You know you’ve lived awhile when what seems implausible happens.
Those of us in local television who were lucky enough to ascend to a prime-time anchor spot on the evening news used to work under the illusion of immunity. Barring any sort of public scandal or ratings decline, we were, as American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest might say, safe.
Anchors, after all, were the face of a station, personalities who had earned the public trust — which resulted in ratings, which of course translated into revenue. Losing a star anchor meant risking a ratings decline, so whatever cuts had to be made remained, for the most part, hidden from public view.
Not anymore. After 22 years of Twin Cities weather forecasts filled with highs and lows, pith and wit, TV news meteorologist Paul Douglas lost his job last week, one of several employees let go at CBS-owned WCCO-TV, including weekend anchor John Reger. And there could reportedly be more cuts.
Casualties of a tough economy.
Didn’t see it coming
“We’re seeing the signs of the economic slowdown, and it has the potential to affect us all,” says WCCO’s director of communications and content, Kiki Rosatti. “And so we are trying to take the responsibility of managing our operating costs to make sure we stay ahead of the curve.” Rosatti would not comment on the possibility of further staff reductions.
Douglas, whose real name is Douglas Paul Kruhoeffer, is the most high profile staffer to be let go so far, and it’s a shocker. It used to be, stuff like this didn’t happen to guys like him.
“I did not see it coming,” said longtime WCCO anchor Don Shelby. “That may be why there is such sadness in that it was unexpected. And even though there is sadness, there is stoicism about the realities of this business and this world.”
When I talked to Shelby by phone late Friday, he said he had called and e-mailed but had not yet spoken directly to Douglas, someone he considers both a colleague and a friend.
“I’ve known him for almost a quarter of a century,” said Shelby. Douglas had also worked as chief meteorologist at KARE-TV, and as a weatherman at WBBM in Chicago before landing at WCCO in 1997.
“Even though this is painful to see a friend no longer with us, your trust has to be with the people who do understand the business,” said Shelby. “It’s a very complex business and the people who make the decisions for this station are saddled with an immense responsibility.”
In a statement, Susan Adams Loyd, WCCO’s vice president and general manager, said this about Douglas’ departure:
“Free over-the-air television still offers a healthy business model. The steps we are taking now are proactive to ensure our viability today, tomorrow, five years from now. TV has been evolving over a sixty year history and our commitment is to continue to invest in a variety of human and technical resources to move us towards our digital future. So this is a time of evaluating the business reality in an ever-changing industry.”
Translation: The rules have changed.
Tough calls during tough times
For more than a decade, Paul Douglas provided a trustworthy familiarity as part of Channel 4’s evening news team. And even though news veterans like Shelby are used to seeing faces come and go, and even though it is no secret that the TV news industry as a whole has been suffering losses and hemorrhaging money, Douglas’ departure was still a stunner. It was just one in a series of shock waves as CBS stations across the country respond to declining revenues and viewers bear witness to long-time, popular, six- and seven-figure news reporters and anchors being shown the door … in droves.
In L.A. San Francisco. Sacramento. New York. Denver. Dallas. Pittsburgh. Philadelphia. Chicago. Boston. And Minneapolis.
Last night, Douglas sent me a lengthy response to my e-mail request for statement.
“I’m extremely gratified by the outpouring of support, kind words of encouragement, all the Minnesotans who have voiced their concern for my well-being. I’m fine, overall, shock and anger have turned into acceptance and determination. I’ve been blessed in so many ways, an amazing wife, two great boys, and more friends than I probably deserve. I’ve also surrounded myself with smart, ambitious people who have helped me transform my ideas into companies. I loved my tenure at WCCO-TV, which is filled with some of my best friends on the planet, all trying to deliver a superior product, night after night.”
Douglas also said that he is excited about the future and looking forward to his next business venture, which could include launching something, possibly on-line here in Minnesota in the next few months.
Station management says Douglas is out of town. In a brief statement published on the station’s website, Douglas said he and his wife, Laurie, consider the Twin Cities home and are committed to staying in the area. Both the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press quoted from an e-mail Douglas sent to close friends on Friday saying he was not exempt from the troubling trend of people losing their jobs during tough times, and that he was a target at a time of systematic long-term challenges.
Funny former colleague
I worked with Douglas back in the early ’90s, when we were both at local NBC affiliate KARE-TV. He and news anchor Paul Magers were buddies and newsroom pranksters who were always looking for ways to lighten things up and make the newscasts a little funnier, a little less routine. The result was a rare on-air chemistry between the two that kept viewers watching. Douglas left KARE for WBBM in Chicago in 1994. Magers left in 2003 for KCAL, a CBS station in Studio City, Calif.
A few months ago, I invited Douglas to be a part of MinnRoast, a fundraiser for MinnPost. He agreed without hesitation to participate, sending me an e-mail punctuated with exclamation points and filled with funny skit ideas for the show. He signed off by writing: “Best wishes from the weather trenches (I’m actually under the weather today, I’ll be ok by April 1, God-willing).”
April 1 was the day of the fundraiser, and the day after Douglas learned he was being laid off. He was a no-show Tuesday night, understandably, as he was called away to a family emergency out of town. The station announced his departure Friday.
For the last few weeks meteorologist Mike Fairbourne has been doing the weather on WCCO’s evening newscasts, although Rosatti told me the station is not in a position to name a replacement for Douglas.
“Right now we have the weather team of Mike Fairbourne, Ron Trenda and Chris Shaffer and we will be working a schedule utilizing all of them,” she said.
Paul Douglas may be off the air, but his friends say he’ll still have plenty to do.
“He’s got a number of irons in the fire,” says Shelby. “He is a man of a number of ideas.”
In 1990 Douglas founded EarthWatch Communications, which created the weather graphics for the movies “Jurassic Park” and “Twister.” He even made a cameo appearance in “Twister” as himself.
Last year, Douglas sold another one of his ideas, Digital Cyclone, a wireless weather-information provider, for $45 million. He has also written two books and a daily newspaper column.
“He is one of those multitalented people who can do on-air work on television and he can run a company and he can come up with ideas for the future,” said Shelby. “We may someday be buying or using the products that have been in his head for a couple of years. He’ll have the chance now to make them reality.”
And what about the perception of anchor immunity?
“No one is immune,” says Shelby. “There’s this perception that [television news anchors] are all Teflon superhuman celebrities. We’re not. We make widgets and the widgets are news. And I would presume that everything has to be considered as the business moves forward, as television redefines itself and as the market redefines itself.”
For his part, Shelby, a grandfather, confirms he’s ready for retirement after his contract expires on New Year’s Eve, 2010.
“I’m looking forward to spending time with my wife and my family whom I haven’t seen in forty years. The station is well positioned to carry on without me.”
UPDATE: Here is the entire text of Douglas’ statement:
“I’m extremely gratified by the outpouring of support, kind words of encouragement, all the Minnesotans who have voiced their concern for my well-being. I’m fine, overall, shock and anger have turned into acceptance and determination. I’ve been blessed in so many ways, an amazing wife, two great boys, and more friends than I probably deserve. I’ve also surrounded myself with smart, ambitious people who have helped me transform my ideas into companies. I loved my tenure at WCCO-TV, which is filled with some of my best friends on the planet, all trying to deliver a superior product, night after night. The business climate is just so much tougher now, more unforgiving. In the end this was a business decision, one I accept. It points out the obvious: consumers are migrating to the internet for a majority of their news and information. This brings up tremendous new opportunities, and I hope to launch a few Big Ideas in the months ahead. Minnesota is the place to do it. Smart people, a work ethic second to none. For me the joy is not so much “being on TV”, but turning ideas into tangible, profitable businesses that help people in some way. What we are seeing on-line now is just the start, the veritable tip of the iceberg. There is so much more we can do to harness the power of the internet to tell the weather story and more. I’m not bitter. That kind of negativity doesn’t lead to anything good or productive. I’m looking forward to the future, to making new friends, and hopefully launching new businesses, right here in Minnesota. In spite of the recent turn of events there is nowhere else I want to be. This is home.”