Large and in charge
Dale Hansen is happy to be interviewed, so long as he can talk now, not later. That's because it's May, his favorite sports month, and he'll be at the Colonial golf tourney later this week, and he's got Rangers games to worry about, and the Cowboys are starting minicamps, and perhaps most important, he is supposed to--at this very moment--work out on his home treadmill and will do anything to avoid that.
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."
Which is exactly why Fox thinks it has a winning formula in what it plans to offer: more highlights, interviews, and analysis than local sports anchors can offer in their increasingly small news hole.
What it won't do, wisely, is target Hansen. "We're not going head-to-head with the local broadcasts," says Mike Anastassiou, executive producer for the southwest region of Fox Sports Net. "And, look, we know that no one will replace Dale Hansen in the marketplace. He'll always be a local icon. But we have a larger goal; we want to reach a larger region."
How? Says Fox assignment producer Jeff Gibson: "Local guys unfortunately can't cover the local stories like we can. They may do two to three minutes a night on everything. We can do that just on the Rangers."
Trends in local sportscasting seem to, on the surface, support Fox's point. For a more obvious example of the marginalization of local sports news, look at Tampa Bay. Although not as sports-hungry as the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Tampa nevertheless is a serious sports market. It has a football team that nearly went to the Super Bowl earlier this year. It has a Major League Baseball team and professional hockey team, not to mention teams in nearby Orlando.
So is Tampa ramping up its sports coverage locally? No. In fact, it's reducing it. Last month, the CBS affiliate in Tampa Bay removed its three-and-a-half minutes of sports broadcasting during its 5 p.m and 5:30 p.m. newscasts, citing viewer apathy. This followed moves by each of its competitors, who also don't present sportscasts during their early reports (and many have reduced the air time they give sports anchors during later broadcasts). They cite increased competition from national sports networks such as ESPN, but also blame the on-demand scores and highlights available via the Internet. As one news director told the St. Petersburg Times, "Telling a story when nobody is listening to it is not a good use of our air time."
Fox's Anastassiou, in fact, calls his station's strategy a natural response to the "collapsing of time" that sports staffs are dealing with on local news stations. But do DFW viewers want regional coverage to go with their dose of heavily local Hansen? "In the end," Anastassiou says, "Texans root for Texans."
Hansen's gut tells him otherwise. "They'll throw up the Houston Cougars score," Hansen says, "and folks here will say, 'What the hell? Do I give a shit?'"
More worrisome for Hansen are internal demands. Hansen says there is definitely a stationwide emphasis on attracting those viewers being lost to the Internet, video games, and DVD players--or, as Hansen puts it, "there's a pressure to get younger."
The problem? "If we're going to appeal to the 25-year-old, fine, but can we do that without offending our older audience?" he says. "I used to worry about the same thing. But now I realize that if Channel 8 could deliver young viewers, be No. 1 in that demographic, we would sacrifice our No. 1 overall. No question we would. In turn, if I go into my next contract discussion and I say, 'I'm No. 1,' and they say, 'Yeah, with older viewers,' then I'm in trouble."
Which, on its face, makes no sense. Why lose loyal viewers in an attempt to reach Johnny GenX?
"I said the same thing," Hansen says. "I used myself as an example. I said, 'I'm 51, and I make a nice bit of cash. You don't want to lose me and my money. This is incredibly misguided.'
"But I've shifted. My son is in advertising, and he explains it this way. He says, 'Dad, what kind of beer do you drink?' Coors Light. 'How long have you been drinking it?' Twenty years. 'Wanna try a Budweiser?' No. He says, 'OK, what kind of car do you drive?' Pontiac Bonneville. 'How long have you driven Bonnevilles?' Twenty years. He says, 'See, you've made your choices. From an advertiser's point of view, you're gonna buy what you're gonna buy.' He says, 'Dad, you may go down to a 9 rating, but if you have more of the audience I want than anyone else, I'll buy it.' So I gotta reach the 23-year-old kid who doesn't know what brand he wants to buy."
The result is one part of what's transforming not just sports news, but all local news until it bears more of a resemblance to radio than television's past. Like radio, local broadcasts will aspire to dominate not with the biggest overall share of the audience, but within big advertisers' favorite demographic targets. ("I'm No. 1 with women 27 to 41 who prefer Lancôme and Lauryn Hill.")
In competing for that Holy Grail of demos--the young computer- and media-savvy consumer who prefers assault-on-the-senses multimedia kidtainment--TV folk have taken to breaking up the screen with multiple gewgaws designed to stream info at the viewer. In sports, this results in the "crawl" you see along the bottom of the screen, flashing continuous scores and news bits. It's also an example of how Hansen--who doesn't have a computer or e-mail address, who refers to the Web as "that Internet scanner thing"--holds on to some of his old-man-broadcaster habits.
"We had big discussions about the Channel 11 crawl stuff," Hansen says. "Promotions, sales, marketing, everyone wanted the crawl. The researchers say, 'We're just not giving them enough in sports.' But I just wouldn't do it."
Why? The bar test. "I go in a bar and see some guy watching Channel 11 and ask him, 'Hey, what do you think of that score?' He says, 'Huh? I was listening to Babe [Laufenberg, sports anchor].' I say, 'Watch the scores.' He does, and I say, 'Boy, Babe sure is funny, huh?' The guy says, 'Wha? I thought I was watching the scores.'"
Ultimately, Hansen thinks his stubborn old way of doing things--ignoring anyone not named Aikman or Emmitt, Finley or Modano, Palmeiro or Pudge--will survive for at least another decade. Or at least until he pays off that big house in Waxahachie.
"From me, it won't change much," Hansen says. "You'll get about four minutes of Cowboys, Stars; I'll make you laugh, I hope; throw in a bit of bullshit shtick, and I'm done. You want the score of the Philly Flyers game, get it on your Palm Pilot.
"And I honestly don't think I'll ever give it up totally. I hope there will always be a niche for me. I hope to be able to do this until I'm 60, then I hope I'll be able to pick and choose my role. I'm too much of an egotistical bastard to ever just retire to a golf course. I love the notoriety. The only question I'll have: What's it gonna pay?"
He laughs. He knows that no matter what Fox or the local stations or the "Internet scanner thing" does, he'll be on top, large and in charge. "As long as they don't figure out that the job ain't worth what they pay me, I'll be all right."