The lights are low. The candles are lit. The essential oils are poured; sensual melodies pipe gently from a stereo system. Lynda Lopez, the ravishing, auburn-haired kid sister of actress/pop star Jennifer, stations herself beside a long, white bathtub, her slender figure wrapped in a plush terry-cloth robe.
You’re watching the WB 11 Morning News in New York.
Part news, part weather, part–well, badda-bing , badda-boom , this perky, sexy, occasionally PG-13 program on WPIX/ Channel 11 has been enlivening Manhattan mornings from 6 to 8 a.m. since its debut last June. With winks to the traditions of both Edward R. Murrow and Austin Powers–and a hormonally charged lineup of personalities often dressed like the cast of Charlie’s Angels –the WB 11 Morning News has surprised skeptics by becoming a modest hit, regularly beating Bryant Gumbel and the CBS Early Show in the local ratings and reminding Today hunk Matt Lauer that he’s not the only one capable of giving the home audience sweaty palms.
“We cross the line from time to time,” admitted Lynne White, one of the WB 11 Morning News ‘ co-anchors. “We do talk about sex. And we talk about breast implants. But that’s what people talk about, so why can’t we?”
So get ready for more boogie mornings, New York. The WB 11 Morning News gives you the news, all right, but it’s also the only a.m. news program in the city where the co-anchor might wear a tight, bellybutton-revealing top (as Ms. White did on Monday, Jan. 8) or the weatherperson might shake her rump to Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” as she forecasts midafternoon snow flurries (like weather anchor Linda Church did on Friday, Jan. 5). And it’s almost certainly the only news program in the hemisphere with a Lynne, a Linda, a Lynda and a chopper girl named … Melinda.
For these and other reasons, WPIX’s show has managed to lure an audience long absent from New York’s morning news landscape: men. In a TV genre where the average audience is more than 60 percent female, two out of three of the WB 11 Morning News ‘ viewers are men. No other morning news show in the city has a bigger male skew.
Ms. White has a theory why. “There’s a sexiness about the show,” she said. “Guys like to tune in to that.”
Sexy morning news came rather late to New York, however. This is a surprisingly reserved TV town, where hemlines are still low and the late Roger Grimsby raspily intoning snowstorm school closings used to be as alluring as things got. But in media markets like Los Angeles, programs like the WB 11 Morning News have flourished for years; in sunnier parts of the country, it is not uncommon to find dozens of bubbly ingénues cooing over the headlines of the day.
For that reason, it should come as no surprise that the main architect behind the WB 11 Morning News is a 30-year-old executive producer on the rise named Wil Surratt, a former senior producer for the absurdly successful (and absurdly handsome) KTLA Morning News in Los Angeles.
“No one’s going to sit here and say that the people on television are average-looking people–anywhere,” the lanky, baby-faced Mr. Surratt said in his office after a recent show. “And we’re fortunate to have Lynda Lopez and Lynne White and Linda Church and Melinda [Murphy] and Kirsten [Cole, a reporter], who are knockouts. But you know, I didn’t pick them because of that .”
Still, Mr. Surratt knows he has something cooking with the WB 11 Morning News . Historically, audiences for morning news shows are considerably smaller and more loyal than those watching prime time. When WPIX’s parent company, Tribune Broadcasting, announced its intention to launch a morning news show in New York in a slot formerly occupied by cartoons like Pokémon , competitors howled. There were already five morning news shows operating in New York, from NBC’s Today to ABC’s Good Morning America to the CBS Early Show to Fox’s Good Day New York and Univision’s morning show on WXTV. “I set a goal to do a 1 rating after a year,” Mr. Surratt said, a lowball prediction of roughly 70,000 households in the metro area.
But the Morning News ‘ performance has already exceeded that expectation. The show finished the November 2000 sweeps period with a 1.8 rating and a 7 share of the total viewing audience in the New York Nielsen ratings (a share represents the percentage of homes tuned in at that period). By comparison, the CBS Early Show , which runs from 7 to 9 a.m., did a 1.2 rating and a 4 share in New York. The Morning News still trails local trailblazer Good Day New York and lags far behind GMA and the Today juggernaut, but its early success has been impressive. “I think it’s a very good start, considering that they are not known as a news personality in the market,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, vice president of broadcast research at TN Media, an advertising firm.
Mr. Surratt, who was raised in North Carolina and speaks with a slight twang, declined to pin his show’s success on its babe-o-liciousness. He emphasized the program’s journalism, its live coverage in particular. That morning, the show had sent a reporter out to cover a grounded ferry off the New Jersey coast. But at the same time, he wasn’t shy about discussing the Morning News ‘ nudge-nudge, wink-wink atmospherics.
“We’re not the Spice Channel, and we don’t try to exploit the people on the air,” Mr. Surratt said. “But in the same sense, I don’t want to deny something either.”
As an example, Mr. Surratt cited the on-air blossoming of Ms. White, an experienced reporter who came to the WB after 10 years with Good Day New York . “Lynne is a great example of someone who wasn’t used to her potential at other places,” Mr. Surratt said. “They relegated her to just a sort of news-reader point of view, and they really missed an opportunity. When Lynne gets going, she’s fantastic. She’s great to look at, and I got to tell you, the men love her.”
The men also love Ms. Lopez, whom Mr. Surratt personally recruited from VH1, where she had only recently begun working on-air as the host of The Daily One , an entertainment news show. Mr. Surratt said that the 28-year-old Ms. Lopez, who had also worked as a radio D.J. for WKTU in New York, was the personality he “wanted from Day 1.”
The unpretentious Ms. Lopez, who serves as the show’s entertainment correspondent, freely admits she’s still learning the news-biz ropes. “I’m not trying to fool anyone into thinking I’m a serious journalist,” the Bronx native said in a post-show interview in the Morning News ‘ green room, where a posted sign reads: THE MORNING NEWS AIRS LIVE. NO TAPE DELAY, NO BLEEPS. POTTY MOUTHS BEWARE. Ms. Lopez said she wasn’t specifically aware of the Morning News ‘ ratings popularity with men, though she offered anecdotal evidence to that effect: “A lot of cops tell me they watch the show.”
It is worth mentioning at this point that there are men on the WB 11 Morning News , too. There are two seasoned city beat reporters, Craig Treadway and Larry Hoff, and Ms. White’s co-anchor is John Muller, a WNBC reporter who came to the morning program from the WB’s 10 p.m. newscast. “Best job I have ever had,” Mr. Muller said brightly of his new a.m. gig.
Though he grew up on Long Island with five sisters, the sandy-haired Mr. Muller–who looks like he could have stepped off the dock of Dawson’s Creek himself–said he can feel a bit overwhelmed on the set, even as he acknowledged that his female colleagues were “easy on the eyes.”
“Sometimes I wish I had a partner in crime up there so we could just, you know, give [the women] a little teasing and ribbing back, but it’s no big deal,” Mr. Muller said. “It’s fun. I kind of like it. What guy wouldn’t want to be up there with three beautiful women, having fun in the morning?”
An average broadcast of the Morning News , which is shot in the old Daily News building on 42nd Street, follows the standard news/weather/traffic triptych with an array of gossipy entertainment news, living and beauty segments and a steady patter of jokes. Though Mr. Surratt said there was no specific effort to tailor the newscast to the WB’s youthful prime-time audience–the watchers of Dawson’s , Felicity , Charmed and the like–he knew he didn’t want produce another buttoned-down, old-school news show. “We’re the WB network, and the WB is not old-school,” Mr. Surratt said. “I mean, this is the Buffy network.”
Indeed, unless there’s, like, an airplane crash, the tone of the WB 11 Morning News is generally fluffy, and occasionally giddy. The latter is often the work of the show’s crew, who will insert music and sound gags to try to provoke the on-air personalities, especially Ms. Church. “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” for example, was a stunt by the show’s director, Tom Wisnosky, who played the hip-hop anthem during Ms. Church’s forecast “just to mess with her.” Ms. Church happily played along, though she admitted later, “I don’t even know what ‘getting jiggy with it’ is.”
The strawberry-blond weather anchor, who does the forecasts barefoot and possesses what may be the last remaining “Rachel” haircut in Manhattan, is, like Ms. White, a veteran of New York news who feels liberated by the WB’s comparatively casual format. The former WCBS and WNBC weatherperson wore a denim jacket and jeans on the air for a recent forecast; in fact, Ms. Church said she had just unloaded a bunch of her old, traditionally cut TV suits. “I have no reins,” she said, then cackled loudly. “Well, you can talk to my executive producer about that, but he’s very loose on the reins.”
Mr. Surratt agreed. “You have got to push the edge, and it’s my job to keep them inbounds,” he said. “But in the same sense, I’d rather yank them back than have to come out there and say, ‘Guys, could you please do something interesting today?’”
Chancy as it may be, Mr. Surratt’s push-the-edge approach has the full endorsement of WPIX’s news director, Karen Scott. “We encourage people to have energy and be alive,” Ms. Scott said. “Sexiness is in the eyes of the beholder.”
More often than not, however, the Morning News is just a tease. Though her colleagues relentlessly hyped the possibility that she would, Ms. Lopez never got into that bathtub that morning, opting instead to chat tubside with a leather-panted correspondent from Real Simple magazine. This is, after all, morning television; there’s always the chance that some uncorrupted 5-year-old hunting for Pikachu and Mewtwo will happen upon Ms. White, Ms. Church and Ms. Lopez instead.
Then again, maybe the kid would be psyched.
“We’re, like, approachable chicks,” Ms. White said. “You can run into us in the street and say hello, and we’re going to say hello back at you. People get that kind of feeling from us.”
Today, get jiggy wit’ the WB 11 Morning News . [WPIX, 11, 6 a.m.]
Thursday, Jan. 11
On NBC tonight, Friends . Bracing to take on Survivor II , Phoebe, Rachel and Monica construct a coconut phone to correspond with Chandler and Joey. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]
Friday, Jan. 12
Fox is taking a pounding for Temptation Island , its creepy new series about real-life couples who travel to some Sandals-type resort, only to be lured into cheating by buff, pretty people paid to try to homewreck. That’s right, they go to a Sandals-type resort . Tonight on Fox, Police Videos . [WNYW, 5, 8 p.m.]
Saturday, Jan. 13
If you look at the title of tonight’s MTV sex special, Hips, Lips and Genderbenders , you might see that third term and think, “Boy, that MTV sure is a progressive, open-minded network.” Then again, you might think that the gang at MTV probably couldn’t come up with another word that rhymed with “hips.” [MTV, 20, 9 p.m.]
Sunday, Jan. 14
On TNT tonight, The Shawshank Redemption , a shameless, cornball Stephen King yarn that makes some of your friends show their embarrassing, Hallmark-card-loving dark sides by loudly arguing it’s “a really good movie” after three glasses of wine. [TNT, 3, 8 p.m.]
Monday, Jan. 15
So Anne Heche will be showing up as a guest star on Ally McBeal in the coming weeks. Now that oughta bring some stability to this show. Who’s the next guest star, Squeaky Fromme? [FOX, 5, 9 p.m.]
Tuesday, Jan. 16
On ABC tonight, The Mole . “Who is the Mole?” Who cares? Just hurry up and finish this show, so we can take down all those horrid advertisements scattered about town. [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]
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