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Twistin' the News Away 

Kevin Allman on News With a Twist, WGNO-TV's challenge to the notion that New Orleans likes hard news

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  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.

click to enlarge WWL-TV morning show producer Val Amedee talks with Bill Siegel, the station's news director. "I don't think you see the sort of tabloid presentation you would in other markets here," Siegel says. "The news is not presented that way in New Orleans, at least at the three stations that garner significant ratings." - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • WWL-TV morning show producer Val Amedee talks with Bill Siegel, the station's news director. "I don't think you see the sort of tabloid presentation you would in other markets here," Siegel says. "The news is not presented that way in New Orleans, at least at the three stations that garner significant ratings."

  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?"

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