The Anchors Are Laughing; the Network Is Not

News bloopers have long been an online-video staple, with clips of anchors losing their composure almost a genre unto themselves. But lately, it seems an inordinate number of those clips are coming from ABC News Now, the news division's three-year-old broadband service.

By now, you probably know about World News Now's Ryan Owens and Taina Hernandez, the anchors of ABC News Now's overnight newscast who inexplicably cracked up while reporting on actor Owen Wilson's suicide attempt last month. The clip—and a subsequent on-air apology—has been circulating via YouTube for the past couple of weeks.

Unlike Merry Miller, however, the poor ABC News Now rookie who became a viral sensation this summer thanks to her cringe-inducing interview with actress Holly Hunter, Owens and Hernandez are serial offenders.

A collection of clips curated by a YouTuber known as bigboss969696 shows that, in the past three months alone, the duo has giggled through segments on such lighthearted topics as terrorism, wildfires, breast cancer and the Iraq war. At one point, Owens and Hernandez (known online as "The Laughing Taina") break into laughter while reporting the death toll from flooding in Texas.

Taken together, the clips are hard to dismiss as isolated incidents. And they are more than a little embarrassing for a news division that is making a significant investment in growing its digital platform.

Westin's digital dreams

Launched in July 2004 as an alternative channel for coverage of the nominating conventions, ABC News Now has grown into a 24-hour news service with headlines, breaking news updates and video-on-demand from ABC News broadcasts including World News with Charles Gibson. According to a spokesperson, the channel is "available to more than 32 million users across cable, broadband and mobile."

Back in June—incidentally, around the time Owens lost it during a report on wildfires that destroyed some 225 homes and buildings in Lake Tahoe—ABC News President David Westin announced a two-year plan to "re-design the division to reflect the growing importance of our digital offerings—and their centrality to our future."

He appeared to make good on that promise last week with the launch of Good Morning America Now, an additional live hour of GMA produced for the broadband channel and anchored by newsreader Chris Cuomo.

All of this comes at a time when ABC News is resurgent: World News has surpassed longtime leader NBC Nightly News to become the No. 1 evening newscast; GMA's morning gains have Today looking over its shoulder; and Nightline has grown its 11:35 p.m. audience in the face of an entertainment division just begging to take over its time period.

Bad for the brand?

So it's all the more puzzling that ABC News would countenance such sophomoric antics on the same channel where the division is looking to extend its hard-news brand. Said one ABC News staffer, "Isn't anyone watching this stuff?"

ABC News Senior VP Jeffrey Schneider concedes that the anchors' behavior during the Owen Wilson segment was "clearly inappropriate." They were reprimanded, he adds, and have apologized. He did not comment on the other incidents.

According to another ABC News source, what began as lighthearted banter between the anchors has gotten completely out of hand. (Neither Owens nor Hernandez responded to requests for comment.)

No doubt Comedy Central's The Daily Show has inspired many newscasters to take themselves a bit less seriously. But while there's certainly room for a little irreverence on a program broadcast at 3 a.m., World News Now purports to be a real news program that bears the name brand of ABC's nightly newscast.

And thanks to the viral nature of the Web, it isn't just insomniacs who are watching.

"This is not good for the brand," says Andrew Tyndall, a B&C contributing editor and publisher of the Tyndall Report, which analyzes television news. "This is an example of how the new rules apply, especially when it comes to bloopers. The things that spread like wildfire are the bloopers, not excellence."

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