Banter begins as soon as Suzie Humphries, Midge Hill, and Jeff Brady walk through the studio door, still 30 minutes before cameras start rolling on The Texas Daily at 8 a.m. sharp.
They chat like BFFs and barely notice when a cameraman says, “A minute away.” Only a countdown –– “five, four, three, two …” — prompts them to hush. Then they’re off and running again, their spirited chatter continuing through commercial breaks and even after the show has ended.
The “old geezers” (to use Hill’s phrase) are having a blast putting out a serious but breezy hour of local television five mornings a week, led by amiable host Brady. The show touches on national and local news, shares CNN video feeds, and offers the occasional in-studio interview.
The rotating cast of a dozen familiar faces includes local godfather Tracy Rowlett, the perennially bow-tied Troy Dungan, Scott Murray, and Iola Johnson, who debuted on WFAA-TV Channel 8 in 1973 as North Texas’ first African-American news anchor.
Two months along, The Texas Daily is struggling to be noticed on Channel 47, a station known for Bonanza and Perry Mason reruns rather than for local content. The show tries to be fresh, but its veteran cast (and presumably much of its targeted 55-and-over demographic) stumbles over some trends and buzzwords. Humphries scrunched her face after Brady asked her and Hill to do a video blog for the show’s website.
“So what is a video blog? Why do we have to call it a blog? It’s hip, is that it?” Humphries said, noting that a video blog sounds a lot like a promo. She was doing promos back in the early 1970s as co-host of News 8 etc …, a local, live morning show that combined news with entertainment profiles. (Humphries has a theater background, spent a couple of decades in radio, and is currently a motivational speaker.)
The show is resurrecting careers for a dozen older journalists and pursuing an oft-neglected marketing demographic: seniors. Former news anchors who have prided themselves for decades on delivering unbiased, facts-only broadcasts void of personal commentary are now trying to fit themselves into that modern hybrid role of journalist-entertainer. Humphries is a natural. She’s zany, unpredictable, and irascible, and the screen lights up on days when she’s around. Her style rubs off on others, even serious-minded former investigative reporter Robert Riggs.
“I’ve never seen Robert come out of his shell like he did when he was sitting next to Suzie Humphries,” the show’s executive producer and managing editor Stuart Boslow said. “It’s been really neat to see them let their hair down. The ties have come off, and they are able to say what they want to say.”
Dallas-based London Broadcasting Co. bought KTXD-TV earlier this year. Way back in 2000, London executive Phil Hurley came up with the idea of corralling a stable of news warhorses for an infotainment show. He wrote down the concept, sealed it in an envelope, and sent it by certified mail to himself — a so-called poor man’s copyright.
It took a while, but his idea made it to the small screen, although it doesn’t really seem all that unique. Boslow said The Texas Daily is unlike any other show in the country. But it’s basically The View with long-in-tooth local journalists.
Age comes up often during their patter. The pundits make no qualms about being considered past their prime. On a recent show, Humphries compared taking off her jeans to “opening a can of biscuits.” Hill described how she became a designer and seamstress after leaving the news business.
“I grew up poor, making dresses out of flour sacks when I was a kid,” she said.
Still, getting shoved out of the news business couldn’t have been pleasant for any of the former anchors. That pain surfaced briefly when Hill described being fired from Channel 11, purportedly for wearing overly feminine attire during election-night coverage in 1996.
“I got canned for wearing a pink suit on Election Day — [that] was the ostensible reason, but it was age,” she said. “But here you can be old. It was a requirement.”
The Texas Daily dropped on Oct. 1 — and landed with a thud. The format was evolving, the camera cuts and editing were raw, and everyone was still finding their sea legs. Longtime TV critic Ed Bark, who was also shoved aside by his former employer, The Dallas Morning News, hammered the show’s debut on his Uncle Barky blog.
Under the headline “Rocky, oft-redundant start for KTXD-TV’s Texas Daily,” Bark characterized Rowlett and Dungan as stiff and “churlish,” lamented the frequent weather and sports breaks, and summarized the show as amateurish. Bark praised host Brady as a “solid choice.” The show consists of Brady and two pundits sitting at a desk or on a couch, discussing current events.
After a recent taping, Brady, Hill, and Humphries sat down with Fort Worth Weekly to discuss their returns to TV. They don’t mind poking fun of their own aging bodies, but they bristle when others pile on. They were still perturbed by Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow’s description of John Criswell.
“I always thought he was so suave and handsome,” Blow wrote in an Oct. 13 review. “Well, he’s gone from Dapper Dan to Grandpa John.”
“It was mean and unnecessary,” Humphries said.
Initial criticisms of the show’s format have mostly been addressed. Bark graded the show a D-minus at the outset and a C-plus now — even a B-minus on some days. The show’s biggest problem is its split personality, he said: serious news on some days, such as when Rowlett is around, and wackier infotainment on others.
“It depends on who the twosomes are,” Bark said.
Bark prefers the serious approach and thinks the show overall needs more “edge.” The host enjoys the variety of pairings and the show’s unpredictable nature.
“I would watch this show even if I wasn’t on it,” Brady said.
“We have no script, which is great,” Humphries said.
“Those of us who are used to being broadcast journalists are used to scripts, and everything is on the record,” Brady said. “It’s been difficult for some of us to get over that hump. It’s opinion. This is talk. We can let our hair down a bit and be ourselves and not be so scripted.”
That format lives or dies with its on-air personalities, and most are adapting well. Still, viewers have been slow to notice. Only a few thousand people tune in on most days, out of almost 7 million viewers in this market, Bark said. “If they can’t draw viewers that are 55-plus, they’re in trouble,” he said.
Blow’s column acknowledged the show’s early difficulties and low ratings but described the show as “a visit with old friends — and that’s a good thing.”