What’s in an anchor?

Susan NewhookWhen CTV and Global both announced, within days of each other, that they had found new hosts for their flagship newscasts, a big part of the storyline drew on the fact that they had chosen women: Lisa LaFlamme at CTV and Dawna Friesen at Global. But what’s the story behind the story? Susan Newhook reports.

“The person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists; writers, reporters, editors, producers, and none of that will change.”       
-Walter Cronkite, in his final broadcast as anchor of the CBS Evening News, March 6, 1981

“And remember — you’re not just reading the news or narrating. Everybody has to sell a little. You’re selling them this idea of you. You know, what you’re sort of saying is, ‘trust me. I’m, uh, ‘credible.’”
 -Telegenic anchor Tom Grunick offering advice to brilliant field reporter Aaron Altman, in the 1987 comedy Broadcast News , as Altman is about to host his first newscast. Altman learns the hard way that it’s more difficult than it looks.
Lisa Laflamme
When CTV and Global both announced, within days of each other, that they had found new hosts for their flagship newscasts, a big part of the storyline drew on the fact that they had chosen women: Lisa LaFlamme at CTV and Dawna Friesen at Global

Many headline writers and reporters swallowed the network PR departments’ news hook, particularly the inaccurate suggestion that one or the other will be the first woman to become the full-time anchor of a Canadian network newscast (Celine Galipeau has been Radio-Canada’s chief anchor for more than a year.) Pictures of Jan Tennant, Ann Medina, Barbara Frum and Pamela Wallin came out of the files. LaFlamme was announced first, but Friesen will take over at Global long before the transition is complete at CTV, which — if you care — will make Friesen (deep breath!) Canada’s first female, full-time, solo, weeknight, English-language, broadcast-channel news anchor.
Dawna Friesen
Horse races and asterisks aside, it’s been a long time since the sight of a woman reading the news was news: Canadians have heard about Couric and Sawyer, and watch women anchors every day. We may not be living in a non-sexist paradise quite yet, but it’s a long time since Ann Medina was dumped from CBC’s Saturday Report because her boss thought she sounded too “strident.” Twenty-odd years later, she said in an interview that the announcement is not so much overdue as a reflection of how little turnover there is in the job.

The real “first woman” was Jan Tennant, who first read the national news on CBC in during Easter weekend  in 1974. She moved to Global, where she co-anchored Global News National Edition  during the 1980s. Of the latest announcements, she says her first thought was “it’s about time.” But watching the long game, the host who was nudged to colour her gray hair concludes, “The big question that remains is, will these women anchors be allowed to mature on air as the men have? Time will tell.”


For the moment, the news is in any change at all on the national anchor desks, and these days the qualities it takes to succeed in the job have nothing to do, at least directly, with gender. Global’s Kevin Newman was the youngest and the most recent arrival of the big three: he went to Global from ABC in 2001. Like Friesen, he had worked for other Canadian networks before moving to the US. At CBC, Peter Mansbridge took over from Knowlton Nash in 1988;  legend tells us that Nash stepped aside for Mansbridge, and there’s much online speculation – dismissed by the parties who would know – that Mansbridge may or should do the same for someone else. Lloyd Robertson moved to CTV from the CBC in 1976 – a hundred TV-years ago, when Walter Cronkite was still in the chair at CBS – with the explanation that he wanted the right to edit his own copy, contrary to CBC union rules for announcers.

He was the last of a breed – a national news anchor whose main experience was in the studio. Though Mansbridge started out as an announcer (announcing flights at the Churchill MB airport, he was  “discovered” by a  radio station manager), both he and Newman had spent years reporting from the field. Each was used to the studio as well: Newman at CBC’s Midday and in a bumpy stint at ABC’s Good Morning America, and Mansbridge through filling in for Nash and other hosts at CBC.

LaFlamme and Friesen are also, as someone said last week, “the real deal”.  Both are well-respected, hard news reporters. LaFlamme’s appointment is in keeping with CTV’s corporate culture in that she worked her way up through the ranks, collecting solid domestic and international experience in the process. Her time on Canada AM and CTV National makes her a familiar and friendly face to CTV viewers.

Advertising executive and CBC radio host Terry O’Reilly says photogenic newsreaders without field reporting experience don’t last. “An anchor has to “own” the storytelling – meaning they have to deliver the news from a place of experience…You can’t fake confidence at that level. And that credibility reflects on the network,” he said in an email interview.

On a related note, LaFlamme’s journalism and her persona have more “edge” than her predecessor’s, says former journalist and telecommunications researcher Brahm Eiley of Convergence Consulting Group, and that’s a good thing, He says the news “has been dulled out,” in recent years, and younger viewers are looking for more than they’re getting.

Part of what makes the LaFlamme/Friesen/Mansbridge job important is a second title which has become the norm for this jobs, though the public doesn’t pay much attention to it. It’s often something like senior, executive or managing editor. It’s supposed to mean that the anchor has real input into, and control over, the network’s national newsroom and its agenda, though the reality can vary with the journalist’s abilities and the newsroom’s politics.

Like Newman, Friesen will also be Global National’s executive editor; at CBC, Mansbridge is chief correspondent. Though Robertson was anchor and senior editor, LaFlamme’s title is just “anchor”; CTV says exactly what that will include will be decided closer to when she takes over full-time – a deferred decision newsroom-politics junkies will no doubt watch closely.

Strong studio skills and solid journalistic chops are both important in the making of a successful anchor, but in such a coveted and high-profile job, so is the ability to survive and thrive at the office. LaFlamme may have a head start, as a longtime member of the CTV ‘family’. Like Newman before her, Friesen is an outsider at Global, and her hosting experience is less extensive.  She will need to establish her own base of influence, if not outright power, and may be hoping not to have to face as sudden a testing of her mettle as her predecessor did: eight days into Newman’s new job, those jets flew into the World Trade Center.

The final ingredient in the making of a successful anchor, unfair as it is to the Aaron Altmans of the world,  seems almost innate: some people call it the likeability factor, others “sucking up the lens”, and it’s more than good looks or a great suit. It’s about a person’s apparent comfort level in front of the camera, whether she projects ease and confidence without seeming arrogant or otherwise unpleasant: basically, whether she’s someone people look forward to having in their living rooms.  In news and all TV programming, it’s a major element of a desirable Q-rating; it can be nurtured, but if you don’t have it, you can’t go out out and get it.  And the stakes are high: as O’Reilly says, the anchor “personifies a network news department… In advertising and news shows, a big change in the brand creates ripples” and networks must consider both the changes and the possible ripples carefully.

Even in this cable- and internet-news saturated age, the national newscast still has an aura around it. It’s hard to know quite why: people tap a range of news sources; network news audiences are aging; most early morning bright-and-lights make more money for the networks. In the parsing of the new appointments, the Globe’s John Doyle calls it “one of the last great jobs in journalism” but  the National Post’s Stephen Taylor wondered if the future holds a place for anchors.

Like viewers everywhere, those Canadians who watch TV news have personal relationships, of sorts, with the people who tell them “what kind of day it’s been”.  Changing anchors is a big deal for networks, when so much hangs on that personification of the news department’s brand: for most people, Robertson is CTV News, just as Peter Mansbridge is CBC News, and Kevin Newman is Global National.

Cautious and infrequent changes in the anchor job reflect the amount of risk and work involved,  at least as much as conservatism in management’s old boys network – which is also less full of boys than it used to be. The editorial, political and financial stakes are high, and as Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote, “Nobody knows anything” (my italics) in the screen trade, which – like it or not – includes TV news. Canada has a number of  superb journalists on its anchor desks, and the debates on how the two most newly minted are doing will go on for a while. A few ratings books, an election and maybe a disaster or two will help to decide.