Wednesday, June 16, 1999

Luken's learning curve leads back to politics

Novice newsman endured changes

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Charlie Luken
        When Channel 5 moved out of Crosley Square last weekend, it was no surprise that Charlie Luken didn't make the move with them.

        His Channel 5 bosses — and there have been many since 1993 — never knew what to do with the mayor-turned-anchor who quit Monday to run again for Cincinnati City Council.

        In six years at the station, he worked for three owners and four news directors. Each boss had come from stations where the top anchorman was a TV news veteran, not a former politician learning the business. Each had a different vision for Channel 5 news, as we've seen since Jerry Springer left in 1993.

        “The format changes we endured I don't think were conducive to me,” Mr. Luken says politely, displaying his deft political skills.

        He had to learn how to chat with co-anchor Norma Rashid. Then Channel 5 eliminated the “cross talk.”

        For a while, Mr. Luken did “Waste Patrol” reports on government spending. In the past year, he couldn't persuade them to let him do insightful local or national government stories.

        “The business has changed a lot since I've been in it,” he says. “There are a lot of consumer stories, and how the news impacts you, instead of "Here's what happened today,' the Walter Cronkite approach.”

        His TV news frustrations surfaced three years ago, when he criticized Channel 5's sensational news promotions about dangerous germs on indoor playgrounds — when the story said no harmful germs were found.

        “Our phones rang off the hook from people who said, "Why would you do something like that?' ” he told the Society of Professional Journalists here in 1996.

        Noting “The Economy, Stupid” sign that guided Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, Mr. Luken said back then:

        “We should have a sign over the newsroom that says, "The Viewers Aren't Stupid, Stupid!' If you try to trick them to watch the show, they know they've been tricked.”

        Competition from 100 cable or satellite channels has increased the volume on hype.

        “We're all going for a bigger part of a smaller pie, and branding and promotion is part of that,” he says.

        Some viewers always thought Mr. Luken looked stiff on WLWT Eyewitness News 5 (the current branding campaign).

        In 1996, he reviewed the first stages of his TV career:

        “People would ask me, "When are you going to run for office again?' which I called the "Charlie, You Suck' phase.

        “Then they'd say, "Charlie, you're getting better,' which was kind of the "Charlie, You Don't Suck As Much' phase. I was never as bad as some people thought. If I was, I would never have gone on.”

        Last year, Mr. Luken could add a third phase, “Charlie, You Don't Suck Any More.” His agent told him several big-market, out-of-town stations were impressed with his resume tape, “before Channel 5 made an offer” to keep him.

        “Whatever kind of anchor I was, people were generous to me.”

        What he liked best was covering big live events — the Oklahoma City bombing, police shootings or police funerals — “when we were just talking to people about what was going on, and not reading from the anchor desk,” says Mr. Luken, 47.

        “I felt I was doing my job at the (live coverage) of the police funerals (in 1997), not just telling people what happened, but telling what it felt like. That was most meaningful to me.”

        His newscast always was third in the ratings, but it wasn't really his fault. He didn't put the emphasis on blood and guts, which clearly has turned some viewers off.

        He didn't order the nightly Big Story live shots from crime scenes, no matter how insignificant. (My favorite: Police looking for a gunman in Over-the-Rhine. That's news?).

        And no matter how superficial. (Ginger Allen told viewers from an I-75 car wreck last December that “we have confirmed that it's likely that alcohol is involved.” Translation: We don't know for sure. Just the facts, ma'am!)

        Mr. Luken didn't fire meteorologist Dave Fraser, reporter Jeff Hirsh, and others who have made Channel 5 the revolving door of Tristate TV. He didn't botch the tornado warning the morning of April 9, which severely damaged StormCenter 5 credibility.

        The people who made those decisions now can put their stamp on Channel 5's anchor team. (Don't be surprised if they pass over Courtis Fuller, hire a new man to pair with Lisa Cooney and move Ms. Rashid to a day shift.)

        Since buying Channel 5 in 1997, Hearst-Argyle managers have been eagerly awaiting their chance to start over.

        They have a new building, new digital equipment, new studio and new set. Soon they'll have their own new anchor team.


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