‘Breaking’ News: Local TV Can Make Good Comedy

Are local broadcasters as adept at doing comedy and drama as they are at producing news? Some high-profile Hollywood producers are banking on the answer being yes. The news battles between WABG and WXVT in the tiny market of Greenville, Miss., are the subject of a new reality series on truTV called Breaking Greenville.

Local news has been the star of both reality and comedy in the past, with middling results. “One of the appealing things was that it had not been done well on television,” says Adam Paul, executive producer of Breaking Greenville. “There’s an incredible gold mine of stories here.”

The eight-episode series is set to premiere Jan. 29 on truTV. It’s produced by Electus, which was founded by Ben Silverman, who had previous success with a workplace program with offbeat laughs called The Office.

Grammer Lessons

Producers have attempted to mine the antic humor inherent in live local news production before. In 2007, Fox aired the reality show Anchorwoman, about a blonde swimsuit model, Lauren Jones, who learns to be an anchor at KYTX Tyler (Texas) in 30 days. The show was scrapped after a single episode. That same season, Fox debuted the sitcom Back to You, which starred Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton as sniping coanchors. The series was based in part on producer Steven Levitan’s time as an anchor in Madison, Wis. Back to You lasted two seasons.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, set at fictional WJM Minneapolis, fared far better.

Anchorwoman did not portray local television news in a positive light. Sherry Nelson, general manager at WABG, said the stations received assurances they would not be made to look foolish. “We were concerned with the angle they wanted to take,” says Nelson.

Several staffers from both stations chose not to participate in Breaking Greenville. Some who did have come across, at least in the pilot, as self-reverent and petty, being way more focused on ratings than delivering good stories for viewers. “My primary concern,” says Nelson, “is that we’re portrayed as the station we are, and for the stories we do.”

Biggers and Better

The pilot introduces the ratings battle between market leader WABG and emerging rival WXVT. WABG morning anchor Lucy Biggers, a Connecticut ingenue, plays the fish out of water, and is obsessed with outdoing her blonde rival anchor across the street, Callie Carroll. The stations are closer than the pilot indicates. While in separate facilities, they share a sales team and a website. ABC affiliate WABG is owned by Commonwealth Broadcasting, whose principle is Charles Harker. CBS affiliate WXVT is owned by H3 Communications, whose principles are Harker’s children.

WABG grabbed an estimated 44.2% of the revenue in 2013, says BIA/Kelsey, while WXVT did 43.3%. They toil in DMA No. 190; the producers targeted tiny market stations on purpose. “It’s people just starting out, and people respectively at the end of their career,” says Paul. “Greenville is a real interesting blend of talent: young, old, black, white.”

Eccentric personalities fill the screen. Biggers wants to be Kelly Ripa. WABG news director Pam Chatman says she’s referred to as “the Oprah of the south.” With his dramatic flair and fluffy moustache, producer David Lush is convinced he should be on the air. Nelson admits the amount of comedy in the trailer had her anxious. “Every newsroom has its own characters,” she says. “We are no exception.”

Nelson would not divulge details about the newsroom “cast members” being paid, but did say their motivation was exposure, not a monetary one.

Silverman, former cochairman of NBC Entertainment is a prolific producer. Paul’s EP credits include Modern Dads on A&E and The Buried Life on MTV. He came away from Greenville with new respect for the work local newsgatherers do. “It was fascinating to see how much the people care,” Paul says, “not only about doing a good job with the news, but how much they want to beat the competition.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.