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."
Erbach scoffs at that approach. "Journalists, they'll just parrot back the copy and you'll know nothing about them. Where is it written down that you can't [express an opinion]? That'd be nice to hear what [WWL-TV's] Angela [Hill] had to say about the Republican convention or the Iowa caucuses."
Asked if he thinks his star anchor should begin inserting her thoughts and opinions into the nightly news, a poker-faced Siegel says, "I understand where Rick is coming from, but from where I'm sitting hard news coverage begins with the facts and then comes the opinion and interpretation."
But what about morning shows? WWL's Eyewitness Morning News, the city's top-rated morning show, has a couch, chatty segments with anchors Eric Paulsen and Sally-Ann Roberts, live music, viral videos, cooking, fashion and entertainment segments, Roberts' famous birthday song — isn't that at least a cousin of the Twist approach?
"It's cooking, it's culture," Siegel says. "I don't know that's News With a Twist. I don't see Sally or Eric editorializing."
Perhaps it's also a question of tone; WWL's website has featured gentle YouTube timewasters like "Frog Playing Video Game" and "Dancing Chihuahua." Twist's viral-video page, meanwhile, has been the portal to clips like "Man Left With Permanent 'Woody' after Getting Penis Tattoo" and "Worried Your Woman's Cheating? DNA Test Her Panties For Leftovers."
"Who says the news has to be a certain way?" Erbach asks. "Who says?"
Both Erbach and WGNO general manager John Cruse insist that "Twist" is a work in progress, an evolving experiment based on audience response and the enthusiasms of their staff. Bad ideas, or ideas that don't work, can be jettisoned quickly.
Before settling on Roesgen and LBJ, the men had considered a variety of other anchors both with and without news backgrounds, including a well-known local talk-radio personality and his actress wife. The earliest set concept for Twist, suggested by a corporate visitor from Chicago who came down to consult with Cruse and Erbach and ended up spending time on Bourbon Street, had a bar that looked like a Boston pub (clearly wrong for New Orleans) — and included a stripper's pole. Cruse said no to both.
WGNO isn't the only station experimenting with eyebrow-raising gimmicks; Houston's KIAH-TV (owned, as is WGNO, by Tribune Broadcasting) has NewsFix, where last week's hot topics included "ID'ing Dog Poo" and "The World's Most Expensive and Luxurious Condom." A regular feature on NewsFix is the "Dumbass of the Day." And when Cleveland's WOIO-TV was barred from a recent high-profile local trial, its newscast began reenacting each day's testimony using puppets reciting court transcripts. (Ratings were strong.)
On News With a Twist, regular features include "Wingin' It," with correspondent Tyler Wing trying his hand at various endeavors (learning to roll cigars, duck calling, riding a zip line). Commentary from the Everyyat perspective is provided by Kaare Johnson (son of the late WWL-TV editorialist Phil Johnson), while Northshore radio host Mike Church breathes AM-radio style thunder in the "Right Twist on the News." (A recent, and typical, Church opinion: "The Ultimate Education Choice For Parents Is Ending Public Education.") Each episode of "Twist" concludes with the "Drink of the Day," a local bartender presenting a cocktail recipe; the brand-name booze is provided by Republic Beverage Company, a local liquor distributor, which, Cruse says, also is allowed to pick which bars are featured.
That sort of cozy relationship would send traditional news directors reaching for the Tums — as would WGNO's whole concept of "guest anchors," who have included one-call-that's-all lawyer Morris Bart (an advertiser on the show), Archbishop Gregory Aymond and New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas.
Asked how a news program could cover the NOPD after its chief has shared the anchor barstool, Erbach insists the station wouldn't pull any punches, adding, "If we started eliminating people based on how we'd cover them, we'd run out of people to guest host."
Then there's the role of "creative services" — TV-newsspeak for the marketing department, which is responsible for both promoting newscasts and helping determine the look of the broadcast itself (the colors, the swooshes), but not the content of the news. At WGNO, though, creative services seems to have a larger role than it does in other New Orleans newsrooms.
A jazzy little segment is running on the computer of WGNO's Jeff Funk. Funk, a member of the station's creative services department, has the title "Creative Director, Innovation and Imagination." The segment is a tour of the Old New Orleans Rum factory, showing how the liquor is distilled and bottled, the label prominent in nearly every shot. It's fun to watch, a slick, cheerful package, expertly photographed, edited and scored, looking like something you'd see on an in-room hotel channel more than it does a segment on a regular newscast. (One night later on News With a Twist, Roesgen would introduce the piece as straight news: "You might not know this, but there is a hidden gem in Gentilly ...")
Did the rum company pay for this? No, insists Cruse. "I wish we got revenue for this!" he says, joking.
The practice of a creative services department influencing, much less providing content for, a newscast seems to be unique to WGNO in the New Orleans market.
"That's new to me," Siegel says. "In five television stations [where I've worked], I've never heard of a creative services department going to shoot stories and inserting them into newscasts. That wouldn't be how I'd like to see a newsroom ever run."
Asked if his creative services department ever has influence on the newscasts, Schaefer says, "No, no, no. No. Not in this shop."
Shelley, who declined all comment on other stations and their practices, would say only, "What goes into our newscast comes from the newsroom."
But even as newsrooms across the country face new questions about both ethics and content, social media and the gravitational pull of celebrity news have forced them to cover stories they might have previously ignored.
Just a few years ago, it's unlikely all four local news stations would have even mentioned the "Bourbon Street teabagger" case, in which a cellphone video showed an Alabama football fan bouncing his genitals off the head of a passed-out LSU football fan at a hamburger joint. Both Gambit and The Times-Picayune followed the story as well. The coverage outshadowed a far more serious story around the same time: the rape of two students at Tulane University.
At the national level, all three cable news networks covered the death of Whitney Houston with the sort of round-the-clock saturation coverage once reserved for wars — and then there's CNN Headline News, where tabloid-Draculas Nancy Grace and Drew Pinsky stretch the definition of news to the snapping point. Still, traditional news hasn't gone anywhere. The Tyndall Report, which monitors the nightly newscasts of the three networks, found that in 2011 the biggest stories (by far) were the slaying of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, the ousting of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and ongoing coverage of the U.S. economy. Pop culture news was not even in the Top 10 (the British royal wedding came in at No. 11).
For now, WGNO has traditional newscasts in the morning, as well as at 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. — the latter featuring reporter Sheldon Fox's flashy, zazzed-up crime reports in the station's signature "Wheel of Justice" segment. It raises the question: Would Twist work at 10 p.m., sandwiched between ABC's entertainment programming and Nightline?
Cruse says he's just concentrating on growing Twist in the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. time slots, but says the concept has been discussed in a general sense.
Asked the same question, Erbach just smiles and shrugs.
"We haven't had that specific conversation — but why not?" he says. "Why wouldn't it?"