- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

Staffers at WUSA-TV (Channel 9), if all goes as expected, will get together in February to celebrate Gordon Peterson’s 35th anniversary at the CBS affiliate.

Inevitably, one of Mr. Peterson’s co-workers will ask the question he gets a lot these days: “So Gordo, how much longer do you want to stay in the business?”

Mr. Peterson, 64, will likely answer the way he always does: “As long as I’m having fun.” He usually adds that he still has “a great time” anchoring and reporting — especially the reporting part — and he almost always cites all his “terrific friends” at WUSA’s Broadcast House studios.

There is no reason to believe Mr. Peterson’s response will be anything different when the question comes up in February. He politely declines to discuss his contract, but people who are familiar with the situation say he is under contract for the foreseeable future.

For this, many viewers are thankful, including the hundreds of thousands of viewers who watch him weeknights at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.

Gordon Peterson is one of the four longest-serving anchors in Washington television. The other members of the Big Four, as they are known in the business, are Jim Vance of NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4), Mr. Peterson’s WUSA colleague J.C. Hayward, and Maureen Bunyan, who joined Channel 9 in 1973 and moved to ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) in 1999.

Though anchors are essentially readers of the news, and rarely journalists in the way of newspaper editors and reporters, they become icons. Each of the four Washington icons came to town during the Nixon years, and industry research shows viewers still love them, even if local news doesn’t bring as many eyes to the TV set as it did during its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

Because of the Big Four’s enduring popularity, their bosses largely want to keep them at their anchor desks. Unlike the aging network anchors — Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings — no one is trying to push Mr. Peterson, Mr. Vance, Miss Hayward or Miss Bunyan off their news thrones.

It’s a good thing, too, because the Big Four don’t appear ready to ride off into the sunset.

They say they still enjoy their work, and each is well-compensated: Mr. Peterson’s and Mr. Vance’s annual salaries, for example, are each said to be more than $1 million, with Miss Hayward and Miss Bunyan not far behind.

Mr. Vance signed a “multiyear” contract in 2000. In April, WUSA renewed Miss Hayward’s deal for five years. Miss Bunyan’s contract comes up for renewal in early 2004, and she is expected to remain with WJLA.

Still, the Big Four do not expect to have their jobs forever — nor do they want them that long.

“I do not want to die at the anchor desk,” says Mr. Vance, 63, who came to WRC as a street reporter in 1969 and moved to the anchor desk three years later.

Eventually, a time will come when the Big Four no longer grace the local airwaves. When they are gone, many industry executives and observers agree, it is not likely their successors will have the same impact on local broadcasting.

The Internet, the proliferation of all-news cable channels and changing lifestyles have altered the way consumers get their news. The next few years may not only be the last hurrah for the Big Four, but also for local television news as we know it.

A changing business

In November 1983, the late newscasts on the three major network affiliates and Fox affiliate WTTG-TV (Channel 5), then an independent station, commanded about 80 percent of District-area households, according to Nielsen Media Research Inc. Twenty years later, they attracted just 48 percent.

Consumers now have more choices for news. The young, in particular, gravitate toward such unconventional sources as Web “blogs” that offer an unfiltered, unedited and often unconfirmed account of what’s going on in the world.

Gone are the days when families ate dinner together with Gordon, Jim, J.C. and Maureen to keep them company. “A lot of people aren’t home until 8 o’clock at night. They don’t get the evening news. They only get the late news,” Mr. Peterson says. “And even then, they only want to make sure that the country is safe, their town is safe, their neighborhood is safe and then they go to bed.”

Audience fragmentation has coincided with changes behind the scenes: the switch from film to videotape, the introduction of satellites, the advent of the live shot. Advances in technology have not necessarily translated into better journalism, Miss Bunyan says.

“Today, our reporters have to work faster. They don’t have as much time to sink their teeth into a story because they have to move so quickly.”

Lately, more changes are happening on screen. Stories, rarely comprehensive, are becoming even briefer. The prime-time local news documentary, a once-proud tradition at every station, has slipped into obscurity with other near-forgotten oldies, such as Channel 9’s “Ranger Hal” and Channel 5’s “Panorama.”

And while the Big Four are going strong, other local news icons are fading fast.

Mike Buchanan, one of Channel 9’s most enduring stars, left the station this month when management did not to renew his contract. Mr. Buchanan joined Broadcast House in 1970 and rose to prominence as the station’s deadpan police reporter, then became one of its most outspoken anchors.

WUSA fired 17-year veteran sportscaster Ken Mease in March, part of the latest shakeup in its sports department. Mr. Mease endeared himself to many viewers when he broke down in January 1992, the night his mentor, sportscaster Glenn Brenner, died. In September, WJLA’s national-affairs reporter, Jim Clarke, retired after 41 years and 29 news directors at the station.

Secrets of their success

In the middle of all these changes are the Big Four anchors themselves. In the District and other cities, local news anchors lie somewhere between movie stars and politicians on the celebrity spectrum. Each of the D.C.-area anchors has his or her own on-air persona.

Mr. Peterson is the area’s reassuring father figure, stern when the situation calls for it, sly when he can get away with it, but always calm.

Mr. Vance is the street-smart storyteller whose slow, measured cadences recall David Brinkley in his prime.

The cheerful Miss Hayward, 59, is like a favorite aunt who never wears out her welcome. Mr. Rather once called her the “Tina Turner of the Potomac.”

The regal Miss Bunyan, 58, balances authority with elegance. Like Miss Hayward, she is well-known for her charity work.

Each has reported on the most memorable local news stories of their times, with resumes that read like a history of the D.C. area in the past 30 years: The 1977 Hanafi Muslim hostage crisis. The rise and fall and rise again of Mayor Marion S. Barry. Air Florida Flight 90’s crash into the 14th Street Bridge. The Redskins. The snowstorms. September 11. The sniper shootings.

The secret of their enduring appeal is no mystery.

“I see a lot of people on television who I wouldn’t want in my house,” Mr. Vance says. “I would not invite them to dinner. It doesn’t mean I don’t like them. I don’t mean that at all. I mean I wouldn’t want to have a beer with them. And it’s because I find them disingenuous. I find them performing. And I never quite learned how to perform.”

The next generation

The stations’ piece of the pie has shrunk, but they still capture big audiences: The 48 percent of local households that tuned into the late newscasts on WRC, WUSA, WJLA and WTTG in November translates into some 550,000 households.

It’s no surprise, then, that a new generation of would-be icons is waiting for its close-ups.

After a three-year courtship, WJLA wooed Leon Harris away from CNN in the summer. He debuted on Channel 7 to lackluster ratings in October, but station executives predict viewers will eventually embrace him. When Mr. Peterson and Mr. Vance retire, station managers believe Mr. Harris will be positioned to fill their void.

WJLA also has high hopes for morning anchor Andrea McCarren, who has also reported for NBC, ABC and WUSA. She is widely regarded as one of the station’s best storytellers, and is expected to be given more plum assignments in the future.

Tracey Neale also has potential to become “a superstar,” as one local station executive puts it. Ms. Neale spent nine years anchoring for WTTG until this month, when she couldn’t reach an agreement on a new contract with her bosses. She may move to WUSA.

Meanwhile, the search is on for Mr. Peterson’s successor. The favorite inside Broadcast House is Bruce Johnson, a veteran street reporter and weekend anchor. Supporters think Mr. Johnson should be paired with Mr. Peterson in the interim, saying the old friends could recapture the chemistry that made Mr. Peterson and the late Max Robinson the Washington area’s top news team in the 1970s.

Because pairing two male anchors is considered unusual these days, a more-likely scenario is that WUSA managers will bring in a fresh face and begin grooming him. This person could be paired with J.C. Hayward on the 5 p.m. newscast until Mr. Peterson is ready to step down.

“I think there will sort of be a natural thing. It will sort of become apparent. It’s not something I think about,” Mr. Peterson says of the search for his successor.

Mr. Vance, however, has at least one potential successor in mind: Tarick Minor, a former WRC production assistant who now reports for the CBS affiliate in Orlando, Fla. “I want Tarick in my seat. … I do care that there is some strong black male presence to take my place.”

The record for newcomers in D.C. television isn’t encouraging.

For every newcomer the audience embraces — one example is Doreen Gentzler, who joined WRC from a Philadelphia station in 1989 and almost immediately won viewers over — there are countless others who never catch on.

“Who knows what the future holds for the next generation’s J.C. Hayward?,” asks Robert A. Papper, a Ball State University professor who studies television news in cities across the nation. “Maybe technology will put her on throughout the day and evening. It’s possible she could reach a level of superstardom today’s anchors could only dream of.”

Not yesterday’s news

By all accounts, the Big Four still work hard, although that is as much a function of an economic climate in which newsrooms are being asked to do more with less as it is a testament to the anchors’ devotion to their craft.

During the November ratings sweep, for example, Mr. Peterson seemed omnipresent: interviewing wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, profiling a Southeast man who was President Reagan’s young pen pal in the 1980s, reminiscing with Walter Cronkite on the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, following investigators on the trail of an unsolved murder in Montgomery County.

He is still the man many Washingtonians turn to for big, breaking news.

On September 11, Mr. Peterson reported from the Pentagon, then hitched a ride with a stranger to get back to Broadcast House to anchor the rest of the station’s coverage. This year, he came in on his day off to cover the Space Shuttle Columbia destruction and Saddam Hussein’s capture.

Politics remains Mr. Peterson’s passion. He plans to go to Iowa, New Hampshire and both political conventions during next year’s presidential-election season.

In the meantime, WUSA has revamped Miss Hayward’s daily 5 p.m. show. She is the sole anchor of the program, which now has an interview-style format that is cheaper to produce than a traditional newscast. Miss Hayward spends each afternoon researching upcoming guests, although she ducks out frequently to tape spots for “J.C. & Friends,” a regular series of reports on local do-gooders.

“I don’t think I’m working harder than ever, I know I am. I have never worked as hard in journalism as I do now,” she says.

Mr. Vance is still intrigued by reporting on social matters, particularly those that concern young people and minorities. This year, he delivered a moving report on a Shaw resident who is chronicling the lives of friends he lost in the District’s drug wars. Now he is working on a piece about youth violence.

Broadcast House staffers say it isn’t unusual for a giddy Miss Hayward to drag them over to a monitor to watch one of her latest “J.C. & Friends” tear-jerkers. “Have you seen my piece?” she will ask. “Let me show you my piece.”

Miss Bunyan’s soft demeanor masks a similar competitive streak. WJLA, traditionally Washingtonians’ third choice for local news, merged with sister cable network NewsChannel 8 last year in a bid to improve reporting and viewership. “I’d like to see this news operation live up to its potential,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve done that yet.”

For his part, Mr. Peterson is just as enthusiastic as he was when, as a Boston teenager, he would sit in on City Council meetings after school, “just to see what was going on.” He ticks off a list of stories he still hopes to get to, including pieces on the District’s outer suburbs, commuting patterns in the Washington area, and the plight of the unemployed.

“I’m just nosy,” he says. “I still like to know what’s going on. I assume everyone else still likes to know what’s going on, too, so I try to share it with them.”

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