Academic journal article Journalism History

Gender Breakthrough Fit for a Focus Group: The First Women Newscasters and Why They Arrived in Local TV News

Academic journal article Journalism History

Gender Breakthrough Fit for a Focus Group: The First Women Newscasters and Why They Arrived in Local TV News

Article excerpt

While considerable attention has been given to the emergence of women in television news, explanations have rested on the careers of nationally known newswomen whose strides against gender bias are said to have cleared a path for others. Yet, as this study shows, the first female newscasters were little-known figures brought forward at local stations who arrived in force in the early 1970s. New evidence reveals that change occurred because of the first widespread use of focus groups and surveys by managers and consultants. Despite fears that the public would not accept women, female anchors and reporters proliferated when audience research convinced broadcasters that viewers wanted women on the news. Ominous, though, was the further use of these methods as more women entered the field and had to compete for frontline posts. Thus, this study illustrates how the history of the news process can explain the origin and impact of events.

At its inception in the 1940s and for the next thirty years, television news was virtually an all-male domain. It was not until the 1970s that women became fixtures on TV newscasts. Yet contrary to the way most histories read, this change was not accomplished by Barbara Walters and other newswomen who gained fame at the networks. The lifting of what had been one of the media's most imposing gender barriers occurred in local TV. The first woman to serve as a lead newscast anchor was in Seattle, not in New York. By 1976, when Walters became the first woman network anchor, there was scarcely a major city where women anchors and reporters could not be seen.

The recent release of the papers and the records of the McHugh & Hoffman news consulting organization is an opportunity to review this movement of women into local TV news. As the first and for many years the largest news consultancy, McHugh & Hoffman was a behind-the-scenes advisor and tactician to stations in more than 100 cities. Not only did its many specialists monitor local newscasts, but its reports were the only known chronicle of the first women who appeared. Furthermore, there has been speculation since the 1970s that McHugh & Hoffman contributed to putting these women on the air. Prominent in that period's literature were criticisms of the local broadcasters who employed consultants, and one of the issues was the consultants' arranging of new newscasting teams.1 Also left from that period are documents establishing focus groups and surveys- which also were new-as the core of the news consulting process. This was explained in Ron Powers' 1977 book The Newscasters, which showed how profit-minded managers had seized on research in refitting newscasts to public tastes.2 At the time, he and others had surmised that the appearance of women in local news was a change influenced by the advent of audience research.

In documenting precisely this with evidence, this study advances a theme recently developed in books by Mary Beadle and Michael Murray, Donna Halper, and this author: prospects for women in broadcasting were not decided strictly through internal struggles but depended on public perceptions and acceptance.3 For women in broadcast news, television was the decisive challenge. By the time TV had arrived and had pointed to newscasts of a half-hour or more, radio had progressed to newscasts of only fifteen minutes. On television, of course, women could be seen. The fact that acceptance was achieved is indicated in the many successful careers traced by various authors.

Yet still unclear are the perceptions and how they affected a chain of events. It is in addressing these matters that the McHugh & Hoffman materials have value. The new sources affirm broadcasters' original resistance to women but suggest that commercial motives, not biases, had been the reason. Fears had reigned that female newscasters would drive away viewers. Now there is confirmation that change came when surveys and focus groups were introduced. …

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