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Last call: Tracy Rowlett calls it a night at CBS11

Toasting, one-two-three: CBS11's Tracy Rowlett bids adieu to the 10 p.m. news, with his wife, Jill, and his successor, Doug Dunbar among those sharing this signature off-camera moment. All photos: Ed Bark

All dressed up with just one 10 p.m. newscast to go, CBS11 anchor Tracy Rowlett marked time in a station conference room Friday night by looking back without flinching.

The Walter Cronkite of D-FW television news had been hired in 1999 to eventually take his new station to the promised land -- a No. 1 spot in the late night news ratings.

That never happened but there were a pair of savory victories over Belo8, where Rowlett made his name before making the biggest anchor move the market had ever seen. Now he's segueing to CBS11's 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts before a planned retirement in July of next year. Beginning Monday (March 5), former morning anchor Doug Dunbar will join incumbent Karen Borta at 10 p.m.

"I have never regretted making the move, regardless of some pitfalls and difficulties," Rowlett said. "I've missed some of the people with whom I worked at Channel 8, but I've never missed that station. Which is kind of interesting because people will ask me, 'Aren't you sorry you left Channel 8?' I have never been sorry."

His old station, which years ago left Rowlett out of a picture history in the entrance foyer, is having something of a last laugh on him. Belo8 is back in the No. 1 spot at 10 p.m. after winning in total homes in the February sweeps for the first time since November 2001. NBC5 is still a close second and CBS11 is well back in third place despite again getting better "lead-in" audiences at 9:45 p.m. than any of its competitors.

Quality-wise, though, the CBS-owned station has made major strides with Rowlett as point man.

"Jim Holland (the news director when he joined CBS11) was more concerned with what (co-anchor) Karen's hair looked like than about what was coming out of her mouth," he said. "We couldn't even see Channel 8 looking up. It was like stepping down 50 markets when I came over here. We truly were still in those early throes of trying to put a newscast together.

"I'm sorry that we didn't ascend to the No. 1 rating. I know that's something that everybody kept looking at. But despite that, we're a real player in the marketplace. This station has credibility it didn't have before."

Rowlett and Borta converse during a commercial break Friday night.

Rowlett, 64, joined WFAA-TV in 1974 from KWTV-TV in Oklahoma City. He began co-anchoring the station's 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts in August 1975, teaming with Iola Johnson and eventually Troy Dungan and Dale Hansen to form a veritable Mount Rushmore of a news team. Big Nielsen ratings came fast.

"We just went right to the top of the market. Those were some stellar days for Channel 8," Rowlett said.

He stunningly left the station in 1999 after CBS bought Channel 11, backed up the money truck and offered Rowlett a reported $7 million contract. He jumped at it rather than continue to negotiate with WFAA. Rowlett and his wife, Jill, have an autistic son, Michael, who is now 20. Rowlett said at the time that the deal ensured his son's well-being as well as his own. He never expected to get an offer of such magnitude.

"When Tracy left Channel 8, my God, I cried for six hours straight," Jill Rowlett said Friday. "It was just the change and not knowing what was going to happen. And then it became the most positive thing in the world for us."

A non-compete clause kept Rowlett off the air for several months before he and Borta signed on as a team in February 2000. In their first sweeps together, CBS11 averaged a 5.7 Nielsen rating (125,400 homes at the time), drawing less than half the audience of frontrunning Belo8 (12 rating/264,000 homes).

CBS11's best performances during Rowlett's reign came in 2004. The station surpassed Belo8 for the first time ever in February of that year, placing a still distant second behind NBC5.

By November 2004, Belo8 had edged back into second place ahead of CBS11, but it was the closest three-way ratings race at 10 p.m. since Channel 11 became a CBS affiliate in 1995. NBC5 led with a 10.4 rating, with both Belo8 (9.5) and CBS11 (9.1) within striking distance.

A year ago, the February 2006 sweeps still gave CBS11 some hope of reigning supreme at 10 p.m. All three stations had lost audience, but third-place CBS11's 7.5 rating (178,500 homes) at least wasn't a big loser in the three-way battle with NBC5 (8.8 rating/209,440 homes) and Belo8 (8 rating/190,400 homes).

The bottom dropped out last month, though, with CBS11 slumping to a 5.9 rating (140,420) homes while never seriously challenging for the top spot. It pretty much brought Rowlett back full circle to February 2000, and that 5.7 rating that marked his first sweeps for CBS11. The good news: his station is the only one not to lose viewers in that seven-year span.

Rowlett is vacating the 10 p.m. newscast just a few weeks before the sixth CBS11 news director during his tenure, Regent Ducas, arrives this month from Kansas City.

"It's awfully hard to develop a philosophy that takes you in a specific direction when each person who comes in as news director has a somewhat different idea," Rowlett said. "I think if we could ever get grounded and have a real direction charted for us, that would pay dividends in this marketplace. I want us to represent something, to be something. Maybe it's too late for that. I really don't know. I don't know why we're not No. 1 now."

Just dessert: Rowlett's wife, Jill, and incoming 10 p.m. anchor Doug Dunbar, who's leaving mornings, await with a cake inscribed, "Thanks for 30+ years at 10 p.m. Let's get 'em at 5 and 6."

Borta and Rowlett became close friends over the years. Jill Rowlett considers her a "member of our family," and they indeed seem like sisters.

"I know we have to adapt, we have to change," Borta said while seated next to Rowlett a half-hour before their last newscast as a 10 p.m. team. "But all day today I've just been a little blue. As I told Tracy, I'm just a little melancholy, baby. I just can't shake it. It's going to be fine here, but it's just not going to be the same. I've been very privileged to work with Tracy."

Dunbar, who joined CBS 11 three years ago as the main morning man, said he hadn't expected any changes to be made until the new news director had his feet planted in D-FW. But the 10 p.m. show is now his, "and the biggest thing is you don't want to screw it up," Dunbar said.

"There's no brighter spotlight than when you're taking over for a legend. And it can be a glaring spotlight. But the other side of it is that the first day Tracy went on the air in this market, he didn't do it with 30 years of experience. He's a guy who had to carve a name for himself, and he had to start from the ground up."

Rowlett soon will be starting regular commentaries for the 10 p.m. newscast, and he even hopes to do a documentary or two for CBS11, although that might be far-fetched. He sees NBC5's tumble from the 10 p.m. top spot (in homes but still not among advertiser-coveted 25-to-54-year-olds) as a possible repudiation of the station's crime-and-tragedy-laden, furiously paced newscasts.

"There's not a direct correlation between ratings success and newscast quality," Rowlett said. "Oftentimes what happens is that stations will do almost anything to get a (ratings) number so they can sell that and make a lot of money. It's really that simple, and I think that's what's happened over at Channel 5.

"They're bright people. They know what they're doing and they have no illusions about what they're putting on the air over there. . . But some of the real flash-and-trash news organizations are seeing some erosion in their numbers now. I hope that's sort of the bell that's sounding for folks to change their ways."

Last supper: From left to right, weatherman Mike Burger, Tracy and Jill Rowlett, Doug Dunbar, Karen Borta, sports anchor Bill Jones.

Friday's 10 p.m. newscast quickly went into the books. Time didn't stop or slow in deference to the night's graying centerpiece. It did give one pause, though, to think what all of this meant.

Tracy Rowlett graced D-FW news for 32.5 years as a 10 p.m. anchor of authority and distinction. He was the antithesis of a blow-dried pretty boy. News to him really was a calling, not a modeling opportunity. He endured in good times and bad, never a choir boy but always on the side of the angels. He's leaving the station's big stage in times when the news increasingly is being tailored toward the perceived appetites of younger viewers, particularly women. So it's best for him, really, to exit CBS11's biggest news stage before someone pushed him ingloriously into a mosh pit.

"I'm really not having a difficult time with this," Rowlett said shortly before facing the Friday night lights. "Frankly, I'm looking forward to it. You surrender a lot with these jobs in terms of the hours and family life."

Borta narrated a filmed tribute to Rowlett and CBS11 president and general manager Steve Mauldin phoned in from out of town before D-FW's quintessential anchorman had the last words.

He paused just once to gather himself after commending "all my colleagues here. You are the best."

It finally came down to this: "I know I've always been a guest in your home. I never wanted to overstay my welcome. Thank you for watching, and good night."

Night 1 of the Doug Dunbar era begins Monday.