As Detective Jill Kirkendall on ABC's NYPD Blue, actress Andrea Thompson spent four years putting away some of society's most hostile fictional elements. But when she expressed an interest in launching a career in TV news, she faced some real hostility.
"Being that she is not a journalist," said a contributor to online forum TV Shoptalk, "she will be doubling the work of the producer, who'll end up either having to write her stories for her or assign one of the other overworked writers to do it." Said another: "The fact that she, without any journalism or communications degree, thinks that her acting skills are transferable' to the news business is troubling at the least."
Then, when news of Thompson's three-month stint at KRQE(TV) Albuquerque, N.M., was disclosed at about the same time as ABC's selection of Leonardo DiCaprio to discuss issues with President Clinton, the comparisons and reflections on the ever-expanding definition of "TV journalist" were inevitable.
The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel thought that Thompson's hiring surpassed DiCaprio's designation "on the mondo bizarro meter." A writer for the New Orleans Times Picayune said, "Forget that journalism degree. There's mounting evidence that, if you want to be a TV news star, you're better off taking acting classes."
"Certainly there are a lot of people that work in starter markets before they'd come to Albuquerque," said Dan Salamone, who hired Thompson at KRQE(TV). "But this is a 40-year-old woman who is mature and brings life's experiences. She understands the mechanics of television. She has the makings of a terrific reporter."
And Thompson, who is entering one of the few professions that may be tougher for 40-year-old women than acting, sounds as tough as her wise and world-weary police-detective character.
"I don't give a damn about what people say," she said. "I have a lot of faith in myself, and I'm going to work my ass off. I wanted to find out for myself whether people were going to accept me as a journalist, or I'll have to shove myself down people's throats. Twenty years of Hollywood is a training ground for anything.
"There are a lot of people in broadcasting who deserve this opportunity more than I do," she conceded. "Life ain't fair. The bottom line is that, right now, I've got lots of TVQ [a measure of TV recognition and likability]. This came my way because I've already got an audience. The same thing happens with supermodels and athletes. That's the way it is."
TV news is a long-held dream for Thompson, a news junkie who reads several newspapers a day. "Most people would do anything they could to stay away from floods, famine and conflict," she noted. "I want to be a witness to it." For a year, she has been working on writing and reporting with Jack Hubbard, a consultant who had worked in news at CBS News and Entertainment Tonight-and krqe. "She's got incredibly good instincts, is an extraordinarily quick learner, and she's one of the most motivated people I've ever worked with," he said.
Shortly after spending New Year's Eve accompanying Dan Rather on the turn-of-the-millennium shift-an invitation gained through a mutual friend, Thompson revealed in an interview that she wanted to go into TV news, and Salamone contacted her. She has continued preparing since leaving NYPD Blue, and last week she was in New York reporting and presenting stories for Oxygen Media's Pure Oxygen.
Thompson is not sure what her next move will be. Before plunging into news fulltime, she may pursue a college degree in economics, possibly online, or take some time off. "I'm taking it slow. I'm sure if I had a big news agent he'd throw me in for the kill. That could be deadly at this point in my career."
Salamone points to Darren White, former head of New Mexico's Department of Public Safety, as someone who has excelled at his station despite a dearth of journalism experience. "We're looking at roads less traveled for the next television superstars."
"Obviously, this is designed to get people to watch a station that's trailed in the ratings," said rival news director Pahl Shipley, of KOAT-TV. "But people have come into broadcast journalism from outside and done very well. Ultimately, she'll have to perform. All you have as a TV news organization is your credibility. I'm sure Dan is going to be cognizant of that."
Salamone maintains Thompson is committed to the new career. "Ten years from now," he said, "I think she'd like to be another Christiane Amanpour."