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Fading star, changing times

As TV news affiliates struggle to stay relevant, the era of celebrity anchors such as Chet Curtis comes to a close

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / July 10, 2011

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Chet Curtis, along with his former wife and longtime coanchor Natalie Jacobson, were once huge news stars whose fame shone brighter than the TV station for which they worked, WCVB-TV (Channel 5).

When the couple had their child in 1981, the story led local newscasts and was splashed on the front page of local newspapers. Fan mail arrived at the station simply addressed, “Chet and Nat, Boston, Mass.’’

Today, Curtis, who was divorced from Jacobson in 2001, has been relegated to hosting little-watched Sunday public affairs shows on NECN, reassigned earlier this year from anchoring evening newscasts for the regional cable news station. Curtis still relishes his work, but wishes he had more time in the anchor’s chair. “I still think I can contribute,’’ he said during a recent lunch.

Curtis’s trajectory from megastar anchor to Sunday host mirrors the ongoing transformation of local television news, from one driven by personalities to a model where the station and its brand are the stars. These days, stations rely on a team approach, instead of singling out one or two top names to draw audiences.

Undergirding this change is a steady de cline of local television viewers, which has squeezed advertising revenues and ended the days when big names such as Curtis and Jacobson commanded six-to-seven-figure salaries. Since 1990, for example, the number of Boston-area homes tuned into the 11 p.m. news has plunged nearly 40 percent, according to Nielsen ratings, with the decline accelerating in recent years as consumers increasingly turn to the Internet through a growing number of devices.

“They can find the news where they want it and when they want it. The notion that a TV station can promote a broadcaster or two and prime anchors becomes lost in that,’’ said R.D. Sahl, a former NECN news anchor who teaches at Boston University. “My bet is that if you ask people under 25 to name a local news anchor, they are going to have trouble doing it.’’

Along with Jack Williams, who still anchors WBZ evening newscasts, and Randy Price, who anchors WCVB’s morning newscasts, Curtis, 72, is among a small club of working broadcasters from an era when local TV news personalities made up Boston’s celebrity A-list. That list included sportscaster Bob Lobel and local arts reporter Joyce Kulhawik, who were laid off from WBZ in 2008; meteorologist Dick Albert, who retired from WCVB in 2009; and Tom Ellis, who had worked at most of the network affiliates and was cut from NECN in late 2008 because of budget cuts.

A former radio reporter, Curtis began his television career at a time when local TV was beginning to supplant newspapers as the main source for news. In 1972, he joined WCVB as a reporter and anchor, and was paired with Jacobson to anchor midday newscasts.

The couple, who married in 1975, began to separately coanchor newscasts with Ellis. In 1982, Jacobson and Curtis were reunited as coanchors of the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts. Their on-air and off-air partnership led the station to dominate local newscasts.

“We used to do stuff that nobody else did in [local television],’’ recalled Curtis. “We always used to go to the state conventions and national conventions. ’’

The three local network affiliates were the only game in town, and Curtis and Jacobson had rock-star auras. They were paid like rock stars, too, said Susan Walker, chairwoman of Boston University’s broadcast journalism department.

“In the early 1980s, the local television affiliates were cash cows, and they could pay the big anchor salaries and build a promotional marketing campaign around them,’’ Walker said. “Chet was the mayor of Boston. We were all brought up by him.’’

In 1990, more than one in every four households in the Boston market watched the 11 p.m. newscasts of the network affiliates. But the local TV news industry was beginning to see a shift in audience with the emergence and growing influence of 24-hour news cable channels such as CNN. In 1992, NECN was launched and provided local viewers with another outlet for news and information, whenever they wanted it.

The Boston TV market was also jolted by the arrival of Miami-based Sunbeam Television Corp., which bought WHDH-TV (Channel 7) and introduced glitzy graphics, shorter stories, and a strong emphasis on breaking news. The company also become known for its younger, lower paid, and interchangeable cast of anchors and reporters, rather than celebrity broadcasters.

“We modernized the look of the newscast with production values,’’ said Chris Wayland, WHDH’s vice president and general manager. The station’s philosophy, he added, “is to be out in the field as news is happening, as opposed to being in the studio talking about it.’’

WHDH, which had perennially lagged behind the other broadcast affiliates, upended the Boston TV market and challenged WCVB in the ratings, eventually overtaking the longtime leader at 11 p.m. Other stations began to take their cue from WHDH.

“When we started to lean toward the Sunbeam approach, I used to get so frustrated,’’ recalled Curtis. “We have been number one for years and we always get ratings, whether it’s seven day ratings, specials or election nights, marathons, conventions. Why should we change? Let them emulate us, but it was to no avail.’’

As WHDH found success in the ratings, Jacobson and Curtis announced they were filing for divorce. In 2001, Curtis moved to NECN; Jacobson stayed at Channel 5. When Curtis arrived at the cable channel, the network was establishing itself as a place for serious and long-form television journalism. It became a destination for seasoned broadcasters, such as Ellis and Sahl.

Despite smaller audiences, Curtis said, he found the kind of professional satisfaction at NECN that he enjoyed at WCVB. “We used to strive at Channel 5 as we did at NECN - and still do - to do lengthier stories,’’ he said.

Although NECN had a fraction of the local TV audience, it continued to grow, further splintering the market. By this time, the audience for the network affiliates’ 11 p.m. news had slipped to about one in five Boston-area households.

In recent years, viewership of the 11 o’clock news has further eroded - to about one in six homes in 2010 - as TV stations and other media outlets, including newspapers, face competition from the expanding Internet and cable universe. The recent recession added to the financial pressures, as advertisers pulled back. WBZ, for example, laid off about 30 people three years ago.

In addition, the weak economy has also made it harder for stations to develop local stars and pay them the high salaries that they once commanded. “The money isn’t there,’’ said Walker. “It’s more the team. The marketing campaign is that of a faceless newscast.’’

Curtis agrees that the days of the celebrity anchor are gone. “There is no question that it’s a lesser role,’’ he said. “They are still putting out pictures of the anchorpeople but it’s promoting the total product rather than focusing on the anchorpeople.’’ Yet people can’t help but recognize Curtis. During a recent lunch at a Marina Bay restaurant near his home, a steady flow of passersby stopped and greeted him with a simple “Hi Chet.’’ Curtis lit up each time.

“People say, ‘Doesn’t that bother you?’ Hell no!’’ he said. “If no one ever said hello to me, then it meant that no one ever watched.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.

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