New Face of TV News First Seen in the '70s

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Women are familiar faces on the news, but that wasn't always the case. Network and local newscasts seemed to discover them all at once starting in the early 1970s, when they became reporters and anchors in city after city.

Before then, women played a limited role in TV news. For many years, stations had employed "weather girls" to "brighten up" the daily forecast, but had rarely entrusted women with the symbolically important job of reporting the news. And anchoring -- TV's embodiment of authority and credibility -- was widely perceived as work only a man could handle. In 1971, Reuven Frank, the late president of NBC News, told Newsweek, "I have the strong feeling that audiences are less prepared to accept news from a woman's voice than from a man's."

The first woman to become a permanent local anchor was Jean Enersen, who became evening news anchor at KING-TV in Seattle in 1972. (Enersen, a Seattle-area legend, is still on the air.)

Thereafter, the walls began to fall quickly, opening up opportunities for women familiar to this day.

Judy Woodruff and Jane Pauley became the first female anchors in Atlanta and Indianapolis, respectively, in the early 1970s (Pauley held the same distinction in Chicago in 1975, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications). Jessica Savitch, the late "Golden Girl," broke the barrier in Houston. Connie Chung became the third woman to do so in Los Angeles, succeeding Sandy Hill and Christine Lund. In Washington, J.C. Hayward -- who is still at WUSA (Channel 9) -- and Deborah Mathis at WTTG (Channel 5) not only crossed the gender line but also the color line.

A New York station tested Joan Lunden as that city's female first in 1975, but she was beaten to the air by Rose Ann Scamardella. If the name isn't familiar, you might recognize the character that Gilda Radner based on her in the early days of "Saturday Night Live": Roseanne Roseannadanna.

At the network level, the pioneers were Marlene Sanders, who briefly anchored in 1964 for CBS; the late Nancy Dickerson, who anchored a daily news program called "Inside Washington" on NBC from 1971 to 1974 (and later was NBC's midafternoon "news break" anchor); and Barbara Walters, who reported the news on "The Today Show" for years before becoming the first female anchor (with Harry Reasoner) of a network evening newcast on ABC in 1976.

The primary driving force behind women's advancement wasn't some abstract notion of equality, but self-interest: Having women on the news helped a station stand out from its competition and drove up ratings. Survey after survey, focus group after focus group, said that such a experiment was acceptable to viewers, according to Allen.

In that, the audience was way ahead of executives like Reuven Frank.

-- Paul Farhi

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