Why Bill & Walter’s long goodbye was a bust

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Somebody must have thought it was a good idea to include Dr. Phil and Nancy O’Dell in CBS 2's farewell tribute last Thursday to Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson. It wasn’t.


Nor was it necessary to hear Scott Pelley, Charlie Rose, Gayle King or Norah O’Donnell read their scripted sendoffs to the departing anchor duo and pretend that they cared, too.


Together, their cameos turned what could have been a moment or two for viewers to savor into shameless plugola for the station’s syndicated swill and its network news shows — yet another example of how local TV news alienates its dwindling audience with incessant shilling and constant self-promotion.


Even worse was the clumsy choreography of the nearly eight-minute swan song: Kurtis and Jacobson forced to stand around and endure idle chitchat with Rob Johnson, Kate Sullivan, Ryan Baker and Steve Baskerville — all of them acting as if everything was hunky-dory with two guys who'd just been put out to pasture. Who were they kidding?


On the very day that another Chicagoan, Andrew Mason, nailed his farewell with an exceedingly honest but graceful exit (to say nothing of Pope Benedict XVI), CBS 2’s spectacle was awkward, exploitative and cringe-inducing. Regardless of the words Jacobson spoke, the look on his face made it clear how unhappy he was about leaving. Kurtis, I suspect, was simply the better actor. In truth, neither one had any desire or intention to retire, notwithstanding all the “happy retirement” hoopla last Thursday.


To paraphrase their memorable slogan from the 1970s: It wasn't pretty and it wasn't real.


In the end, it proved that CBS 2’s Bill & Walter reunion was never anything more than a marketing ploy by news director Jeff Kiernan, who hoped to cloak his current regime in the aura of the station’s past success. Whether Kiernan believes he achieved that goal, ratings for the 6pm newscast Kurtis and Jacobson fronted remained stuck in third place — far behind front-runner ABC 7.


Back in July 2010, when the Bill & Walter comeback was announced, I called it an “act of desperation by Channel 2.” For the record, here’s what else I wrote at the time: 


“Let's face it: It's a station that's been mired in last place for so long and has subjected its audience to so much upheaval that the only gimmick left is to turn the clock back and hope enough viewers will think it's 1980 instead of 2010. But how in the world does a move like this position Channel 2 for the future? I don't get it.


“It's not just that Kurtis has done such a masterful job of mocking the stereotype of the pompous, self-important anchorman that he embodied in his earlier incarnation at Channel 2. He did it as narrator of the movie Anchorman, a silly satire on the shallowness of local television news, and he did it as paid pitchman for AT&T in ads that turned his trademark gravitas on its head, depicting him as a clueless buffoon (‘I’m Bill Kurtis -- and I just discovered the Internet!’). Yes, of course, we all understood that he was in on the joke. That was the fun of it. But how are we supposed to take the guy seriously as an anchorman now that he's let us in on the truth, and we know he knows it's all bullshit?


“And it's not just that Jacobson, our forever fabulous Skippy, has often spoken out about the decline of local news. During the year I was on hiatus and Walter was busy writing his memoirs, we must have talked a dozen times about how journalistically bankrupt the business has become. No one lamented it more than he did. If he thinks his comeback with Kurtis will somehow put everything back the way it was, I'm afraid he's in for a terrible disappointment.


“What I think bothers me the most is the nagging sense that this is all just a cynical stunt that's doomed to fail. Reuniting Bill & Walter for one golden evening of nostalgia last November was one thing. But putting them out there night after night on a newscast of no consequence with scant resources? . . .


“Of course, there's always the possibility of a miracle (say, if WLS-Channel 7 suddenly goes off the air forever). But barring that, it seems highly unlikely that the presence of Kurtis and Jacobson alone will be enough to set Channel 2's ratings on fire again. If they fail, I fear it won't just be another embarrassment for CBS. It will also forever tarnish the legacy of two of Chicago's greatest broadcast legends whom we've known and loved, as Kurtis himself might say, lo these many years.”



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