WCCO Survivor

Surviving the News in the Hometown Team's Summer of Self-Love

Turn back, if you will, to August 24. The folks at WCCO-TV (Channel 4) are on top of the local broadcasting world. It is just one day after the last installment of Survivor, CBS's much-ballyhooed foray into voyeuristic, reality-based television. Thanks to all the buzz, WCCO, which is owned by CBS, garnered a whopping 60 percent share of Twin Cities viewers the night of the finale. Basking in the afterglow of the triumph, the 10:00 p.m. edition of the Hometown Team--as 'CCO refers to its news division--is strutting its stuff in front of a live audience at the Minnesota State Fair. Tonight, co-anchors Don Shelby (a former investigative reporter and WCCO's alpha male since 1985) and the exquisitely coifed Amelia Santaniello soak up the good vibes with the practiced aplomb of any major-market team: very May-December, well-spoken, and chatty.

Eight minutes into the broadcast, there is a special moment. Rising from his folding director's chair, the casually dressed, 53-year-old Shelby gestures toward a large cloaked object to his right. The crowd is hushed as Shelby unveils a life-size bronze bust of the late Dave Moore, Shelby's predecessor as WCCO's lead anchor. He personally commissioned the sculpture, Shelby explains, to ensure that "the old man" will retain a physical, as well as spiritual presence at the station's studios on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. The crowd applauds. Santaniello applauds. The sculptor is interviewed.

As feel-the-love gestures go, this one is expertly timed. After all, what better occasion than the Great Minnesota Get-Together to remind viewers that the venerable Moore was once a member of the Hometown Team? In a 28-year run as WCCO's chief anchor, Moore was Minnesota's most recognizable and most popular newsman. The only talking head who really mattered to generations of news viewers. And there's no question that Shelby, Moore's devoted acolyte and himself a winner of many of broadcast journalism's top awards, is the proper man to pay tribute.

There is an irony to the scene, as well. The self-effacing Moore, who enjoyed a reputation as a fierce guardian of old-fashioned journalistic values, often publicly lamented how the demands of his craft were changing: the sensationalizing; the teasing; the marketing of news. But what Moore would make of Shelby's on-air gesture is entirely beside the point. After all, the invocation of his legacy serves an end WCCO has spent the summer pursuing with unparalleled zeal: pushing the company brand.

Throughout the season WCCO has aired story after story about themselves (Amelia Santaniello has a sonogram!), their advertisers (Target is a fun place to shop!) and, of course, network programming (Survivor and and its stepsibling Big Brother rule!). Of course WCCO's rivals are no strangers to the art of the tie-in. The news division at KSTP (Channel 5) has surfed the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire wave, and the gang at KARE (Channel 11) hitched their wagons to ER. But the Hometown Team has only just begun tapping the synergistic value of CBS's entertainment products. Now, amid the giddy atmosphere of the State Fair, comes the pièce de résistance.

Following the Moore tribute, Shelby introduces a new feature: a Hometown version of Survivor, starring WCCO's very own morning anchor, Dave Huddleston, and complete with tiki torches, hypnotic musical theme, and slo-mo camera moves. For the next week and a half, the Hometown Team will push the "contest" with unrivaled passion, airing regular updates and playful features as many as five times daily. Even WCCO's vaunted "Dimension" segment--the station's "leading brand," long-format news feature--will be used to carry water for the revolutionary tie-in.

An awesome spectacle indeed. For the past decade, scholars, critics, and many journalists have engaged in fervent bouts of handwringing over the blurred line between news and entertainment. But what's left to do when there's no line left to blur?

Why, make a game out of it, of course! We'll call ours Surviving the News.

We reviewed WCCO's newscasts from the past six months, looking for the most blatant episodes of self- and cross-promotion. Of course, this didn't allow us to consider some of the Hometown Team's choicest contributions to local journalism--reports like Trish Van Pilsum's breathless sweeps-week extravaganza about porn in the Minneapolis Public Library, and fellow reporter Rick Fuentes's undercover investigation of spring-break debauchery in Mexico ("Local teens out of the country--and a lot of them out of control!" the promos blared) contained no self-referential material or network tie-ins, and were therefore ineligible for consideration.

Still, as you'll see, we found no shortage of admirable moments. Below, in chronological order, are more than a dozen highlights from WCCO's unprecedented season of synergy. At the end of the story, we've included a ballot so readers can decide which 'CCO reporter or anchor most deserves the title of the ultimate Hometown Team Survivor. So now, as 'CCO sportscaster Mark Rosen might say, let's roll the tape!



Immunity Challenge #1


Pretend your weatherman is a
national celebrity



Hometown Team chief meteorologist Paul Douglas bombed the last time he took his act on the road, to WBBM-TV in Chicago, where Windy City TV critics dubbed him "the goof on the roof." Nonetheless, the glib Pee-wee Herman look-alike has the gift of the natural synergist. (Fun fact: In addition to parlaying his local celebrity into a weather column for the Star Tribune, Douglas acted as a special consultant on the Steven Spielberg weather drama Twister!) In March Douglas secures a weeklong stint as a guest weatherman on CBS's Early Show, and presto, the Hometown Team has a national player. WCCO seizes the opportunity, turning Douglas's fleeting moment of exposure into a "Dimension" report entitled "Early Risers." In the four-and-a-half-minute piece, viewers learn that morning-show hosts are often tired, and that Douglas has a knack for engaging in seamless water-cooler banter with network heavyweights like Early Show host Bryant Gumbel.

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