network, and people saw some of the folks here, they’re going to get some job offers.”

“Anchorwoman” won’t air for a couple more months, but that hasn’t stopped outsiders from complaining about it, too.

“I’m beginning to think that more people in journalism have completely lost their minds. Being a responsible journalist is not that easy, not that laughable, not that cosmetic, not that superficial,” says Christine Tatum, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and an assistant features/multimedia editor at The Denver Post. “We’re seeing this blur of the lines between news and entertainment, and it’s just getting worse and worse.”

She also finds the premise sexist. “That they’re doing this to a woman in journalism ... just makes it all the more despicable.”

Brad Streit, the general manager for Tyler’s ABC affiliate, KLTV, told The Hollywood Reporter that KYTX had “sold its integrity.” Al Tompkins, broadcast group leader for the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and research center in St. Petersburg, Fla., told the same publication that the program “devalues the work of real journalists who are trying to do real work. It doesn’t do anything to help the reputation of journalists there and around the world.”

Hurley counters that he doesn’t take his competitors’ comments seriously (“This is getting a lot of recognition, and that bothers them.”) and that professionals like Tompkins seem misinformed (“He makes his comments like we’ve hired her as a permanent anchor.”).

He points to the many favorable responses from viewers on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Web site after a segment on “Anchorwoman” aired last week. “They say there are people in this business who have no journalism experience. The e-mails say `Give her a chance ... she’s just reading the news.’”

But Petralia says the phone calls and e-mails she’s receiving are running 70 percent against the concept. “I’ve heard from a lot of viewers, and they’re not happy.”

She can’t wait until the whole thing is over. “There’ll definitely be a big sigh of relief,” Petralia says.

But Jones says she has not run into any negativity from the public so far. More than that, she’s OK with being the object of the jokes once “Anchorwoman” hits the airwaves and is confident this won’t hinder her n her quest to become a real anchorwoman one day.

“In life, no matter what you’re trying to accomplish, if you can’t laugh at yourself, then you’re taking life way too seriously,” she says. “If people are laughing, I’m OK with it. I should be laughing, too.”

And over at the Tyler Convention and Visitors Bureau, marketing/tourism vice president Justin Turner says the whole thing—including around 40 California crew members/visitors staying in local hotels for a month—has given the area a small economic boost. “We had some concerns about the portrayal of Tyler in the beginning. When the press release first came out, it said `tiny Tyler in nowhere Texas,’ but those concerns were addressed and taken care of promptly,” he says. “We just hope they don’t portray us in a negative light when it comes out.”

As for station owner Hurley, he’s sure that he has made the right decisions to keep “Anchorwoman” from being an embarrassment for his station or town.

“None of us has any interest in going Hollywood. We all live right here, and everybody understands—and me especially—that when all the hoopla of Hollywood is over, they’re going to pack up those trucks and leave here and they couldn’t care less after that,” says Hurley, who has resided in the area nearly 20 years. “We still have to be here.”

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