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Lauren Jones: Anchorwoman or TV News Travesty?

Is rookie reality program Anchorwoman -- about a blonde seductress who's taught to be an anchor at a Texas station in 30 days -- good, clean programming fun, or a grievous violation of journalistic ethics?

Perhaps both, say newsroom bosses around the country. The show is centered on Lauren Jones, a former actress, WWE Smackdown diva, swimsuit model and Price Is Right “Barker's Beauty,” who was fast-tracked onto the air at CBS affiliate KYTX in Tyler-Longview, Texas (DMA No. 111). Anchorwoman premieres Aug. 22 on Fox.

KYTX general manager Phil Hurley says the protests amount to schoolmarmish hand-wringing. “Entertainment and journalism have gone together for years,” he says. “Reporters spend a whole day reporting on Paris Hilton leaving her house, and they're criticizing me? I'm a little lost as to what the problem is.”

The concept was hatched a few years ago when Hurley and former American Idol co-executive producer Brian Gadinsky met at the National Association of Television Programming Executives convention. Initially, the idea was for Playboy centerfold Amber Smith to go through anchor training, but Hurley says her lack of news ambition was obvious to Tyler viewers. “I told Brian, 'We can't do that,'” he says. “'We live here.'”

Tweaking the concept to find someone who was serious about news, Gadinsky and Hurley settled on Jones, a former double-major in design and management from New York's Parsons School of Design. She started at the station in the beginning of June, trained under news director Dan Delgado and was live on the 5 p.m. news June 11 -- the Fox crew filming every triumph and malapropism.

Hurley says his newsroom largely supported the project, though two staffers asked not to be filmed. He insisted that Fox producers not foist scripts on staffers, and Fox complied. “Our integrity was not at all compromised,” he says.

Plenty disagree. Christine Tatum, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, slammed Anchorwoman in her blog on “It's demeaning to women … It's demeaning to ALL television journalists who have worked hard to learn the trade of responsible, ethical and in-depth journalism … And it's certainly demeaning to the general public … People have every reason to shake their heads at this travesty in Tyler and consider it one more example of how ratings (and, therefore, money) trump good journalism.”

Pay to Play

Giving extra ammunition to naysayers, KYTX received payment for its involvement in the show. The station received a “rental fee” from Fox (Hurley describes it as a “fair” amount), along with reimbursement for expenses related to Anchorwoman. Six “players,” including Hurley and his news director, were “paid very well,” he says. Hurley maintains that the station did the reality show for promotion, not for the money.

The Tyler competition echoes Tatum. “They're making a mockery of the news department,” says Sheldon Galloway, president of White Knight Broadcasting, which owns Fox-affiliate KFXK. “We'll run Anchorwoman, but I have reservations. There's [a nude Web site] called Naked News out there, but you wouldn't have that be your primary news source.”

Not everyone, however, feels that Anchorwoman spells the demise of responsible TV journalism. Harold Cooper, general manager of Sinclair Broadcast Group ABC affiliate WCHS in Charleston, W.Va., has seen the pilot and likes the concept. “I think it could work,” he says. “Maybe some people are a little too uptight about it.”

Indeed, as news outlets attempt to win viewers in an increasingly cluttered media landscape, Jones is hardly the first (or last) person whose good looks helped them score an anchor job. Hurley says he sensed hypocrisy when Good Morning America ripped Jones earlier this summer, as host Diane Sawyer was a “Junior Miss” America years ago. “We're not exactly breaking new ground in hiring [attractive] people with no journalism experience,” he says.

Hurley, who's also run the ABC and NBC stations in the market, calls Jones a legitimate news aspirant -- though he admits sending her home to tone down her outfit more than once -- and says he was simply trying to bring eyeballs to his newscasts. (Raycom Media ABC affiliate KLTV grabbed nearly 62% of market revenue in 2006, according to BIA Financial, and KYTX was a distant third.)

Polling, though unscientific, convinces Hurley that Jones attracted new viewers that stuck around and may help ratings when July Nielsen sweeps numbers arrive soon. Hurley says around 80% of the viewer comments supported her. “They said, if she could do the job, she should have the opportunity,” Hurley says.

Jones, meanwhile, insists she's committed to broadcast journalism. Asked where she sees herself in 10 years, she replies, “I'll definitely be in news—hopefully in bigger and badder markets. But if I stay in Texas, I got to work with some amazing people there.”