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News Svengalis at Work

How consultants shape newscasts, from steering the coverage to choosing eyeliner. 5/28/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

“You’re just not as fabulous as you could be or need to be.”

Usually, informing an attractive and ambitious young TV reporter that she suffers from a fabulousness deficit might cause bruised feelings or invite an angry reply. But when the edict comes from appearance consultant Katherine Carey, reporter Katie Wiedemann takes it in as readily as any of Carey’s other blunt critiques. After all, Wiedemann’s bosses at KCRG Cedar Rapids, Iowa, have hired the company Carey represents, Frank N. Magid Associates, specifically for this sort of assessment—and for Magid’s detailed advice on how to fix the problem.

In a tableau repeated countless times in markets across the country, the appearance consultant sits with the TV journalist in the news director’s office, watching a playback of the reporter’s recent work and pitilessly dissecting it. Wiedemann, 24, runs KCRG’s one-person Dubuque, Iowa, bureau; she shoots, writes and edits her own stories for the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts. Despite this total-immersion job description, there is no getting around Wiedemann’s lack of experience. She’s just a year into the business, and it shows on a tape of her report the day before: a live shot from the middle of a car dealership on how gas prices are affecting sales of monster SUVs.

Wiedemann’s long red hair—whipping in her face as she talks to the camera—has got to go, Carey says. The reporter’s drab, shapeless wardrobe: Change it. Makeup: Find the right kind, learn how to apply it, and use it—religiously. Wiedemann is pretty, Carey says, but she’s not camera-ready. “When stations send for somebody like me, it means two things,” Carey tells her pupil. “It means that they care about you and want to keep you around. They want to invest in your look and make sure you have all the tools you need to do a great job. But it also means this is the last chance for romance: You may not have a job if you don’t grasp these concepts.”

Wiedemann hangs on Carey’s every word.

Although consultants are now a behind-the-scenes fixture in TV news, Magid Associates traces its history to what is generally acknowledged as the birth of the news-consulting industry: the moment in the 1970s when Frank Magid, a former professor of sociology at the University of Iowa, decided to start offering TV news operations advice as an offshoot of his product-marketing research services. Magid canvassed local populations, asking what viewers liked and disliked about the local news and the people presenting it. Ultra-competitive but harried station managers and news directors, Magid found, welcomed his reports.

Watching the television watchers

In the beginning, news consultants’ mission was largely to advise stations on how to design better sets and make their anchors more appealing. But over the years, their role expanded to the point where, in most markets, it’s not just the look of the news that’s under the microscope, it’s the content: types of stories, number of stories per half-hour, transitions, live shots, graphics, happy talk.

“Americans are expert at watching television,” says John Quarderer, Magid VP of research and consultation innovation. “But we’re expert at watching them watch television. That’s our job.”

It’s also the job of other industry heavyweights, such as Broadcast Image Group, Audience Research & Development, and Crawford, Johnson & Northcott, as well as many smaller operations and the in-house news-grooming operations of some major-market stations. Crawford, Johnson & Northcott was founded a few years ago by ex-Magid executives who left the company after founder Frank Magid (who was inducted into the B&C Hall of Fame in 2003) turned the reins over to his son, Brent.

Though facing stiffer competition than ever, Magid Associates remains a worldwide operation, working in dozens of countries, maintaining a slew of offices here and abroad. In the U.S., Magid has exclusive consulting contracts in about 120 of the 210 Nielsen markets, charging annual fees of about $28,000 in small markets (see box) and $50,000 in midsize markets. Even more lucrative is the market research offered to the larger players.

But despite consultants’ now thorough penetration of the business, there is also a long-standing wariness within the industry of news coaches who, in their zeal for contract renewals, tend to grab whatever fires up the ratings in one market and tout it to stations across the board. “You don’t want them to come in and say, 'This is sweeping the country, and you should do it, too.’ It works against your localism,” says Steve Schwaid, VP of news for NBC’s station group. “But there is value in the external advice. It’s like calling your mom and dad and saying, 'What are your thoughts?’” Only a few of NBC’s stations work with consultants on research, he says, and there are no major projects or group-wide consulting deals.

Getting “Magidized”

Magid is hardly oblivious to local market demands. KCRG News Director Becky Lutgen Gardner credits the company with engineering the station’s climb from third place a decade ago to its current top spot in the ratings. MAGID research essentially said, It’s the weather, stupid. Get the satellite truck, get Doppler Radar, employ no fewer than four meteorologists (a staggering number for a market of this size), and, whatever you do, stay on the air until the last vestige of any bad weather has passed. KCRG became the go-to news channel for the 21 eastern-Iowa counties the station covers, an area prone to severe snowstorms and tornados.

Magid takes a particular interest in KCRG’s fortunes; the station is located only about 10 minutes from the company’s headquarters in Marion, Iowa. Since Magid consultants and researchers live in the area, the station has become something of a testing facility for the country’s best-known news consultants. KCRG signs up Magid for a certain number of consultations per year, but the company’s consultants also drop by to review tape with Gardner at no charge.

“When I came here four years ago,” Gardner says, “I thought, 'Uh, oh. I’m going to Magid country.’ But it’s been a fun relationship. I get pulled in so many directions, I don’t always have time to say, 'I don’t like your hair or the way you did that live shot.’”

And so, over two days this spring, Wiedemann and a half dozen of her reporter and anchor colleagues were “Magidized”—that is, given 90-minute to three-hour private sessions with the appearance and communication consultants. The cost is on a sliding scale depending on the length of the station’s contract (typically one to three years), market size, number of visits per year and whether the station signs up for any or all of Magid’s services, including news, talent and appearance coaching, and research analysis.

Although both parties decline to disclose what KCRG pays for Magid’s services, a typical station its size could easily spend tens of thousands of dollars annually on consultants. For its money, KCRG will get four or five on-site consulting days from a Magid team comprising overall news consultant Quarderer, communication consultant Tricia Uhlir, and—at an à la carte fee—appearance consultant Carey.

Is it worth it? “Yes,” says Gardner. “If you get too complacent, too comfortable, that’s when the station’s numbers start to sag.”

But that doesn’t mean the consultants are greeted with open arms. “Sometimes,” says Uhlir, who spends much of her life on airplanes traveling to 15 different markets, “they refer to us as 'insultants’ instead of consultants. At least, until they get to know us.” Indeed, advising professionals about their appearance can be tricky. In January, The Weather Channel was sued for age and sex discrimination by a fired female meteorologist who cited an in-house seminar that critiqued the way on-air talent looked.

What not to wear

In a KCRG conference room with a wall of playback monitors, Uhlir counsels reporter John Franzman, a 27-year station veteran. “In the beginning,” she says later, “I know that they’re sitting there, smiling politely and thinking: Oh, God, how did I land this as my fate today? The Magid woman.”

But Uhlir has a way of disarming even the most skeptical on-air talent. After a few minutes of chatting, she asks Franzman, “Has anyone talked to you about demonstrative gesturing?” The sense of being on TV, “in a box,” she says, is so constricting that “we stop using our hands.” He agrees to try using a lavaliere mike more often in the field.

Sometimes, the juxtaposition of image consulting and the sober aspects of news events can be jarring, as when Carey talks to Wiedemann about wardrobe selection. “Who would think that a terrible thing would happen in a small place like Oklahoma City, where they had all the bombing?” Carey says. “You have to ask yourself: If there was a terrible tragedy in my area and that footage went all around the country—which could very well happen—would you be embarrassed? Would you be ashamed? Would you say to yourself, Oh, my God, I wore the wrong thing that day?”

If a high-priced anchor wears the wrong thing, others at the station might shy away from mentioning it, but that’s part of Magid’s job. Carey recalls a female anchor who liked to wear an expensive suit, unaware that its tight pattern vibrated on camera. “I pointed out that I couldn’t hear a word she was saying because I was so distracted by what she was wearing. And when she saw it on the monitor, she was horrified.”

Although Carey works most often with women, she has plenty of advice for male on-air talent, too. She critiques KCRG’s 10 p.m. anchor, Bruce Aune, advising a younger-looking haircut and a switch to three-button suits from dated-looking two-buttons. “You’re something of a chick magnet,” she says. “You might as well work it.”

Carey has taken over KCRG’s women’s bathroom, her large suitcase bulging with what seems a million lipsticks, eye shadows, blushers and the all-important concealers. She instructs Wiedemann in trying to look like herself (and not, as the reporter dreams, like NBC’s Katie Couric). The application of subtle lining and color make Wiedemann’s eyes suddenly prominent. Her cheeks glow with warm blush. But the reporter worries that she won’t be able to duplicate the effect. Carey whips up a diagram and a list of products to buy. Confident at last, Wiedemann smiles. Additional reporting by Allison Romano

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