By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
He knows he must watch his health, but Hansen, despite his concern at his fluctuating girth, is pretty damn happy with who he is right now: the 300-pound gorilla of local sports, a whip-smart smart-ass, the guy you wanna hang with and talk sports, the WFAA-Channel 8 celeb who will soon mark 20 years of superior sports coverage in this market. Yes, he has detractors, folks who would say "superior sports coverage" is oxymoronic. Even though Hansen has journalistic credibility--his 1987 investigation into SMU led to its football program being slapped with the death penalty--he is still sometimes derided as someone more interested in the one-liner than in his broadcast. (He did, after all, go on the air once with orange hair.) Nitpickers aside, Hansen has earned the respect his tenure accords him. Appropriately, his two-decade milestone will most certainly inspire station pronouncements of what has been true since Ronald Reagan won a second term: Hansen is the biggest thing--literally, figuratively, and deservedly--in Dallas-Fort Worth sports television.
How has he stayed on top, then? By drinking Coors Light. Not that specifically, but by staying in touch with the average viewer, by conducting highly unscientific research projects in bars, wherein said Coors Light is consumed by said researcher. This is not a new tactic for Hansen, just a highly effective one. It began in the late '70s, when the Omaha, Nebraska, anchor would go to sports bars and ask people questions like, Who is playing in the World Series? or What sport does Indiana State's Larry Bird play? The answer: "Uh, I dunno."
"What it taught me, very early on," Hansen says, "is something very few people in my business admit, but something I truly believe. It's that when you get down to it, there aren't a whole helluva lot of people out there who care about sports. And when you think everyone is like you--that everyone cares about the Cowboys' deep-snapper situation--you're in trouble as a sportscaster. Station management tells me how important I am, and I say, 'Yeah, right. Then why am I on at the end of the show?' But the point is, that's where I belong."
Perspective in place, Hansen has been smart enough to figure out what his small audience wants and to give only that to them: human-interest stories; a couple of quick local scores; and highlights of Cowboys, Cowboys, Cowboys. Throw in a few seconds of smart-aleck commentary and uncomfortable cross-talk banter, and you have the simple, successful Dale Hansen formula. But as Hansen highlights turn 20 in the market--he began at KDFW-Channel 4 in August 1980, before moving to Channel 8 in 1983--he sounds like a weary champion. "I still love my job," he says, "but, no, I don't love it the way I used to."
Understandable. The details of his gig are easy for him; he can whip up a 25-minute Sunday sportscast in about one-third the time it takes his co-workers. He says he is slowly succumbing to the same sports fatigue that grips much of the nation--well, older white men, at least--who complain about young thugs and exorbitant ticket prices ruining grand old games. But the assault on Hansen, and local sports broadcasters in general, is even more varied. Externally, it comes from the Regional Sports Report, a Fox Sports Net cable venture that launches in this market July 5. Hansen has also had to deal with increasingly successful rival newscasts, such as that from the "good, very good" (Hansen's words) Mike Doocy at Channel 4. None of these, though, is as troubling as the pressures internally to "get younger," to deliver the demographically desirable viewers that advertisers love. It was that goal that chased Tracy Rowlett from Channel 8 to KTVT-Channel 11. It's that goal that is the only challenge Hansen doesn't welcome, because he knows it will take more than bar talk to ensure success in his third decade.
Given his longtime ratings success, Hansen can afford to be blasé about the competition, real or perceived, from Fox's new Regional Sports Report. "I don't know how this 'regional' idea will play in other markets," Hansen says, "but this market is different. This market demands good, intensely local sports coverage. I'm interested in what Fox is going to do, but I'm not terribly concerned with it."
True, Hansen's dominance is cause for confidence. But although he is still No. 1 when he goes head-to-head with other sportscasts (Sunday nights, with the long-running Dale Hansen's Sports Special), viewership is down significantly for all stations. Hansen's Sunday-night show used to draw 18 and 19 ratings. Now it does 10 and 11 ratings. (Each rating point is equal to a buttload of home viewers, or something like that.) Long-dominant Channel 8 proved vulnerable for the first time in decades during February sweeps. KXAS-Channel 5 tied WFAA at 10 p.m. with a 12 rating. As Hansen says, even though he's still on top, the general decline of viewers doesn't bode well for an industry that has seen similar national domination by youth-oriented fare--Monday Night Football getting hammered by professional wrestling, for example. "It's kind of a scary deal," he says, "trying to figure out where it will end up. No question, local TV is struggling to find its place now. We had it so good for so many years, it was just a license to print money."