Columns

Anchor not away

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 12 2001
Columns

Anchor not away

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 12 2001

Anchor not away

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

One morning in Manhattan in June, 1998, Kevin Newman sat in his office, feet atop desk, and reflected on where life had taken him. In 1994, he had left the CBC—and Canada— to co-anchor an overnight news program with ABC. He had risen swiftly to become co-host of its Good Morning America show. Now, he had a new million-dollar contract and, a few blocks down the street at Times Square, construction crews were putting up oversized photographs of him. An appearance on Larry King Live was pending and People magazine had just done a profile. Amidst all that, Newman reflected on . . . Canada. If he should tire of ABC, or the network of him, he said, “there would be no difficulty about coming back. I would do it in as long as it takes to pack.”

Two and a half years and several plot twists later, that’s pretty much what is happening. As Global Television announced last week, the now 41-year-old Newman will this fall become Vancouverbased anchor of its revamped national supper-hour newscast. Score this as a brain drain in reverse—or just a smart move by Global. The network gets a smooth, accomplished journalist who lived and worked in Ottawa, Toronto,

Halifax, Edmonton and Calgary for all three national networks before rounding out his skills in the most competitive TV market in the world. And Newman gets to come home—to rediscovered joys unavailable in New York. “I can’t decide which to do first—have coffee at Tim Hortons, or lunch at Swiss Chalet,” he said last week.

Not everyone seeks out a job that offers less money and a much-higher tax bite—but, as Newman tells it, this move happened now, or never. His ABC contract expires in May. While he seemed certain to be offered a new one, the network is going through hard times and is slashing spending, which makes for an unsettling, unhappy work environment. As well, Newman and wife Cathy’s son, Alex, 14, is about to enter high school, so, Newman says: “If we were gonna move, it was now or after he graduates.” (The couple also have a daughter, Erica, 11.) But as much as anything, Newman had realized that his heart still resided in his home country. He kept in regular touch with old colleagues and friends, was always abreast of the latest development at home, sought out stories that would bring him to Canada on assignment, and found he “felt a special charge whenever I came back, as if I were more alive. ” A month ago, Global announced that its affable incumbent, Peter Kent, would move from the anchor’s desk to a managerial role. Newman immediately called Ken MacDonald, an old acquaintance and national vice-president for news, and asked if they could talk about the job. The decision to offer it to New-

man was, MacDonald says cheerfully, “a no-brainer”—and talks went so smoothly that most details were settled by phone.

To far greater detail than most viewers realize, the tone and content of national TV news programs are driven by their anchors. Reading the news off the TelePrompTer is only one of the many things that anchors do: most also carry titles like “executive editor,” and exercise their clout on all aspects of the show One reason Lloyd Robertson left CBC for CTV years ago was that the People’s Network wouldn’t let him, because of union constraints, write his own copy: these days, it’s a given at CTV that no important news decision is taken without consulting him. If you drop by the CBC in Toronto most afternoons, you’ll find Peter Mansbridge parked on the phone, discussing stories with correspondents or working his formidable Rolodex. Anchors get direct access to important newsmakers who wouldn’t deign to talk to a rank-and-file reporter.

Kevin Newman comes home from the U.S. television wars to the country that he never really left behind

Newman will wear enhanced responsibility well. On a personal level, he’s borne hardship with quiet dignity: he lost a sister, Kelly, then 34, to a brain tumour in 1997. When his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 2V2 years ago, the couple planned to keep the news quiet—until they learned a U.S. tabloid was about to break the story, so they put out their own announcement. (Her condition has not shown many symptoms.) Asked once what quality he would most hope he emits, he responded: “decency.” On-air, he’s unflappable: he got the GMA job largely because of his cool performance on Labour Day weekend, 1997, anchoring coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. At his career high—the GMA appointment—and low—he and his co-host were replaced eight months later amidst falling ratings—he remained the same balanced, thoughtful guy throughout, with a wry, self-deprecating humour. After that, he rebuilt his stature within ABC as a senior correspondent with Ted Koppels Nightline and World News Tonight—and as a regular substitute for Peter Jennings anchoring the evening news.

When ABC sent him to a speech coach to rid him of his Canadianisms—such as saying oot and aboot or calling a sled a “toboggan”—Newman wrote a humorous column about the experience for this magazine. Through the years of big contracts, he and Cathy put money aside for their kids’ university fund and their own retirement. His one indulgence when he left GMA was to lease an expensive BMW Z3 sports car. But when the lease ran out, he gave the car back. And a good thing, as he noted last week: “In the States, they call it a Zee-3—but I couldn’t have pronounced it that way here.” Welcome home, Kevin: even Peter and Lloyd are glad to see you back.