But after being influenced by a blurb on my cheap frien…er, boon companion Sam Johnson’s blog—as well as this column by Erin Rossiter in The Athens-Banner Herald a couple of Saturdays back—I made a point to check out Making News: Savannah Style yesterday on the TV Guide Channel. Savannah Style premiered on the TV Guide Channel on June 4 of this year, a sequel to an earlier reality show entitled Making News: Texas Style—which the cable channel touted as its highest-rated show in 2007. (Which, when you consider that most of Guide’s lineup is comprised of infomercials, isn’t much to blow one trumpet’s about.) If you’ve even a passing familiarity with The Pretty Lady with the Dirty Face, you’ll positively love it. (If you’re a native…well, more on that in a minute.)
Here’s the premise: Savannah Style is a thirteen-part, hour-long reality show about WJCL-TV/22 (and its sister station, WTGS Fox28)—an ABC affiliate that, according to news director Michael Sullivan, is “the worst-rated news station in the country.” And he’s not kidding, either: WJCL is a longtime cellar dweller when compared to its competition, the all powerful WTOC (which has been kicking ass in the ratings since Reconstruction), and perennial news bridesmaid WSAV. Sullivan, an Emmy and Peabody award winning news veteran who cemented his reputation in Chicago, takes charge of a news operation that consists of a staff mostly dedicated to padding their resumes and getting the hell out of Dodge. In the first episode, Sullivan quotes Walter Cronkite when he observes that local news will never survive unless its people can be convinced to stay—in episode two, morning anchor Trish Hartman announces her plans to depart for greener (and colder) fields in Scranton, PA. (Proving that even in retirement, Uncle Walter still has an impressive batting average.)
I have to admit that while reality shows normally fill me with complete revulsion, Savannah Style is pretty hooty to watch: as a former resident, I get a kick out of seeing familiar faces (I’d sometimes catch their10pm newscast before hitting the hay) and eavesdropping in on why the station continues to suck hind-teat in the ratings. While the station personnel’s general lack of self-esteem can be attributed to many factors (the building in which they work often features close-ups of leaky ceilings and Savannah’s official insect, “the Palmetto bug”; their equipment is of questionable pawn-shop quality, etc.) I think some of the reporters’ attitudes toward their work constitutes an iron-clad guarantee that many of them aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. News director Sullivan is a colorful (if a bit creepy) sort in the Jerry Nachman-mold, and I kind of like sports director Frank “The Big Man” Sulkowski—only because he appreciates the finer things in life, like Checkers, Krystal and McDonald’s (he brags that he’s the biggest—as in size—sportscaster in Savannah’s market…but I bet the late Mitch Glicken of WTOC could have taken him on any day of the week). At the risk of damning Sulkowski with faint praise, he is better at doing sports than WTOC’s Rick “If I had a stammer” Snow—but so is your everyday garden-variety orangutan. I also like Wendy McDew, too; particularly when she tells her cameraman (who’s just been pulled over for speeding) that she’s pretty sure he wasn’t stopped so that the cop could ask where he got his tires.
I’m curious as to whether this series will examine in further detail just why WJCL continues to bring up the rear, ratings-wise; viewers unfamiliar with the history of broadcast news in Savannah need to know that WJCL could offer up downloaded internet porn at 6pm and still not make a dent in WTOC’s vast viewership. WTOC’s newscast—or as I’ve often referred to it around my former digs, Mayberry Today—is a completely unstoppable juggernaut, and a wonderful example of Uncle Walter’s earlier maxim. Many of the reporters/anchors have been there for who-knows-how-long and longtime viewers know what to expect from the station: folksy, unthreatening news delivered by down-home individuals in sickly sweet, maple-syrup-fashion. (Shit, even random shootings, murders, etc. are delivered in a soothing "everything's-going-to-be-OK" manner.) Let’s put it this way: my parents are slavishly devoted to watching WTOC—and they hate it with the intensity of a thousand white-hot suns.
But I think the main reason that aspiring reporters and anchors look at WJCL/WTGS as a pit stop to bigger and better things stems from something I discussed with Sam Johnson in a phone conversation not too long back. Savannah has a reputation for hospitality—but only on the condition that you don’t stay too long. Unless you were born and bred in the State of Chatham, you can be there forever (my folks have lived in Savannah for over twenty-five years) and still never be fully accepted by the natives. (I love how Rossiter describes the city in her column as “polite-but-prickly.”) So I’m not too surprised that some of the station’s staff is just marking time after getting that sort of reception; hell, if John Berendt hadn’t written Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil he’d be just another Yankee tourist. (That book has been a gold mine for the city, and some of those bozos are still bitching about it to this day.) If you’re interested in taking a gander at the series, Hulu has the first four episodes up (and while I’m at it, let me give a shout-out to TDOY reader Dan for bringing this website to my attention—he sent me an e-mail in May and I carelessly forgot to thank him) for your viewing pleasure. Let's cook up somethin' good, y'all!