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Anchors Away

Despite a presidential election, a financial crisis, and an improbable Phillies victory in the World Series, the biggest story of 2008 in Philadelphia was probably the scandal involving Larry Mendte and Alycia Lane.

As nearly everyone in the eight-county area knows, the saga involved flirtation, jealousy, sabotage, and two of the region's most recognizable faces: Mendte, one-half of a local power couple who rarely used to make the papers for anything other than his occasional charitable efforts; and Lane, a thirtysomething stunner whom the tabloids had already branded as a rising wild child. Mendte's good-guy reputation began to crumble when FBI agents raided his home last year to inspect his computer. With the press following the investigation's every twist, it emerged that Mendte had repeatedly hacked into Lane's e-mail account, possibly leaking its contents to gossip columns. A guilty plea followed, as well as a lawsuit. Mendte admitted to an "improper relationship" and said he'd been driven over the edge by professional jealousy. When he finally appeared in court to offer a chastened apology, the scene scored huge radio and TV coverage, not to mention splashy play in both of the city's daily newspapers.

Mendte and Lane--just plain Larry and Alycia to the folks who chat you up about them in line at the grocery store--are not the sort of Hollywood stars granted first-name status on "Access Hollywood." Nor are they old-money types of the sort chronicled by tabloids in The Philadelphia Story. For modern Philadelphians, they're something that might be even more fascinating: local TV personalities. Until their firings, they were co-anchors for Philadelphia's CBS affiliate. And, while their drama may have been particularly riveting, the attention given the pair was hardly unique. The gossip columns of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News at times resemble a televisual blotter, as reporters duel for tiny scoops about even the lowliest weekend weatherman.

So readers were in the loop when Channel 29's Sue Serio had knee surgery. They knew when her Fox colleague Dorothy Krysiuk missed work for a back injury. Locals learned of a recent nightclub visit by Fox 29's Sharon Crowley, Tasha Jamerson and--presumably recovered from the back troubles--Krysiuk ("must have been ladies' night," mused the Inquirer) and a Brasserie Perrier sighting of Channel 6's Nydia Han and Erin O'Hearn (who displayed "a healthy dose of cleavage," according to the Daily News). It doesn't matter how prosaic the details are: Both dailies were hot on the story when Channel 10 weatherman Glenn Schwartz had rotator cuff surgery, making it temporarily impossible for him to don his trademark bowties. Locals learned when Channel 10's Jade McCarthy got engaged. And, sure, "Action News" anchor Monica Malpass made the news during her explosive divorce. But readers also knew about it when she filed paperwork to build a new deck for her Rittenhouse Square home, when she adopted a kitten, and when she showed up at a party last year looking "cougarific."

It's not just a Philadelphia obsession. If you live outside Los Angeles, New York, or Washington, your hometown's celebrity roster is probably on television at 6 and 11. As Craig Allen, author of News is People: The Rise of Local TV News and the Fall of News from New York, says, "Local news enables every town to be Hollywood."

Once upon a time, residents of non-Hollywood cities had lots of locally famous people to gawk at. There were hometown tycoons and hometown heiresses and hometown department-store bosses, a local elite that might not appear in movies but had a way of popping up in the society pages. In the past few decades, though, local bankers have morphed into regional vice-presidents of banking conglomerates and local industrialists have turned into regional sales managers for diversified multinationals. With the decline of local elites, the market for gossip globalized just as surely as the market for IT support services. Which leaves local gossips with ... hey, was that NBC 10's Deanna Durante, running through the airport Friday morning? Yes it was! Durante and her fiance made it to their Southwest gate just in time for a flight to St. Louis, according to the Daily News.

This telegenic breed of local notables was created by a man named Albert Primo. When Primo started out in television, local newscasts tended to feature a single stentorian anchor reciting the entire 15 minutes of each day's news. Working at KYW in Philadelphia in 1965, Primo developed "Eyewitness News." "I took the five ugliest guys and made them producers, and I took everyone else ... and gave them a beat," he says. "I'd put them next to the anchor person, so the public got an eyewitness report from somebody who was on the scene. All of a sudden, people were asking for their autographs." KYW's anchors in 2008: Larry Mendte and Alycia Lane.

Three years later, Primo was brought to WABC in New York, where "Eyewitness News" became a pop-culture phenomenon, making household names of Howard Cosell and Joan Lunden. Before long, the concept had spread around the country. As rival stations embraced similar imitations, they dueled for market share by playing up the personalities of the on-air talent, putting them in 30second spots and sending them out to various touchy-feely community events.

In a cheeseball 1970s way, winning market share by selling personality prefigured the formula that's seen lone bloggers supplant venerable newspapers. "You are your own identity," says Allen. "That's where all media is headed, and that's where local TV news already is." And so is the consumer. Studies show that local news is far more popular than other news sources: Data from Pew Research Center says 52 percent of Americans regularly watch local TV news, well above the 34 percent who read newspapers or the 29 percent who view network news.

So much for the age of the viral video celebrity. "You get a lot of tips about these people," says Dan Gross, the Daily News's gossip columnist. "In Philadelphia, there aren't that many real celebrities, and a lot of the TV types, they get treated as, 'Oh, wow.' There will be some fancy party or restaurant opening that's portrayed as everyone who's anyone is there. And who that everyone is, is every fucking jerk-off from every TV station."

But will tomorrow's newscasters get the same attention? Lost amid recent reports of shuttered foreign bureaus, spiked book sections, and other highbrow media calamities are intimations that local TV news faces its own troubles. A decade ago, the average late newscast reached 21 percent of people watching television at that time. Today, the number is 12 percent. The Television Bureau of Advertising, an industry trade group, predicts local spot ads will tumble between 4 and 8 percent this year. The age of the million-dollar local anchor has been declared kaput. Longtime observers say the live-shot reporter may be buried next.

Even the biggest stations are tightening their belts, axing expensive veteran anchors and hiring "multimedia reporters," assigned to report, shoot, and blog stories all at once. Typically, concern about such changes has less to do with actual news-gathering--the decline of the local daily, the trusty tip sheet for TV types, hurts a city's news content much more--than with matters of audience affection and market research, which have always been the local-news programmers' biggest concern. In the short run, the economy may actually help the celebrification of even the cut-rate talent stations are hiring. "Because they're not selling commercial spots, what are they filling them with? More promotion for the talent," says Scott Jones, a former news director who runs the industry tip sheet "So the anchors are getting even more famous because the local car dealership isn't buying that thirty-second spot." But, in the long run, the locals face the same problem that bedevils their highbrow media rivals: There's simply less revenue to pay the folks they've turned into America's last local celebrities. Coming up next: Your "Eyewitness News" team dies in a fiery economic crash. Film at 11.

Michael Schaffer's book, One Nation Under Dog, will be published in April.