Anchored in controversy
Fox reality show roils Texas townAn upcoming Fox reality series about a model-turned-TV journalist is causing a stir in the East Texas city where "Anchorwoman" is being produced.
Model Lauren Jones arrived last week in Tyler, Texas, for a 30-day stint at KYTX-TV, a CBS affiliate, that will include co-anchoring the 5 p.m. newscast today. Jones, who was cast for the show by Fox 21 and the G Group, has been undergoing behind-the-scenes preparation as a reporter and anchor, her every move taped by a 40-member crew. "Anchorwoman" will run on Fox beginning in late August.
Jones is a swimsuit model and actress whose credits include WWE's "SmackDown!" and "The Guiding Light." She has no journalism experience; the show will be about whether Jones can hack it in TV news. She arrived in Tyler a week ago and has been put through what a station official calls intensive training in how to read a TelePrompTer and report stories on her own.
TV newsrooms have been a staple of TV shows for years, perhaps most successfully with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Upcoming Fox sitcom "Back to You," starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, will keep the genre alive. But this is the first time that a reality series will feature someone with no journalism experience who will be thrust into a job surrounded by real journalists. It has raised concerns inside and outside KYTX.
"One of the last sacred grounds of integrity in local television is the local newsroom, so I guess I would say I'm disappointed to see a station, much less one in our own community, that has evidently sold its integrity," said Brad Streit, vp and GM for KLTV-TV, the ABC affiliate in Tyler.
Adds KETK-TV GM Mike DeLier of the NBC affiliate: "I see this as a stunt, and it's a self-admitted stunt and not a journalistic endeavor."
Al Tompkins, broadcast group leader for the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., is more blunt: "It devalues the work of real journalists who are trying to do real work. It doesn't do anything to help the reputation of journalists there and around the world."
KYTX station president and GM Phil Hurley shrugs off the criticism, pointing Friday to the big story on cable news.
"Journalism credibility? I think that's somewhat amusing when all I see today on the cable news is Paris Hilton, nonstop," he said. "This is a TV show. It's going to be a comedy. They just chose to shoot it at our station."
Hurley, whose station features Stormy the Weather Dog in every newscast, said it isn't the money that's driving him to participate. (The station and the participants are being paid to appear.)
"As the new guy in town, we saw it as a promotional tool to show a lot of sampling in our newscast," Hurley said. But he nixed Fox's plans to use billboards showing Jones in a bikini.
"We said we don't have any anchors that do the news in a bikini. They sent a revision, and it was about half of her body, and we said, 'No, no bathing suits,' " Hurley said. Promotional billboards around Tyler show Jones' face only.
The project, more than two years in development, has been controversial from the get-go. A leaked concept video showing a "Simple Life"-like treatment to Tyler found its way to YouTube, irking residents who didn't want to see their city lampooned. Tyler is a city of about 100,000 halfway between Dallas and Shreveport, La.
Hurley said he rejected that idea out of hand well before the video got to YouTube.
"We're a middle-market television station and town, and we're not hillbilly heaven here," he said. "It's a middle-class, upper-middle-class town that really is a great place to live, and we thought it would be fun to have Tyler shown off."
Hurley got involved after meeting creator/executive producer (and former "American Idol" producer) Brian Gadinsky at the 2006 NATPE convention in Las Vegas. Gadinsky returned to Hurley with a new idea. (Gadinsky could not be reached for comment.)
Hurley went to the station's staff members, and their reaction was mixed. He said there was "some real apprehension" on how it would go and whether Jones would be expected to do the job. Only two of the station's 70 employees have opted out of appearing on "Anchorwoman." Fox's news release said the entire newsroom "thinks the boss has made a giant mistake."
Many in the community reacted the same way, after word of the YouTube video came out. One depiction called the show "Tiny Tyler in Nowhere, Texas."
"Some community people were not happy to see some of the references that would be negative toward the city, making it look like a backwater, hick type of place," said Tom Mullins, president and CEO of the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce.
Mullins and Hurley said separately that they made their concerns about the community's depiction of Tyler known to Fox; they're satisfied that things have been resolved and praised Gadinsky's efforts to make things right.
The Fox affiliate, KFXK-TV, hasn't yet made a decision on whether it will run "Anchorwoman." KFXK owner Sheldon Galloway said he wouldn't decide until he sees the show. He also acknowledged concern about the fact that it's not only about Tyler but also a rival station; KFXK also owns KETK-TV, the NBC affiliate.
"You don't want to promote the competition, but at the same time it depends on how newsworthy it is," Galloway said. Hurley said he's told Fox he's interested in running the show if the Fox affiliate declines.
Barbara Cochran, executive director of the Radio-TV News Directors Assn., said that among her concerns is viewers will get a distorted picture of what goes on in a newsroom.
"At a time when journalists are getting a lot of criticism, it's going to present a picture that doesn't show the hard work and deep thought that goes on in every newsroom," Cochran said.