For Weekly SurgeDecember 18, 2013 


David Koechner, Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell and Steve Carell in "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues."


You’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t seen any of the Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) late-night TV guest spots; his TV commercials promoting various Dodge vehicles, ESPN and MTV cameos, and even drop-ins on small market TV news desks. Ferrell is, of course, promoting this week’s release of “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” the sequel to “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” the 2004 over-the-top send up of the television news industry, circa 1976. Filled with portrayals of women struggling to be respected in the newsroom, quirky characters involved in sexual harassment, misogyny, office pranks, newsroom bloopers, street brawls, and Burgundy’s enormous ego, the “Anchorman” franchise depicts the not-too-far removed era of the male-dominated, scotch-swilling, chain-smoking world that was (and maybe still is) television news.

In the sequel which opened Wednesday, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and David Koechner reprise their roles as Ron Burgundy’s loyal on-air sidekicks. Christina Applegate, as Burgundy’s love interest, Veronica Corningstone, is back. Fred Willard, Chris Parnell and Luke Wilson, have returned as well. The sequel is set in the 1980s, giving the characters opportunity to advance their clothing and hairstyles and to enter the new cable TV oriented world with a new set of pitfalls.

Lest you think we’re piling on the Burgundy bandwagon, this feature had been planned for weeks; long before the Burgundy saturation hit its current fever pitch. And we’re OK with that, we’re big fans, and it turns out so are those in the local TV news biz. If, like politics, “all news is local,” we first wondered if any of our local and regional television news people could relate to Burgundy, or if they personally knew (or know) any pompous, arrogant, egocentric, but ultimately loveable celebrities in their industry. We were not disappointed, and they were more than happy to dish.

But where did Ron Burgundy, a newsman composite, come from?

The Legend Begins

It’s widely known that funnyman Ferrell, who co-wrote the screenplays for the “Anchorman” franchise, based his Ron Burgundy character upon real life, old school television newsmen of the 1970s, who didn’t seem to particularly like or respect women as journalists. Ferrell has outed his primary inspiration for Burgundy as real-life TV news veteran Mort Crim. The never-quite-made-it-to-network Crim was featured in a documentary about his days as a reluctant co-anchor on a Philadelphia news desk, with a then fresh-faced Jessica Savitch, who did go on to network fame. His dislike for women in the news was, like Burgundy’s, legendary, and Ferrell says he drew inspiration from the documentary. At 78, Crim has softened and says he “enjoys the satire.” Crim attended the premier of “Anchorman 2” in New York alongside Ferrell and cast.

Once the original “Anchorman” movie became pop culture fodder as lines of dialog were repeated around the water cooler and around the globe, other stories of real-life Ron Burgundies began to materialize. Though Crim may be THE one, it’s hard not to think that the late Ron Hunter, a Buffalo, N.Y., news anchor might not have been an inspiration, too.

From, Hunter colleague, Ed Kilgore, recounted the late Hunter’s antics from 1972 - 74. “Ron Hunter had the biggest ego of any person male or female I’ve ever worked with,” recalled Kilgore. “It was actually quite incredible how much Ron valued his own opinions and appearance. [When he began anchoring in Buffalo] after moving here from New Orleans, we didn’t call it the Channel 2 News, or Action News, or even News news; we called it “The Ron Hunter Report.” Ron had [created] a special animated opening featuring his likeness running around with a microphone getting the scoop. The show then opened with Ron leaning into the camera, and with a booming voice [he] says, “I’m Ron Hunter, and the big story in Buffalo is…” The standing joke around the newsroom, of course, was that the next word would be “me.”

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s” Ted Baxter (actor Ted Knight) did a fine job of portraying Burgundy-esque behavior as the show ran from 1970 - 1977 as well. And the list goes on.

The 1970s saw big changes in FCC (Federal Communications Commission) rulings on who and what could and should be allowed and/or promoted on television. And as cable TV entered our lives, local TV news took on new importance, and women were finding their way onto the small screen in greater numbers. They were hired to do the news, no longer just cute girls doing fluff pieces about puppy farms, or blonde bimbos as weather bunnies.

Local Legends

Fast forward to 2013 and consider the Grand Strand and the Pee Dee’s own TV news celebrities. Are our men and women of the local and regional TV news biz that much more mature and sophisticated than Burgundy’s bunch? Are they as infatuated with Ron Burgundy, as Ron Burgundy would hope they are?

“I saw the original ‘Anchorman’ in 2004 when it first came out,” said Rusty Ray, WBTW News 13 morning anchor. “It was so ridiculously funny. Everyone still quotes lines from the movie around the newsroom.”

Ray, 33, starts his day at 4 a.m. and is on the air at 5, and finishes around 12:30. He’s been with WBTW for 11 years, and came here fresh out of school in Maryland after sending out videotapes and knocking on doors. Does Ray see any of the same Anchorman-like behaviors from his WBTW colleagues or competitors?

“The rivalries portrayed [in “Anchorman”] between the stations was hysterical,” he said. “Competition is something we have to take seriously. At the scene, we might have to jockey for position, but so far it hasn’t come to blows, thankfully – no tridents involved.”

Ray is referring to a memorable “Anchorman” scene in which all the San Diego TV news crews gather for a street brawl, with a cameo from Tim Robbins as the pipe-smoking, turtleneck-sporting PBS newsman. Ben Stiller, as the Telemundo broadcaster is particularly violent and funny. Before the brawl begins, Burgundy goes over the ground rules.

Burgundy: “Rule No. 1; no touching of the hair or face.” They all nod in agreement. “Now let’s do this!”

Bob Juback, news anchor at WBTW, has been on the air locally for the past 21 years. He saw “Anchorman,” and plans to see the sequel as well.

“I usually don’t get too excited about TV shows and movies about the TV news business,” said Juback, “but ‘Anchorman’ was really funny and probably pretty realistic in the way it portrayed the business back then. I thought it was a great movie.”

The times they are a-changing

WPDE, Newschannel 15’s Assistant News Director and Anchor, Allyson Floyd, is also an “Anchorman” fan.

“We have had a few egos over the years,” recalled Floyd. “[“Anchorman’s” screenwriters] must have had great advisors, because they captured the essence of what we deal with. It was so funny, too.”

Floyd came to our region soon after graduating from Clemson University, and she’s been on the air locally for 23 years. As a woman in the TV news business she’s seen first-hand the remnants of the Burgundy-era newsrooms, but has also seen significant transition.

“I can remember when people smoked in the newsroom,” she said, “and you’d walk into a haze of cigarette smoke everyday when you came to work. I’ve seen a lot changes in my more than two decades working in TV news. But for women, I honestly think the glass ceiling is gone. I’ve never run across any [gender bias]. Things have changed so dramatically since the 1970s. Our newsroom is run by almost all women in management roles; our news director and our executive producer are both women. I’m the Assistant News director. Tim McGinnis is our managing editor, so we do have male voices in there as well.”

Ray is too young to remember the chauvinistic ‘70s first hand, but he knows the history of the news business and can reflect upon its changes. “You see more and more women taking anchor roles,” said Ray. “The cable 24-hour news cycle has helped with that, provided lots of opportunity, but it’s still kind of a big deal when a woman takes on that role on a local news program, like ours, or in network news. There are stories you’ll hear, not unlike in “Anchorman,” where the first women in news, in the 1970s, had to put up with all kinds of stuff. I know of one woman anchor who had men mooning her through the control room windows, trying to distract her, trying to get her to mess up. It was more than just hazing; there was real resistance at first.”

Jim Heath, who is now covers politics for CBS affiliate WBNS in Columbus, Ohio, was the evening news anchor at WPDE between 2003 – 2009. The story he relates of his friendship with Mary Jo West, Phoenix’s first primetime female co-anchor, has “Anchorman” written all over it.

“What amazed me about “Anchorman,” said Heath, “what really struck me, is that as a historical comedy, how much they got right.”

“Mary Jo West is a good friend of mine,” said Heath “She started on [KOOL News 10, KSAZ], there in 1976. In talking to her about those days, we laugh about it now, but for women going into the [TV] news business, she was a pioneer. Her co-anchor [Bill Close, who died in November], was very similar to Ron Burgundy. She related to me that Close made it obvious that he had always co-anchored with men, didn’t think women should be on the set, and protested when she was hired, even refusing to do the first newscast with her.” Close admitted as much in a 2004 interview, according to “I didn’t want her on the set,” said Close, “but I didn’t tell anybody that. I tried not to let any negative vibes penetrate her tender skin.”

In the “Anchorman” franchise the character Brian Fontana is played by Paul Rudd. In the original “Anchorman” he says: “Don’t get me wrong, I love the ladies, I mean they rev my engines, but they don’t belong in the newsroom. I’ll give this little cookie about an hour before we’re doing the no-pants dance. Time to musk up.”

“[Mary Jo] was a pioneer in the [TV] news business,” continued Heath. “I’ve spoken with her recently, and we talked about those days. She and Close worked together for seven years in Phoenix, before she went to CBS in New York. And in those seven years, she said he hardly spoke to her. So, while “Anchorman” is funny, it hits a nerve. There’s reality portrayed.”

“It’s funny to see it in Anchorman,” said Ray, “but its also hard to watch and think about. That kind of crap really happened. Our newsroom is full of women.”

Women can be News-ers.

In a PBS-produced mini-documentary, West talks about Close, her former co-anchor and boss, and his “strict rules regarding what women could and could not do.” “We weren’t allowed to wear pants, couldn’t do out-of-town news stories,” because that would have meant overnight stays somewhere leading to dalliances with cameramen. She talks about the “cosmetic burden” on women, and that now male TV newsmen are getting facelifts just like their female counterparts. In the early days West received hate mail, “Tell that blonde headed tomato to go straight home and cook supper for her husband.” But one memory she holds dearly came from a viewer who told her “my three-year-old daughter saw you on TV, ran up to the screen, put her hands on your face, and said ‘Look mommy, women can be news-ers, too.”

The pair did get used to one another, eventually, and West is on record as saying, “He was a man of the old school. Bill was the best teacher I ever had.” Close, too, was kinder with the tempering of time and distance. He said in an interview not long before he died that West was a “charming young lady,” and the “hardest working individual, male or female, with whom I ever worked.”

The 1970s was a time of dramatic cultural and social upheaval, born of the previous decade, and it was still playing itself out.

In “Anchorman,” a frustrated Burgundy has the off-screen announcer introduce Corningstone on the air as “Tits McGee.” Corningstone, without missing a beat, says. “Good Evening San Diego, I’m Veronica Corningstone. Tits McGee is on vacation.”

While nothing quite as vitriolic has ever been thrown her way, WBTW morning meteorologist, Martha Spencer, still sees room for improvement for women in the newsroom.

“I have run into a few Ron Burgundy types,” said the 30-year-old Spencer, who has worked in Panama City, Fla, Daytona Beach, Fla., and Dothan, Ala. “I had an anchor in a former market, I won’t say where, who was also the news director, so he had a little extra power. He was a chain-smoking, coffee-drinking, feet-on-the-desk, three-piece-suit kind of guy – a real jerk. Total chauvinist. He’d watch resume tapes and if he didn’t like the way a girl looked in five seconds he’d throw the tape in the trash can – very superficial.”

“Gender bias?,” she asked. “I’ve never personally had an issue with my gender, but it is still a male-dominated field. It’s changing, but it would be nice to see more females in lead positions. I can name maybe five female Chief Meteorologists in major markets.”

But the film, although an over-the-top treatment of the issue, still hit home with our local TV journalists.

“I thought “Anchorman” was pretty right-on,” said Juback, “with how women were trying to break in to a male-dominated world. Women have definitely made in-roads since the ‘70s. I’d like to think that’s behind us.”

While the gender issues of the 1970s, a primary theme of “Anchorman,” may have been resolved, for the most part, technology and cultural transitions are also showcased in both the original and the sequel.

The Word Machines

The seemingly antiquated ways in which the news was gathered and transmitted in “Anchorman” are historically accurate, according to one local TV news veteran, though the teleprompter remains a constant.

“I tell some of the younger people coming in now about the way we used to do things,” said Floyd, “before cell phones, before the Internet, before computers. It was a completely different world. In some ways the technology has made our jobs easier, but it’s also added more to our plate, because now we’re held more accountable for the information we deliver. [Our viewers] can look up for themselves and check on what we report – and that’s a good thing.”

“Anchorman” has also helped liven up some local TV newsrooms.

“We quote that movie quite often in the newsroom,” continued Floyd, “and we tease each other with threats of putting stuff in the prompter. We quote directly from the movie, like: “I don’t talk without the words. Where’s the word machine?” We threaten each other all the time. It’s about trying to have fun.”

And accidents will happen.

“Our newscasts are live,” said Ray. “You’re eventually going to screw up and you own it and move on. It’s usually never as bad as you think it is [in the moment]. The station makes a blooper reel every year. I haven’t compiled mine in awhile but if you’re on the air for 10 hours a week live, it’s going to happen.”

“We had a show I was anchoring at our old station in Florence,” continued Ray, “and it was so bad, it went off the rails so badly that I could hear screaming coming from the control room. It was a Friday night, 10 o’clock newscast. I sent it to commercial. I stopped the show in its tracks with a “We’re going to be right back.” A woman came up to me the next day and said “I saw your show last night.” I thought “Oh crap, here we go,” and she said, “You handled it really well.” We say things we don’t mean, have a slip of the tongue, stumble or laugh…once I choked on my own spit, and had to wave my hands in the air, hold my breath and I hope I didn’t turn purple. It’s goofy, but it happens – we’re human, it’s live television…what are you going to do?”

Our sources haven’t been caught on camera swilling Scotch and making inappropriate sexual comments like Burgundy - or if they have, they’re not admitting it.

“I had to dress up as cow once,” said Spencer. “I’ve burped on live TV by accident, I’ve mispronounced words before, dropped the remote, been punched up on screen when I didn’t know it. Just run-of-the-mill stuff; nothing too humiliating.”

“Oh I’ve had and seen lots of bloopers,” admitted Floyd. “It’s part of live television. I can remember we had a fill-in news anchor, and they didn’t change the “Hello, I’m so and so” in the teleprompter, and she actually read the other anchor’s name instead of her own. Anything can and will happen. We had a reporter say a “suspect was found crotched in a ditch.”

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Another major plot-point of the first “Anchorman” movie revolves around Applegate’s character, the ambitious Corningstone’s desire to move up and out of San Diego to the big leagues; the Networks, with a capital “N.” This transition from small to medium to major market is part of the news game, for some, but not all.

“Moving up and on is kind of how the game works,” said Ray. “You put yourself out there, and see where you can go.”

However, Floyd’s two-plus decades here was part of her plan from the start. “I’m from the Pee Dee originally,” she said. “I have family here, so it works for me to stay close to my home town. That was always my goal.”

Heath has seen his aspirations to move up and on at least partially fulfilled. He cut his teeth on political newsgathering, and is now with WBNS, a powerhouse CBS affiliate covering central Ohio.

“Columbus is the 15th largest city in the U.S.,” said Heath, “The State House is here, and that’s my focus. It’s a good place to be.” Heath is the moderator of “Capital Square” and is the station’s State House Correspondent. “It’s a much, much larger market (No. 30) than Myrtle Beach, (No. 157) and it’s much different. Myrtle Beach is small television market on the beach. It’s a fun place, a great place. I met so many great people there, but career-wise you’ve got to look up the ladder and make some decisions on what you want to do long-term. After six years and a great run it was time to move on. I think it’s the goal of most news people to move up that ladder. Some are satisfied right where they are, they put down roots and are very happy; to each their own.”

In “Anchorman 2,” without too many spoilers, Burgundy and gang move on from San Diego, and while Burgundy’s character grows in maturity (only slightly, we hope), his ego remains enormous, unyielding.

We put the questions to our local news people one last time, “What’s it really like behind the camera?” “Do you know a Ron Burgundy?” and “Did “Anchorman” get it right?”

“The scene at the beginning, at the pool party, where Ron meets Veronica Corningstone, was dead on,” said Ray. Burgundy says “We’ve been going to the same party every night for 12 years now…and in no way is that depressing.” I’ve known people who feel just that way,” said Ray. “I have worked with Ron Burgundy types – at other stations. I’ve worked with people with tremendous egos. Maybe people say that about me? I certainly hope not. But we are on TV. First and foremost what we do is TV. People want to talk about journalism with capital “J,” and that’s, of course, important and what we try to do, but it’s TV. It’s face, it’s voice, it’s name it’s hair and make up – it’s TV. What we do is totally bizarre. We, as anchors, have to unnaturally be as natural as possible. It’s not acting, but it is. And I’ve seen people in this market come and go with unbelievable egos, really laughable. I’d go out and have a beer with these people just to feel better about myself and have a laugh.”

“I’ve worked with a few giant egos,” admitted Juback. “One guy was so concerned with face time he would go into the edit booth and watch the show they just did and time his lines against the reads of the other anchors to make sure he didn’t get gypped. I also worked with a guy who would literally take an hour to do his own makeup. It takes me about a minute to put mine on. He’d also put on his anchorman voice. He had to make sure everything was perfect with his voice, his hair, his face.”

All of the TV news people we interviewed for this piece plan to see “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.”

“I saw the original in 2004, the day it came out,” said Ray. “I’ll see this new one, too, though I wonder if all the hype means it’s not as good? It will be hard to top [the first] “Anchorman.”

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