Some Thoughts on Action News, and their Rudimentary Approach to Total Market Domination

Jim Gardner signed off from the 11 p.m. news on WPVI Tuesday night. He’s continuing with the 6 p.m. show and will retire at the end of the year.

What’s ridiculous is that Action News simply slotted in Rick Williams for the late news. Gardner has been there since the 1970s but Williams has been there since the 1980s, so they are replacing one O.G. veteran with another O.G. veteran. It’s insanely impressive, and it’s why I compared Action News on Tuesday to the 2002 Detroit Red Wings, who won the Stanley Cup with nine future Hall of Famers on the roster.

When Gardner did his final read last night, he talked about the importance of trust in building an audience, and trust is key. Most people in this area don’t give a shit about what station they’re watching, they tune in for a specific anchor. They watched Jim Gardner because they watched him 10, 20, 30, and 40 years ago, and it’s that longstanding experience at the news desk which makes people think, “I believe the words that are coming out of this guy’s mouth.” During my time in television, which was 2007 to 2016, I ran into MYRIAD people who had no idea what station they were actually watching, because they were focused on a specific person instead. They wouldn’t say, “we watch Eyewitness News,” they’d say, “we watch Ukee Washington in the morning and Jim Gardner at night.” Most people couldn’t even remember which brand was NBC or CBS. They’d just say “channel 6” or “channel 3” or “channel 10.”

The people running the show at Action News always knew this. They understood that if you built a roster of professional journalists and excellent off-air folks, and made those people feel like they were part of something important, then you would get their unwavering commitment in return. It’s why they were able to roll out numerous established veterans at the same time, like Gardner, Williams, Cathy Gandolfo, Lisa Thomas-Laury, Gary Papa, Vernon Odom, etc. Even the anchors and reporters considered “new” at Action News have been there for 10-15 years, like Jamie Apody:

One of the things Action News perfected a long time ago was the idea of leaving it alone. The product is largely the same as it used to be. You turn on the television and you get news, weather, and sports. That has barely changed over the course of four decades. You run out a bunch of reporter/camera pairings, fly the chopper where it needs to go, and do the best local reporting you can do. It wasn’t a reinvention of the wheel, and they didn’t do a lot of fancy production, either. We were doing quadruple boxes with pre-recorded bobbleheads and walking the anchors from one end of the studio to the other. Meantime, channel 6 would come on with Jim Gardner, he’d say “this is the big story,” and then toss to Dann Cuellar. Over and over and over again.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The other stations had some fantastic people working for them, and they still do. The likes of Bob Kelly and Kathy Orr and Hurricane Schwartz are still around, and they do a great job. But a lot their veteran colleagues moved on some time ago, and now you don’t even recognize half of the talent on NBC, CBS, and FOX. All of that rollover contributed to viewers saying “I don’t know who these people are, so I’ll stick with what’s familiar,” and that’s Action News.

WPVI always understood that Philly is an uber-provincial market, not just in television. There are folks in this area who have been going to Wildwood for 40 straight years, but it’s not because Sea Isle sucks. It’s because they’ve always gone to Wildwood and like it there. Likewise, people tune in to watch anchors they are familiar with, hence the “trust” Gardner mentioned in his sign off. If you ask people why they watch channel 6, you often get something like, “I don’t know; we just always have.”

There were times that other stations came close to beating Action News. Comcast put a lot of money into NBC 10 about 10 years ago and made a run. Alycia Lane and Larry Mendte did well before their respective cop-punching and email-hacking incidents. It wasn’t always total hegemony from a Nielsen standpoint. But the New York City suits running those other stations were too impatient to realize that the only way to defeat channel 6 is to play and win a war of attrition in this uniquely insular DMA.

For instance, what if channel 3 had worked to keep the likes of Susan Barnett, Chris May, Beasley Reece, Orr, and Kelly? By the time Jim Gardner retired, they would have had their own stable of 10 and 15 year veterans to make a run at WPVI. Instead, they just kept turning over talent every time a new suit came in, because the people up there in New York never gave a shit about the news. It was only about making money, and most of the general managers and news directors in this town have to unfortunately answer to some guy above them who doesn’t live here and doesn’t care about Philadelphia. There are so many fantastic people at the other stations who have been perpetually handcuffed and hamstrung by crappy overlords.

But what did Action News do? They did nothing. They did absolutely nothing at all. They just kept hammering home the same formula that worked for them back in the day. Everybody else was turning over talent and getting new mic flags and building new anchor desks, and trying all of this shit that really truly did not matter. WPVI was consistently rolling out a quality product with trusted veterans in front of the camera. It was brilliant in its simplicity. Less is so much more, and Action News has taken that philosophy straight to the top.

How can you not be impressed?

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