Tribune Co. Chief Innovation Officer Develops Newscast Sans Anchors or Reporters

Remember Lee Abrams, the eccentric (some would say nutty) Chief Innovation Officer of the Tribune Company best known for writing bizarre stream of conciousness memos that sound like the author is on an acid trip? Well, he and his memos are back to promote the launch of a new newscast at KIAH Channel 39 in Houston which will be notable for its lack of anchors or reporters. This development comes on the heels of the utter failure of another Abrams project launched with much enthusiasm last year at WSFL-TV in South Florida, The Morning Show. The sad fate of that show was described in a memo yesterday sent out to the staff by publisher Howard Greenberg of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel which runs that station:

Earlier this morning, WSFL-TV announced the cancellation of The Morning Show, with today being the last broadcast. Launched on April 13, 2009, the program was designed to provide the competitive South Florida market with a fresh take on morning news. We had high hopes for the program, and significant effort from throughout the company went into developing the show. While we're proud of what we accomplished in a short period of time, the audience didn't build the way we had anticipated, and we had to make the difficult decision to end production. Every effort is being made to help affected employees with this transition, including assisting them in exploring placement within our organization and at other Tribune properties. We're also helping facilitate the production of resume tapes and other material for departing staff members.

Bob Norman of the Daily Pulp makes an observation about what the real problem with that show was:

The problem, of course, was that there wasn't really anything new about it all -- it was a traditional morning show at its core, only with younger hosts and an emphasis on the show's website that never really created any buzz or took off. 

However, at the time of the launch of The Morning Show, Abrams waxed enthusiastic about it in this memo:

Very blown away by the morning show! Not only the show, but the spirit and attitude of EVERYONE involved. If we can get 10 percent of this level of afdi, energy and willingness to reinvent at our other stations, we'll truly revolutionize TV.

There were quite a few nitpiks that I'll review today with the group, but overall, they are soooo local and soooo refreshingly and NOTICEABLY different from EVERYone else.

The other stations look disconnected, TOO professional and slick and "nationalized" in comparison, and I think this show is on track to hit its psychographic head on. Watched the competition and it was hilariously dated--Stiff, evil looking Ivory Tower news people wearing 1987 Reagan era suits, taking "news speak" with blue and silver everywhere. As organic and real as a chunk of linoleum. The CONTENT was generally fine, but undermined by a dated-playbook presentation. They know their place on the intellectual/culture scale---and nail it well.

Undeterred by that massive flop, Abrams has gone on to apply his Chief Innovation Officer skills to a new project in Houston as described by David Barron of the Houston Chronicle:

Channel 39 will end its traditional newscasts by this fall to launch a new format called NewsFix, which discards on-camera anchors and reporters and focuses on natural sound and video to tell stories.

KIAH employees were informed Thursday about the changes, which apparently involve reassigning anchors and reporters to new, off-camera duties and signal a sharp reversal from the station's recent advertising campaign focusing on its lead anchor, Mia Gradney.

Somehow I don't think that idea of ditching on-air anchors and reporters was exactly popular with the staff. One can only imagine the mood in the KIAH newsroom when that announcement was made. 

Roger Bare, Channel 39's general manager, said KIAH will be the pilot program for Tribune Broadcasting's NewsFix, which is expected to launch in late September or early October.

"The core concept is to focus more on storytelling by allowing those in the story to tell the story and to place video and audio at the center of all that we do," Bare said, repeating a sentence included in a memo given to employees.

One Channel 39 employee, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the station's behalf, said employees were told that the newscast would feature fast-paced stories, added special effects and a minimum of on-camera appearances by reporters or anchors.

"It's not going to be as much of a newscast as a collection of stories that will roll into each other," the employee said. "There will be natural sound, and you won't see the reporters.

"It will be news for people who don't watch news, which sounds a lot like opening a bar for people who don't drink."

And who was the "genius" behind this innovation? None other than the Chief Innovation Officer:

NewsFix is the brainchild of Lee Abrams, the former radio executive who is Tribune Co.'s chief innovation officer. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Abrams said the company wants to "bring us into the 21st century in terms of what (viewers) see and hear. It's elevating us and escaping the grip of the 1970s television playbook that seems to be what every station in America is addicted to."

So having failed with a newscast in Florida, Abrams is rewarded by being allowed to apply his "innovative" ideas to another newscast in Texas. Perhaps with his next project, Abrams will launch a newscast without news. Oops! That's already been done. I think it is called MSNBC.

Looking forward to more entertaining Lee Abrams memos! 

P.J. Gladnick
P.J. Gladnick
P.J. Gladnick is a freelance writer and creator of the DUmmie FUnnies blog.