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
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.
Early Show co-host Jane Clayson tells Douglas, "We're really having a great time and we appreciate our strong affiliates like WCCO." Footage of Douglas high-fiving with Early Show staffers after another successful weathercast enhances regular-
Immunity Challenge #2
Everybody loves babies! Especially when delivered by an anchor!
For months the Hometown Team pumps anchor Amelia Santaniello's pregnancy, urging viewers to make donations for a charity fundraiser advertised under the banner "Amelia's Baby Shower." When the big day comes, on April 26, fellow anchor Don Shelby takes a break from headlines to announce the arrival of Samuel Joseph. Meteorologist Paul Douglas delivers a weather report from outside the hospital where Santaniello gave birth. Shelby conducts a phone interview with Santaniello two hours after delivery. Cute still shots of hairy-headed baby color the commentary.
Shelby slickly anticipates the killjoys, who will no doubt question the event's newsworthiness. "In the interest of good journalism, tell us, how many pushes?" he asks Santaniello. (It took five.)
ADDED SHAMELESSNESS BONUS
The following night, ten minutes into the 10:00 p.m. news, substitute anchor Randi Kaye leads into a live interview with Santaniello, calling it "the moment we've all been waiting for." Five-push anecdote is repeated. A week later, when Santaniello returns to the anchor seat (just in time for May sweeps!), Shelby goes the extra mile, asking a question tailor-made to keep station management out of the hot seat: "Were you told to come back, or did you want to come back?" Carrying water after breaking water, Santaniello assures viewers the decision was hers alone. Four months later, lest viewers forget Santaniello's new-mother status, Samuel Joseph is given some face time at the State Fair.
Immunity Challenge #3
by any means necessary
On Saturday, May 6, weekend anchor John Reger previews the CBS Hallmark of Fame special Cupid and Cate," slated to air the following night. The piece includes a canned interview with apparently incoherent actress Mary-Louise Parker.
With no news peg in sight, Reger goes out on a limb to assure viewers that the drama "captures the essence of romance, family, and friends." Those paid to watch it are less kind. USA Today includes the tearjerker in a roundup of the season's worst made-for-TV movies. The Los Angeles Times predicts the soap-style flick will have most viewers "reaching for the No-Doz long before the Kleenex."
Immunity Challenge #4
Pump made-for-TV movie by any means necessary (The Sequel)
One week after the clumsy Cupid and Cate promo, John Reger finds the perfect hook on which to a hang a brief story about CBS's two-part miniseries Jesus: Papal endorsement! The weekend anchor reports that the Pope "praised the miniseries as positive programming." In keeping with WCCO's tradition of explanatory journalism, Reger carefully tells viewers, "Christians believe Jesus is the son of God who came from Heaven to save man from sin."
After the plug, Reger notes that the weather will be cool on the night Jesus airs. "It should be a nice night to stay home and watch TV," he tells viewers. In a brief followup report two nights later, 'CCO anchor Don Shelby artfully squeezes in one more reference to the miniseries, noting that the Italian version of the show included a resurrection sequence American viewers did not see.
Immunity Challenge #5
Plant a wet kiss on a major advertiser's lips, call it news, and hope no one notices
By the time May sweeps roll around, the Hometown Team's consumer reporter Kevyn Burger does yeoman work. In a cleavage-heavy "Dimension" segment called "Hometown Prom Dresses," Burger examines how the Hollywood "tramp trend" influences the fashion sensibilities of local teens come prom time. (Sample expert quote: "Breasts are kind of popular right now.") But Burger doesn't hit her synergistic stride until May 18, when she files a bold "Dimension" report on the Target Corp. In this drop-to-the-knees look at a major advertiser's "hip" new advertising campaign, viewers learn that "good retailing happens from passion, and passion comes from the gut." Burger also breaks the news that computers are used in creating TV ads.
After Burger's piece airs, co-anchors Don Shelby and Amelia Santaniello playfully take turns donning a fishing cap emblazoned with the Hometown Corporate Behemoth's bull's-eye logo.
ADDED SHAMELESSNESS BONUS
In August Santaniello declares a Target advertisement "Our Pick" for best spot aired during the Survivor finale. The kudos, along with news that 30-second ads during the last episode cost a half-million dollars apiece, provides rationale to run the ad again. "Do we get a little piece of that for running it again?" Shelby quips afterward.
Immunity Challenge #6
Declare one of your network's shows
a cultural phenomenon--before it becomes one
WCCO's zeal for covering the Survivor/Big Brother juggernaut doesn't kick into high gear until late summer, but the Hometown Team gets a quick jump during a July 5 broadcast, when part-time anchor Randi Kaye refers to Big Brother as "CBS's new hit show."
Kaye's assessment comes on the night of Big Brother's debut--before any ratings are available to confirm the show's "hit" status. While the first episode did boffo numbers on the strength of a strong lead-in from Survivor, its appeal does not endure; the show is soon losing ratings battles to reruns of NBC's Friends.
ADDED SHAMELESSNESS BONUS
On July 18 Don Shelby gives out a 900 number so viewers can vote on the fate of a Big Brother houseguest. Notes the civic-minded anchor: "It costs about a buck to vote, but it's free to see who wins next Thursday night here on WCCO, Channel 4." Shelby and weatherman Paul Douglas then take turns making cash-register sound effects ("Ka-ching!").
Immunity Challenge #7
If anyone mocks the franchise,
mock 'em back
On July 5, to commemorate the premiere of Big Brother, the Hometown Team runs a lengthy profile of Twin Cities contestant/noted virgin Brittany Petros, as well as an update on the latest Survivor banishment. Of course, the most important cultural phenomenon of the summer isn't without some critics. So Don Shelby delivers a short piece on the self-explanatory Web site survivorsucks.com.
Shelby calls survivorsucks.com's creators "another group of people who have too much time on their hands." Co-anchor Randi Kaye chimes in with a pithy dis: "I think we should ship those people off to their own island."
Immunity Challenge #8
Enhance coverage of underperforming reality show by pairing it with
As the summer wears on, the Hometown Team begins packaging Survivor and Big Brother in back-to-back news stories. The evolving quest for triple synergy is fully realized during six and a half minutes on July 26. After a "Dimension" piece by reporter Darcy Pohland on the cultural meaning of Survivor (conclusion: It's not like reality, but also it is!), anchor Don Shelby discusses the fine points of Survivor strategy. Contending that "you can't be totally cruel or arrogant or devious or manipulative," Shelby predicts doom for Richard Hatch--who, as it happens, turns out to be the ultimate "Survivor." In a slyly crafted segue, Randi Kaye reports on an ex-island denizen who is "considering" posing nude in Playboy for half a million dollars--the same bounty, Kaye notes by way of transition, as the Big Brother payout. And, eureka, the Hometown Team serves up a piece on Jean Jordan, an ex-stripper from Minneapolis who has just been banished from the Big Brother house.
In a happy-talk lead-in to the weather report, Shelby refers to meteorologist Paul Douglas as "one of the all-time survivors in the world of television." Douglas then teases viewers by suggesting that the South Pacific typhoon season could add "a surprise ending" to Survivor. He fails to mention that Survivor's cast and crew had their wrap party two months earlier.
ADDED SHAMELESSNESS BONUS
In the course of a single broadcast, the Hometown Team makes its case for the "fame" status of both Big Brother and Survivor contestants by showing footage of their appearances on two other oft-pimped CBS shows, The Late Show With David Letterman and The Early Show.
Immunity Challenge #9
Dedicate a newscast to a show that
40 million people just watched
By the time the much-ballyhooed Survivor finale airs on August 23, tie-ins to the show are old hat. But tonight WCCO redefines blockbuster coverage, as co-anchors Amelia Santaniello and Don Shelby race through six minutes of non-Survivor headlines before turning the Hometown Team loose on the only story that matters. "Our eyes were glued to the set," Santaniello declares as she recaps events of the finale, complete with highlight-reel footage of CBS's three previous hours of entertainment programming. That leads into a segment about local Survivor fans gathered at Flashbaxx nightclub in the Mall of America, where 'CCO's sister radio station, the Point (104.1 FM) sponsored a party. Back in the studio, Shelby plugs WCCO's online Survivor poll, then declares he is "sickened" by the triumph of Richard Hatch. Reporter David Schechter hypes Survivor 2 with a piece about Twin Cities residents who have auditioned for the January sequel. Then reporter Cathy Wurzer is couch-side with a Survivor-obsessed family who watch "the climactic finish" during an "Island-themed party" at their St. Louis Park home. In all, the Hometown Team devotes nine full minutes to the franchise.
In his piece about the auditions for Survivor 2, Schechter asks one of the 800 national finalists how it feels to be "like, a total celebrity." Wurzer's story, meanwhile, touts the "shared memories" benefit of Survivor-watching as a family activity. (As it turns out, Wurzer's dispatch is one of her last for WCCO. A few weeks later, she leaves the Hometown Team for a morning gig at Minnesota Public Radio.)
ADDED SHAMELESSNESS BONUS
Shelby and weatherman Paul Douglas seamlessly work in additional Survivor references in their happy-talk segment. Douglas denies Shelby's accusation that he rooted for the Survivor winner. Shelby says he is "saddened by the idea that manipulation wins."
Immunity Challenge #10
Work themes of Big Brother, masturbation, and CBS into a positive story
All summer the Hometown Team has been running hard with the story of "Jordan," the Minneapolis-based stripper of Big Brother fame. On July 20, following an interview with one of the contestant's fellow exotic dancers, WCCO scoops the competition with exclusive home-video footage of Jean Jordan back when she was president of her high school class. Afterward anchor Dennis Douda opines that Jordan will probably soon surface on The Late Show With David Letterman. Co-anchor Randi Kaye confirms Douda's bold prognostication the following week, with breaking news that Jordan has agreed to appear. But it takes the Hometown Team's varsity anchor to land an exclusive interview. In a rare display of her reporting chops, Amelia Santaniello sits face-to-face with Jordan, eliciting her response to a clip of the show's naughtiest moment: Jordan, floating in a swimming pool, asking her housemates, "Would you guys masturbate here?" Santaniello deems Jordan "comfortable with her sexuality" after Jordan declares herself "totally not a slut."
Santaniello's report includes a heartening affirmation of the moral worth of reality TV: "Thanks to Big Brother, Jordan says, her exotic-dancing days are behind her." In a flawlessly executed moment of synergy, Santaniello then notes that Jordan has landed a drive-time radio gig at the Point--WCCO's hip sister station. Santaniello closes her report with a programming note about the Big Brother finale, still more than a month away, whereupon co-anchor Don Shelby segues seamlessly ("speaking of television") into a story about Survivor's ratings triumph. And finally, Shelby offers an additional mark-your-calendar note: the re-runs begin in just three weeks!
ADDED SHAMELESSNESS BONUS
Provocative Jordan interview runs immediately following Shelby's tribute to mentor and old-school journalist Dave Moore.
Immunity Challenge #11
When network star comes to town on a publicity tour, report on it, but maintain journalistic integrity
On August 31, following up on the Hometown Team's earlier stories that ex-Survivor Rudy--the crotchety ex-Navy Seal--may be Minnesota-bound, 'CCO anchor Don Shelby gets the scoop. "My guy Rudy from the real Survivor is in town and we were told he had dinner with Governor Jesse Ventura," Shelby tells an excited State Fair crowd.
For viewers curious about why WCCO fails to interview Rudy, Shelby explains that the Survivor outcast's agent demanded $1,000. "We took our thousand bucks and bought cheese curds instead," he says. It's unclear whether the ensuing round of applause from the State Fair crowd is for Shelby's hard-line journalistic stance or the prospect of free cheese curds.
Immunity Challenge #12
If network hit comes to the end of its run, concoct your own version, then dare to put it on the news
Two days after the Survivor finale, WCCO airs its own version of the contest, set at the Minnesota State Fair. Dubbed "Surviving the Fair," the segment runs for the duration of the fair and operates according to the same basic principles. There is no money at stake. The ultimate State Fair survivor, a former dairy farmer named Ron who has no lower teeth, must be satisfied with a year's worth of free concert tickets (supplied by the Point!) and a trip to New York to watch the taping of Letterman, The NFL Today, and MTV's live request show TRL (all CBS properties). The eight strangers on the WCCO rooftop compete in various bouts of fair-related gluttony (milk drinking, corn eating) and frivolity (cow washing, butter sculpting). As in the real Survivor, the contestants are divided into two tribes: Nature's Wrath, led by the Point's morning-show producer; and the Huddlemites, dubbed in honor of their captain, WCCO morning anchor Dave Huddleston. The Hometown Team provides both daily updates and full-blown feature reports about the contest. The final installment, a highlight reel of all the high jinks--runs an astounding seven minutes.
No bonus necessary.
Immunity Challenge #13
Incorporate network reruns into the nightly newscast
In the weeks following the synergy-gasm at the State Fair, WCCO viewers could hardly be faulted for suspecting that the Hometown Team had shot its promotional wad. But when CBS announced it would air daily rebroadcasts of Survivor beginning on September 15, the Team seizes the moment. So what if the Hometown Retailer is already discounting Survivor T-shirts? As City Pages goes to press, WCCO is running daily updates on the lives of the Survivor cast.
Weekend anchor John Reger follows a recent CBS-produced Survivor piece with seamless transition to Big Brother, which is "building toward the final episode on September 29." The Hometown Team then broadcasts footage featuring the winner from the U.K. version of Big Brother.
Mike Tronnes, co-editor of Cursor.org, provided research assistance for this story.
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