Tracy Rowlett Talks About Leaving Channel 11, The Good Ol' Days and and Stations Obsessed With "Car Wrecks and Fires"

This morning, we mentioned that KTVT-Channel 11 anchor Tracy Rowlett would be retiring in July 2008. We weren't necessarily shocked by the news; rumors of Rowlett's leaving have been circulating for months, if not years. (He's been through two contracts since moving to Channel 11 from WFAA-Channel 8 in 1999, and he signed the most recent one almost reluctantly.) But we are, well, saddened by it, because Rowlett's the last of the statesman-like anchors whom we grew up watching on local newscasts. John Criswell, Chip Moody, Tracy Rowlett -- they were as close as local TV got to people like Peter Jennings and Tom Browkaw and Walter Cronkite. You trusted them, and in turn they made sure theirs were newcasts not filled with the grim and the gruesome. When a story broke, they put it together for you piece by piece.

But Rowlett says today that the time has come for him to step down and turn over the anchor desk to Doug Dunbar, who will take the keys from Rowlett and ride shotgun with Karen Borta beginning next month, as Rowlett begins transitioning to his second life as a husband, father and grandfather who wants to spend more time with his family. "I've made promises to my wife," he tells Unfair Park, and if we know anything about Rowlett after growing up with him on our TV set, it's that he doesn't break promises.

After the jump, we have a Q&A with Rowlett conducted earlier this afternoon, as Rowlett prepared for his first newscast since letting folks know his days at Channel 11 were numbered. During our conversation, he looks back at his days at Channel 8, reflects upon his tenure at Channel 11 and wonders precisely why newcasts filled with "car wrecks and fires" continue to top the ratings in a city that deserves better.

Was this a difficult decision?

I don't think these decisions just happen all at once. When I first came over to 11, I had a seven-year contract. We had a window where we could review it at the end of five, and we could have just shook hands then, but we deciuded to go to the other two, which ended last year. And the station said, 'We'd like you to extend as long as you want.' And I said I'd sign on for two more, and though I couldn't read the tea leaves, I said at the end of that I will probably step down. That's where we are. But I think it'll be easier for me to step down than people realize. I've been doing nighttime news for over 30 years. It might be interesting to see what life's like with normal hours, to see my wife and grandchildren.

You began at Channel 8 as an investigative reporter in 1974 and moved very quickly to the anchor desk. Are you surprised you lasted there as long as you did?

It was always serendipitous. I didn't aspire to be an anchorperson. Frankly, I still think the real fun in these jobs is in reporting. My God, you get something new to do every day and maybe get a story you can stay with for a little while and stake out ownership. I started out in print and got over in broadcasting, but they came to me all those years ago and said, 'You and Iola Johnson research well with the audience, we'd like you to be an anchor,' and I didn't want to do it. They had to keep coming back, and finally I agreed. I would have to say I never thought of doing it long term because I hadn't thought of doing it at all. Even though I had some experience before I got here, it was something I didn't aspire to. To be honest, I thought I'd want to be a news director and run a newcasts of my own, but it didn't happen.

You've been doing this long before newcasts were controlled by consultants -- since there was actual news in our nightly news. How did you weather the transition?

It wasn't always easy. We don't know where all this stuff is going. We don't know what the hell's going to happen. But one of the things I've always preached is we need to put out a quality product. People depend on us to get this look at their world, and we need to be there for them. We did that at 8, and I don't want to take credit for this, but it still pays dividends for them today. The philosophy was: We put together a product people could depend on. That's not there anymore. Look at what's on the air. The difference is stark.

Where do you see the biggest difference?

The mantra now is "live, local, late-breaking," which means more car wrecks and fires. Ed Bark's always railing about this, and I agree with his point of view more often than I disagree with it. But these things are cyclical. I don't mean to sound cynical. But I truly believe the quality broadcast is at 11. I truly believe it. But ratings don't relect quality.

And why not?

The first place you have to look is the history of the market -- at the television stations and the viewing patterns. Viewers are loyal, and we're up against generational trends. For years, 11 was recognized as the Icky Twerp station, and it did the movies and baseball games and didn't even have a news department, where 5 and 8 and even 4 were cranking out newscasts. People grew up looking at these other stations for news, not 11. Channel 5 is still the Fort Worth station. We're in Fort Worth too, but the recognition goes to 5 because they were doing news. And it's still the Harold Taft station. There is a residual loyalty. They could put a test pattern up, and some people will still watch it. Likewise with 8, because there was a time when it was the quality product. They developed it, because it was worth a lot to them. It was a real investment, and it still pays dividends.

But when I came over to 11 from 8, this place was pulling 2s in the ratings, and 8 was doing 18, 19, 20 points in ratings. The difference was so vast we couldn't even see the top of the market. Channels 8 and 5 will be neck-and-neck now with an 8, and we'll be at a 6. So it has been a success. Do I want to be No. 1? Of course, and I can't tell you why we're not. I think we should be. This station deserves to be. Who knows? Maybe with a good-looking guy like Doug, who is a qualified anchor, maybe that'll be whatever they need.

Your leaving really does feel like the end of an era...

What's happening with me is what's happening with Troy Dungan, in the same way I will be phased out like he is over at 8. Troy and I are old buddies, and we talk a lot. Troy and I were together since 1976 or so. Iola's still around, and Verne [Lundquist]'s doing CBS, and he goes on and on, God love him. You will see these people around, but we're not as a team. And I lost Chip Moody, a dear friend. And that was interesting, because Chip and I were not allied when it came to philosophy. He had a lot of ego, almost conceit, but it wasn't quite like that. It's like he was perennially 15, with all the charm and all the downside, but he didn't have a mean bone in hs body. He was good guy, and we were able to reconcile our philosophical differences at the end, and we were good friends. I miss him. I kinda wish, yeah, we could have gone on and on, but all these jobs we'll lose sooner or later.

It reminds me of what happened on the national newcast front, with the rather sudden turnover at all the major networks taking place at one time.

It's changing nationally and locally. There is no doubt about it. I was talking to Jane McGarry recently, and she says Channel 5 has hit a niche. There's a group that responds to the type of newcasts they do. We didn't use to look for segments in the market. You tried to appeal to everyone. It wasn't important to have 18- to 49-year-old women. We wanted everyone to watch, and I don't know if that's important anymore.

Do you watch the other newscasts -- not to keep up with the competition, but for actual, ya know, news?

I would say I am also a news viewer, but maybe I am tainted by the work I've done. I go on the Internet and read the papers and watch CNN, and if I am looking at local stations, I will sit there with the remote, and if I turn on newcast A and get car wrecks and fires, I am not interested. I will go elswhere, and if I am getting car wrecks and fires on newcast B and C, well, I would much rather read a book. I think we're a little better than that.

Did you see Robert Riggs' story on the oil fields in Iraq? That was so magnificent. I was so proud of us. We still have stories that say something. It doesn't have to be that big. And I was proud of Jack Fink, who did the story about people stealing copper wire from light poles. Now, how in the world someone would miss that, I don't know, but Jack got it. It's far beyond car wrecks and fires. I do think this station is where you can find the quality, and I am disappointed for the sake of the viewer we're not getting more people to watch.

Do you think you will do some special reports for 11 -- more of the longer, in-depth, content-driven pieces you'd like to see as part of the nightly newcasts?

I think that's still in discussion. Since this rumor got out, I've had calls from people who want to know what I am going to be doing. I taught for a while at SMU as an adjunct, and some people have asked if I'd be interested in doing that again. This station had been awfully good to me, and if there's a role I can play as a newscaster emeritus, I would certainly consider it because I think it would be worthy work. But I haven't decided yet what I might be doing. The family's most important. I've made promises to my wife, so that will be priority No. 1 That's where the quality of life is. Being a newscaster is what I do, not who I am. --Robert Wilonsky

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky