New Orleans is a city whose most venerated weathercaster preferred Magic Markers to computer-generated flash — and, so the thinking goes, we like our news that way. Straight-shooting; just the facts, ma'am. So, in December, WGNO-TV viewers must have wondered: Who's that palooka at the weather map, wearing the cut-off flannel shirt?
Yes. It was Larry the Cable Guy, bringing some blue-collar comedy to the forecast. "It was a little cold here today," the comic told station meteorologist Bruce Katz. "This morning I gave myself a Dutch oven."
Fart jokes were not the forte of Nash Roberts, but WGNO news director Rick Erbach is betting that New Orleans is ready for something new.
Booze News. News With a Twist-Off. Erbach and anchors Susan Roesgen and LeBron "LBJ" Joseph have heard it all since Twist debuted in February 2011 with its instantly infamous 6 p.m. news set: a functional bar decorated with New Orleans folk art, looking more like a Bourbon Street go-cup joint than a traditional news desk.
The results? The station's ratings have risen from under the cellar to, well, into the cellar, buoyed on a news-flavored froth of banter, viral videos, a nightly cocktail recipe and "guest anchors."
The Twist concept has done well enough at the station to spread to WGNO's 5 o'clock news slot. By November 2011, WGNO remained mired behind all its competitors in every time slot where it presented a newscast — but while only 1.2 percent of New Orleans homes watched its 5 p.m. newscast the year before, the numbers had doubled. WGNO's news ratings are still far behind those of WWL-TV, WDSU-TV and WVUE-TV. But the needle has moved, slightly, after years of sub-cellar-dwelling, thanks to Twist.
"Longevity has worked in this market," Erbach says. "But I think in the last two or three years we've seen this surge that people want it now. You see it on blogs, you see it online.
"People don't want to wait until 5 o'clock to find out what happened in New Orleans," Erbach says. "They already know. Part of what we're trying to do is take people to the next step."
Television news, like its print counterpart, is struggling with new challenges and competition. TiVo and Hulu and the Internet and smartphones have untethered us from network schedules; Facebook and TMZ and YouTube and the Huffington Post are just some of the firehoses of constantly updated information that didn't exist a few years ago. Most of it's free, much of it's personalized, and — face it — it's all more fun than watching the City Council parse the budget. A Nielsen survey earlier this month found people 12 to 34 are spending less time watching TV than they were even a year ago.
"Whenever I meet people under the age of 35, I ask them, 'Do you watch the news?" says Bill Siegel, the news director of WWL-TV. (Disclosure: Gambit and WWL-TV are content partners; several of the paper's writers and contributors regularly appear on the station's various news programs.)
"I get a lot of 'No, I get it all from the Internet,'" Siegel says. "I think there will always be a place for broadcast, but we look at all the platforms and say, 'How do we serve these diverse audiences?'"
It's 3:30 p.m., and Roesgen and Joseph are taping that night's 6 p.m. news. WGNO's 6 p.m. news is taped two and a half hours early during the week; the Saturday night newscast is taped Friday afternoon. Nightlife correspondent Mike Theis is sipping a glass of Chardonnay on set (the bottles behind the bar contain real liquor).
And we're off. There's no traditional reportage, just quick video clips from CNN and ABC news services narrated by LBJ and Roesgen. Among the top stories: a five-year-old in another city has stabbed three people over ownership of a juice box; an update on the captain that bailed off the sinking cruise ship ("Chicken of the Sea"); and a discussion of a "controversial" episode of the sitcom Modern Family, which happened to be airing on WGNO later that night. The hardest news on the show is a soundless clip of Gov. Bobby Jindal visiting a local school the day after announcing his new education program. Roesgen and LBJ don't say anything about the education program, but have a short he-said she-said debate about public school teacher tenure. There are no sportscasters, no meteorologists — weather is handled with a simple graphic of the next two days' predicted temperatures, a complete change from the five-minute, graphically heavy, bing-bang-zoom weather presentations on other stations — unless, of course, Larry the Cable Guy is in the house.
"This feels more natural than what I did at Channel 6 in the '90s," Roesgen says during a break. Roesgen is a broadcast veteran, having anchored and reported at WDSU before leaving to report for the National Geographic Channel. She returned to New Orleans in 2003 to anchor the news at WGNO. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, she left WGNO to become a national correspondent for CNN, where she wrapped up a 2009 report of a Tea Party rally by saying, "I think you get the general tenor of this. It's anti-government, anti-CNN, since this is highly promoted by the right-wing conservative network Fox." Three months later, Roesgen's CNN contract was not renewed. LBJ, a natural and comfortable longtime local radio personality who cheerfully admits he has no news experience, was hired for his bantering skills; he's still a morning-show host on the R&B station Old School 106.7.
The two have a fine on-air chemistry, and Roesgen calls the show's easy-breezy, nothing-too-heavy, opinionated approach "wonderful."
"You look at the monitors, and it's fish kill, fish kill, fish kill, fish kill," Roesgen says, describing a typically depressing story you might find on other newscasts. "Well, not us."
"If we do it, we'll do it differently," says LBJ.
While that day's news was taping, Twitter messages from that day's City Council meeting were streaming on my phone: The public defender's office was telling the council it's going broke.
That story wasn't sexy — but it was important. Is that news on News With a Twist?
"We have reported on that," Roesgen says. "We've talked about the problems in the public defender's office. But a City Council meeting? Ehhh." She waggles her hand in a not-so-much gesture. "And you have to remember — it's TV, we always need a visual."
"This is a hard news town," says Jonathan Shelley, news director at WDSU-TV, who arrived here in 2007 after a stint in Oklahoma City. "People take news seriously here, be it news, weather or sports. It's one of the reasons I wanted to be here." "New Orleans is a very hard news town, and in my experience, [people here have] always responded to that," says Mikel Schaefer. Schaefer has worked in New Orleans news for 27 years, beginning at WWL before becoming news director at WVUE, where he has recently employed several former WGNO reporters on a full- or part-time basis, including Meg Gatto, Liz Reyes and Jessica Holly. "I feel very strongly, from a news point of view, what you wouldn't put on a television screen you shouldn't put on Twitter or Facebook," Schaefer says. "I don't believe opinions should be part of it."