Glory of TV news game gone, only the numbers remain

Veteran news anchors Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson

So the goodbyes have been said.  The tributes presented.  An era has ended.

Late last week, bona fide Chicago broadcasting legends Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson signed off for the last time as co-anchors of CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2’s 6 p.m. weekday newscast — a role both had performed with considerable dignity since the fall of 2010.

The duo were immediately replaced by Rob Johnson and Kate Sullivan, who have had the honor of fronting the station’s flagship 10 pm. newscast also since the fall of 2010.  

When this latest Jacobson-Kurtis run was all over, not much had changed in the one place television executives always look first — the ratings.

The grand hope that Kurtis and Jacobson would somehow — some 30 years on from their glory years — reconnect with a new audience in a big way was a dream perhaps.

But it was a dream worth hoping for. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s Kurtis and Jacobson epitomized an era of great broadcast journalism. Kurtis and Jacobson were, on a local level, what Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were to national audiences — the physical embodiment of a momentous, groundbreaking era in broadcast journalism. Different, of course, from print journalism, which was still in its glory days as well at the time. But just as good.

It may have been a pipe dream, of sorts, to expect Kurtis and Jacobson, once they were reunited at Channel 2, to instantly and easily catapult viewers — and the ratings — back to another time and place. But what are any of us without dreams?

Still, this dream was not to be realized the second time around. The brutal, unvarnished numbers that Kurtis and Jacobson pulled over the course of this last run in the WBBM-Channel 2 anchor chairs told us that.

When they left last Thursday night for the last time, Kurtis and Jacobson and their numbers for the 6 p.m. newscast were only good enough to put the duo in third place — just a few hairs breadths behind WMAQ-Channel 5, but far behind longtime news leader ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7.


Duo represented what was great about TV news

Let’s be clear.  This return of Kurtis and Jacobson was not an embarrassment.  Nor a ratings disaster.  Obviously a respectable number of viewers still enjoyed getting their news on Channel 2 at 6 p.m. (by no means the time slot with the largest news audience of the day anyway), and they liked getting it with two broadcasting legends at the helm.

Aside from the fact that Kurtis and Jacobson have departed the Channel 2 newsroom with as much grace as one could expect, their exit leaves us wondering about so much else too.

It seems clear there will never be another duo on air that represent so much that was once great about television news in Chicago.  Don’t get us wrong.  Plenty of stations still do a decent-enough job delivering the headlines every day, along with a soupcon of investigative work, a raft of sports stories and that essential weather report.

But will the TV news business in Chicago ever deliver another duo to match Kurtis and Jacobson?  Should nothing tear them apart in the coming years, it’s possible a Ron Magers and Kathy Brock matchup might reach such a status.


In competitive field, numbers count first

It will be tough, however, primarily because the business of local TV journalism has — let’s be honest — become somewhat diminished in recent times in the race to capture more of the best audience demos and haul in the majority of the advertising dollars that come with the choicest numbers.

It is a numbers game now — much more so than it was 35 years ago. Local TV executives certainly poured over the numbers then.  But now those numbers mean so much more.  Bottom lines.  Much bigger bucks.  Investors.  Everyone and everything rest on them.

As a result local broadcast journalism now brazenly panders to the public — yelling “watch us, not them!”  The grandeur — and much of the glory — of the business is gone.  Only the numbers remain.

Maybe it was our little pipe dream. But whenever we watched Kurtis and Jacobson in their last go-round at Channel 2, we kept hoping that somehow they would help pull everyone and everything in today’s local broadcast world up.  Elevate it.  Lift it back to something close to that golden age decades ago.

That was not the way it turned out, though, this one last time for Kurtis and Jacobson. Their successors at 6 p.m. — Sullivan and Johnson — will carry on. They will do a credible job.  People will watch.

But a bit of history and maybe a lot more are now gone from the anchor desk.  Forever.


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