Marianne Banister departs WBAL-TV tonight, after 15 years as co-anchor of the nightly news at 6 and 11. It’s one more sign of the economic noose tightening around TV news, and one more sign of the changing personality of the medium.
Or, more precisely, lack of personality.
Banister and Rod Daniels have co-anchored some pretty heady times for WBAL: lots of ratings victories, advertising money reflecting the audience numbers, and lots of chances to gloat about beating WJZ-TV, which was the behemoth of Baltimore TV news ratings for years during the heyday of Jerry Turner and Al Sanders.
But that was long ago.
Banister is leaving against her will. Money is tight everywhere, so people making big salaries are vulnerable. Never mind WBAL’s ratings, the internet age has meant diminished overall audience numbers for all stations and therefore diminished advertising dollars — and it has meant belt-tightening for all traditional media outlets, including TV.
And, unlike some television departures that leave a kind of emotional hole in the atmosphere, Banister’s exodus — despite her appearances in thousands of homes each weeknight since 1995 — will likely make barely discernible ripples.
It’s the nature of the modern game of local TV news, where anchors aren’t what they used to be.
In Turner's and Sanders’ time, personality was everything. The TV anchors weren’t just bringing you the news – they were marketed as your friends. Maybe it was news you were watching, but it was news shown on a television set, and therefore it was a branch office of entertainment. Even the news promos reflected this: the anchors were shown talking to sick children, or picking up coffee for pals, or strolling through a local community where all the neighbors seemed to know them.
When Turner and Sanders departed — each a fatal victim of lung cancer — it was not only a loss to their families and their stations. It felt like municipal tragedies for Baltimore.
You knew those guys. They kibitzed on the air during the soft spots in the show, they were seen as extended family, and they were the heart of what everyone assumed was the foreseeable future of news.
WBAL has never played the same kind of personality game. Over the past decade, its anchors have seemed interchangeable, and were never given big publicity rides.
The biggest anchor star at WBAL was the late Rolf Hertsgaard, and that was years ago. A few days after he was fired, Hertsgaard sat at the bar at the old Cy Bloom’s Place in the Alley and lamented the changes already taking place. It was the dawning of a new era in local TV, and its dominant name was Jerry Turner.
“We all have a role to play,” Hertsgaard said gloomily. “Mine was to be sincere and earnest. Jerry Turner’s the good-natured neighbor. TV just decided sincerity isn’t enough any more.” That was three decades ago, when personality was the byword of the day.
That’s changed. Local TV news can’t afford to have high-priced anchors the way it once could, and its top executive believe they can’t afford to be perceived as less than serious.
For years now the heart of WBAL’s news operation — in marketing, and in reality — is Jayne Miller, who specializes in investigative reporting. That’s a station declaring that news matters. It is good news for serious viewers, but the emphasis sends a chill through anchors all around town.
They’ve discovered how interchangeable they are. Anchors rarely leave the studio to look for news. Their job is mainly to read words off of a TelePrompter.
It’s not Marianne Banister’s fault that this was the constricted role carved out for her. But it’s a fact that, whatever her actual personality, viewers rarely got much of a glimpse of it. Whatever her capacity for analysis, or for ad libs beyond the merest pleasantry, she remains a mystery.
If she was like most news anchors, she earned more money than most reporters. In a tough economy, that made her a luxury. In a medium that passed through the age of anchor-as-personality, it also made her expendable. Even with good ratings. Even after 15 years.
Michael Olesker spent 19 years doing nightly commentary for WJZ-TV’s Eyewitness News and is the author of “Tonight at 6: A Daily Show Masquerading as Local TV News.”