Female anchors and reporters on the cable news channels and local TV news certainly look different today. The rule used to be that nothing about an anchor should be distracting, nothing flashy, nothing sexy; they should look credible. Credible meant shortish hair (shoulder length max), street eye make-up (no formal evening or look-like-a-hooker eye make-up), no flashy jewelry, no red lipstick, no red nail polish, no tight blouses and no plunging necklines. When I worked with Barbara Walters, Bettina Gregory, Candy Crowley, Katie Couric, Jeanie Moos, Ann Compton (who is still on the air for ABC News) and others, they exemplified the appropriate "look." Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer are the style that I taught UGA students a few years ago. Today when I suggest what a female reporter or anchor-wanna-be should look like, my students look at me cross-eyed.
While executive vice president/ senior executive producer at CNN, I received resumes and tapes from anchors across the country wanting to come to CNN. In the mid-’90s, I repeatedly received the resume and anchor tape of a woman who was looking to come to CNN. I never gave her serious consideration because of her name and her on-air appearance (more on that momentarily) although her delivery was fine.
I was sitting in my office one morning, minding my own business, when my boss entered with a flourish, a beautiful, very long-blond-haired woman in tow. In live and living color, I was looking at that woman who had sent me numerous tapes. "Why won’t you give this woman a job?" asked my boss. Funny that he would care, given that we were not in the market for an anchor, especially a very long-blond-haired woman. I did the politically right thing to do with your boss and immediately offered to give her an anchor audition.
My audition had become legendary at CNN since we had so many anchor wanna-bes both inside and outside the CNN networks. The tech crew in studio B where those auditions were held would themselves score the auditions. They all followed the same pattern. The awb (anchor wanna-be) was given a script to review while in make-up. Then once in the studio, a brief rehearsal so that the teleprompter operator could gauge the awb’s reading speed. The awb wore an IFB (that ear-piece you sometimes see in a live reporter or anchor’s ear. The producer or director could speak to the reporter or anchor via this IFB.)
So once I thought the rehearsal had gone on long enough, I gave the anchor a stand-by, the director commanded "roll tape," and we got underway. After reading about three minutes of copy, the awb usually felt the audition was over. Surprise. Again, speaking into the ear of the awb, I said, "The floor director will give you cold copy (meaning unread by the awb), please stand-by." Seconds later the cue was given and now I am looking for decent delivery never having seen the script and keeping up with the pages so that if the prompter failed, the awb could easily look down and seamlessly continue. And, of course, I arranged for the teleprompter to fail. Now I wanted to see good eye contact with the viewer (the camera) and a calm delivery.
By the time we were finished with part two of the audition, most awb’s were sweaty under the arms but there was no time to relax. I was in their ear again. "We have a breaking story. You’ll be doing a phoner (phone interview) with Bob Smith, PR guy for United Airlines. We’ve had a plane crash…plane crashed on approach in St. Louis. You have 15 seconds until the interview. I will be Bob Smith in your ear." Now I want to see a pencil or pen in the awb’s hand and notes being written on the back of the cold script.
"Stand-by…cue." At this point the awb should be saying there is a breaking story, "A United Airlines plane has crashed at St. Louis airport and we have a United spokesperson on the phone. Mr. Smith, thank you for joining us." First question should be the planes flight number. Then point of origination and final destination …the kind of information anyone was had a relative or friend traveling on United would want to know. Next question…number of people on board. (I’m giving short answers to all these questions.) The good anchors who were previously decent reporters ask all these questions in just that order. The key from here on out is to listen to the answers in order to follow-up appropriately.
"Can you tell our viewers about casualties?" We know it is too early to tell but this is what the viewer wants to know. My calculated answer, "We don’t know. The fire engines are on scene but ambulances have not yet arrived." The next question should be, "Is the plane on fire?" A good, experienced journalist knows most people die from smoke inhalation in an airplane crash, and this is a key question that many awb’s don’t ask. Next question should be, "We understand the plane impacted short of the runway. Was it in a populated area? Do you expect ground injuries?"
Back to Miss long very-blonde hair CNN awb. She was great! I mean she hit homer after homer. All the right questions. Great sense of urgency in her voice. Took notes and recapped the story thoroughly before throwing to an imaginary commercial. I was impressed.
By the way, I haven’t told you what her name was. Her first name was Cinnamon. No, I’m not kidding, Cinnamon. Back in my office I asked Cinnamon if this was a name she had adopted or was it her real name. She informed me that it was, in fact, her real first name. I complimented her on her audition praising her demeanor, her questions, follow-ups and her recap. Then came the bad news. "Cinnamon, if you were anchoring on CNN and you had to tell our viewers that the president’s plane was missing, between your name and your beautiful blonde hair, they would never believe you."
She calmly offered to use her middle name, cut her hair and tone down the shade of blond. I had no openings but referred her to my good friend who ran Headline News at the time.
Today, there are Cinnamons with long blonde hair, lots of make-up, flashy jewelry and sometimes too-tight blouses or plunging necklines a-plenty. Will you believe them when they deliver some devastating news?
Bob Furnad is a resident of Covington and the former president of CNN Headline News.