- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Derek McGinty is blunt: His career is probably riding on his latest gig, a high-minded local newscast that debuts Monday on WUSA-TV (Channel 9).

“If this doesn’t work, I could be 43 and washed up,” he said, punctuating this moment of candor with a muted chuckle.

Mr. McGinty will be the sole anchor of “USA Tonight,” which WUSA will air weeknights at 7. It is the first attempt by a Washington-area station to do local news at 7 p.m., a time slot traditionally reserved for network news, game shows and sitcom reruns.

But an even bigger challenge may be the program’s format. Executives at WUSA, a CBS affiliate owned by Gannett Co. Inc., have embarked on a noble experiment with “USA Tonight,” which they say will feature longer stories, live interviews and no excessive reports on crime and house fires.

“Everything I have done to this point has prepared me to do this,” said Mr. McGinty, a native Washingtonian who is best known for his 1991-97 stint as the host of a self-titled talk show on WAMU-FM (88.5), a local National Public Radio affiliate.

His reputation as one of the smartest interviewers in radio caught the attention of Bryant Gumbel, who hired Mr. McGinty as a reporter for his CBS newsmagazine “Public Eye” in 1997. When that program withered away after one season, Mr. Gumbel made Mr. McGinty a correspondent on his HBO series “Real Sports.”

In 1999, Mr. McGinty joined WJLA-TV (Channel 7) in Washington. The ABC affiliate never quite figured out what to do with him, first putting him on its public-affairs show “Capital Sunday” and then sticking him on the weekend anchor desk.

Two years later, Mr. McGinty left WJLA to become an overnight anchor for ABC News. By spring 2003, the brutal hours — he worked weekdays from midnight to 8 a.m. — had worn him down.

When WUSA came calling, Mr. McGinty persuaded ABC to release him from his contract. He happily traded his cramped New York apartment for his old house in Silver Spring.

Now he has come home to the toughest challenge of his career. But he is determined not to join the list of radio broadcasters who have failed to cut it on television.

“I’ve got [radio] down. I had a show that did well. I know I can do that. TV is still a challenge,” Mr. McGinty said.

In a statement published on WUSA’s Web site in July, Mr. McGinty promised his “USA Tonight” will “not [be] your father’s local news show. We’ll never lead with that crime story or fire you don’t care much about.”

That remark rankled some WUSA staffers. If viewers don’t care about crime and house fires at 7 p.m., they huffed, why should they care about them during WUSA’s other local newscasts?

“I didn’t say that to run down the rest of our product,” Mr. McGinty said. “But if [a house fire] didn’t happen next door to you, you probably don’t care too much about it.”

The flap didn’t surprise some of Mr. McGinty’s former colleagues, who described him as aloof off the air.

Other colleagues compare Mr. McGinty with his mentor, Mr. Gumbel. Both are confident, but not necessarily arrogant, they said.

Mr. McGinty said he is human, and even confesses to experiencing a sense of awe the first time he passed anchorman Gordon Peterson in the hall at WUSA’s Broadcast House studios.

If “USA Tonight” catches on, it could become a jewel for WUSA, the mightiest station in Washington until NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4) swiped the crown in the mid-1990s.

“If I can be a part of taking Channel 9 to that old greatness, I would love to be part of that,” Mr. McGinty said.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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