Fox flashback: When Murdoch put his mark on local news

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The critics were kind that first night.


“Monday’s opening-night show looked slick, professional and all but glitch-free,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Daley. “Monday’s premiere newscasts had all the earmarks of becoming reputable, worthy programs,” observed the Sun-Times’ Daniel Ruth.


Twenty-five years ago this week Fox 32 News debuted at 7 and 11pm, entering a crowded local news field that included four well-established and successful competitors. “As a new organization, we can take a different direction and set new standards for news reporting,” declared WFLD-Channel 32’s news director, Greg Caputo, who promised an “interesting, informative and smart approach.”


Not that Chicago viewers were clamoring for a fifth local news product. In fact, the ratings showed exactly the opposite. But media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who had acquired the former Metromedia station the year before, was determined to achieve parity for his fledgling Fox Network in part by infusing his local outlets with their own news identities.


“New York and L.A. already had news shows for many years in the 10pm [Eastern and Pacific] timeslots, and both stations did pretty well,” recalled Al DeVaney, who was vice president and general manager of Fox 32 at the time. “The problem in Chicago was that WGN already had established themselves at 9pm. I believe our Houston station had started their news prior to WFLD with a 30-minute show at 7pm, which was reasonably successful, so we decided to try that.


“The problem with only a half-hour of news per day is that it’s very difficult to draw up a sensible business plan. We didn’t think we could generate enough revenue in a 30-minute show to pay for the department, so we decided to also place a half-hour show at 11pm. The additional incremental cost was very little and, theoretically, we would generate some extra revenue.” (Within a few years, both half-hour newscasts were dropped in favor of a full hour at 9pm, directly competing with WGN.)


In an interview this week, DeVaney remembered a fateful meeting he and Caputo had shortly before the launch with Murdoch, Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of Fox Inc., and Derk Zimmerman, president of Fox Television Stations, at the company’s Century City headquarters.


“Greg believed we needed to do something different to attract attention in an already crowded news market, so he wanted to give reporters the freedom, at the end of a report, to offer opinions,” DeVaney recalled. “When we arrived at the meeting, Diller had an emergency somewhere else on the lot so we started with only Murdoch and Zimmerman in the room. Greg opened the meeting with his ‘opinion’ idea and Murdoch immediately killed it, saying that it is a reporter’s job to be objective. Now he operates the highly opinionated Fox News, and I laugh every time I think about his clear change of heart. Apparently [Fox News Channel chairman] Roger Ailes is a better salesman than Greg or I.


“Another part of that day also amuses me: We had moved on by the time Diller walked into the room, and as he was reading the presentation book and trying to catch up he interjected, ‘What a great idea! Reporters delivering opinions. No one else does that.’ There was an obviously uncomfortable pause and then Murdoch said, ‘You may think that’s a good idea, but you would be wrong.’ Diller looked at me and said, ‘In matters of news content, I defer to Rupert.’ ”


On August 3, 1987, Chicago viewers got their first look at the anchor team of Robin Robinson (then known by her married name, Robin Brantley) and Kris Long, along with meteorologist Dan Dobrowolski and sports anchor Bruce Wolf. The reporting staff consisted of Jack Conaty, Anne Kavanagh, Denise Jimenez, Scott Smith and Frank Turner.


DeVaney and Caputo’s original plan was for a solo anchor — largely to save money. Their choice was Robinson, who was already familiar as a reporter and weekend anchor at CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2, where Caputo once had been news director. But Murdoch balked at that, too.


“When we showed him the tape of her work he objected, saying that he wanted a white male co-anchor to work with her, muttering something about his presumed bigotry of television audiences,” DeVaney recalled. “So we went back to Chicago and poured through our collection of tapes and decided on Kris.”


Endowed with the requisite looks, voice and bearing of an anchorman, Long had toiled in Denver (where he’d earlier worked with Robinson), Dayton and Des Moines before joining the CBS-owned station in Philadelphia as a reporter and weekend anchor. His move to a weekday anchor job in Chicago was a definite step up.


“That was a wonderful time,” Long said last week from Palm Springs, California, where he’s been the main anchor for the CBS affiliate since 2005. “The only time in my plus-30-year career that I was ever involved in a startup. I have great memories of getting to know the strong staff that Al DeVaney and Greg Caputo put together. Even drinking a few beers with my new colleagues on the top of the building and looking out on the lights of Chicago in that late summer of 1987.”


Dobrowolski had quit television to run radio stations when Caputo lured him back to the business. “Imagine starting an entire news operation — yikes,” said Dobrowolski, who now lives in northwest Wisconsin, where he owns and operates the upscale Canoe Bay resort with his wife, Lisa. “Greg Caputo did a great job of assembling parts. Having worked in numerous network affiliates, I found WFLD very different and quite entertaining. Funny, always changing, painful.”


Wolf was already well known as a radio sportscaster in Chicago when Caputo tapped him for his first television job. "How many people get to do their first newscast on a station's first newscast?” he said. “But I'd never been on TV. Robin had to help me attach the wire of my earpiece to my collar. I just dutifully followed everyone else's lead. After the first newscast at 7pm, we all had cake and champagne. After the 11pm newscast, I looked around and said, 'Where's the cake and champagne? I thought in Chicago you have cake and champagne after every newscast.' "  Wolf now co-hosts middays on news/talk WLS-AM (890) and fills in as sports anchor on NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5.


Robinson is still there as the station’s main anchor, miraculously surviving a succession of managers and parade of co-anchors — including Long, Walter Jacobson, Mark Suppelsa and Jeff Goldblatt. (She's now paired with Bob Sirott.) When I reached out for a comment on her impending 25th anniversary, Robinson told me she had to check with her bosses. A few minutes later, she called back to say she couldn’t talk to me, citing her company’s prohibition against unauthorized communication with outside media.


Any wonder why the station’s reputation and morale are about as low as its last-place standing in the ratings?


Barely five months after Fox 32 News debuted, DeVaney shocked the industry by quitting WFLD to become vice president and general manager of WPWR-Channel 50, a small independent station owned by Chicagoan Fred Eychaner. Ironically, Murdoch bought Channel 50 in 2002 from Eychaner for $425 million, assuring a comfortable early retirement for DeVaney, who had an equity interest in the station.


Caputo left Fox in 1993, only to return to Chicago a decade later to become news director at WGN-Channel 9. He’s still there now, handily beating the news operation he launched by substantial margins morning, noon and night.


 



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