They Shale return: Rowlett-headed "news team" will have much to prove
07/11/08 05:17 AM
By ED BARK
First jaws dropped. Then the jabs and jokes started piling up.
"Shilling for Shale." That one came early and often.
"McShale's Navy." Now that's funny.
Simply put, perception rules right now, with benefit of the doubt a distant second in the case of D-FW anchor dean Tracy Rowlett throwing in with Chesapeake Energy Corporation on a "unique online video channel" that will be dubbed Shale.TV.
It's not an overstatement to say that Rowlett has been the reigning Walter Cronkite of D-FW television news during his almost 35 years in this market. That will come crashing to a halt on Friday (July 11) when he makes his last appearance at CBS11 as co-anchor of the station's 5 p.m. newscast. A "retrospective" on his career also will be included. Seems like old times already.
Shale.TV supposedly will be an objective online forum for news about the continued development of the North Texas Barnett Shale and "other natural gas plays in the United States," as Chesapeake puts it.
Rowlett, the anchor and managing editor, is being joined by two other veteran journalists with distinguished track records. John Sparks, his former colleague at both CBS11 and WFAA8, has been named senior producer. And Olive Talley, who reported for The Dallas Morning News before becoming a prime-time network news magazine producer, is Shale.TV's incoming executive editor.
All have taken pains to emphasize that they'll be beholden to no one in their efforts to provide unfettered objective coverage on natural gas production. Sparks even has his own one-liner for naysayers.
"If Britney Spears were drilling naked for gas, they'd cover it," he says of the depths to which current-day local and network newscasts have sunk.
Rowlett says that Chesapeake is merely the sponsor of Shale.TV, not the judge and executioner.
"There's nothing truly different about having a sponsor in news programming," he earlier told unclebarky.com. "I really won't be answering to Chesapeake. They have already said we'll have full editorial control."
Yes, sponsorship is nothing new. It dates all the way back to NBC's first national newscast, John Cameron Swayze's Camel News Caravan, which premiered in 1949.
But anchorman Swayze's 15-minute program wasn't solely devoted to the pros and cons -- if there were any at the time -- of cigarette smoking. Nor did Camel pay his salary. So what Rowlett and his colleagues are doing in fact is very different and problematic. The burden is solely on them to prove they won't "owe their souls to the company store," as Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing in the mid-1950s during the waning days of the Camel News Caravan.
Longtime investigative reporter Robert Riggs, who worked with Rowlett at WFAA8 and then CBS11, says he also was "approached but never entered into a discussion" about joining Shale.TV.
In an email sent to unclebarky.com and radio station KTCK-AM ("The Ticket"), Riggs said that Chesapeake is "trying to buy good will. Rowlett lends them great credibility with the public."
Chesapeake already has the upper hand on competitors via a saturation commercial campaign headed by actor Tommy Lee Jones. Its half-hour "Citizens of the Shale" infomercial also is in regular rotation on North Texas television stations.
"The advertising comes at a time when the stations have been rocked by the loss of car dealer ads -- about 40 percent of local station revenue," Riggs says. "The dollar value of the ad blitz also means that the news stations are unlikely to take a critical look at the drilling, environmental impact and impact on water resources at the risk of alienating a deep-pocket advertiser at a time when ad dollars are lean."
I guess we'll see about that. For now, D-FW stations and many others around the country seem more likely to pair stories and commercials in the same newscast.
In recent weeks, I've seen a cheery piece on a resurgence in canned Spam's popularity during times of soaring food costs. The very next commercial break just so happened to have a Spam ad.
In another instance, a "staycation" story focused on the heavy traffic at Grapevine's new and sprawling Great Wolf Lodge. The very next commercial break just so happened to have a Great Wolf Lodge ad. Maybe these are both just coincidences.
Rowlett at least isn't flatly endorsing products yet. But former WFAA8 weatherman Troy Dungan certainly hasn't wasted any time. His pop-up ads for an air-conditioning company lately have been playing in rotation on WFAA.com. He's also the on-air spokesman for a foundation repair company whose commercials have made the rounds on WFAA8's Daybreak and other programs.
In an earlier era, former WFAA8 anchor John Criswell did home security system endorsements while still working full-time at the station. WFAA8 quickly put a stop to that after a certain former Dallas Morning News TV critic wrote about it during times when the paper actually allowed such reporting on a fellow Belo Corp. employee.
Will Shale.TV end up being a far more insidious sales job using Rowlett as point man? And even if it is, will the audience amount to more than a sand speck on a beachhead?
"I guess the best way to put it is the proof will be in the pudding," Rowlett says. "If people will just give us an opportunity, they'll see that what we'll be doing is good, objective reporting."
So far that's all talk. Rowlett, Sparks, Talley and any other conventional journalists who might join them will be squarely behind a perception 8-ball. And that's exactly as it should be. From this day forward, they've got a lot to prove. And for now, Riggs' cautionary words are reverberating with more force than theirs.
"Chesapeake alone appears to be doing a highly effective job of creating 'warm and fuzzies' that it is a good corporate neighbor with which to do business," Riggs says. "Bringing on a team of former journalists gives Chesapeake great credibility with the public."
Note that he said "former journalists." Shale we dance?