Dropping Anchor The age of the local-TV sports anchor is over. Why we'll miss it

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

Two of the District’s news stations lost their sports anchors this summer, and most of the city barely seemed to notice.

Channel 4’s Lindsay Czarniak announced in late June that she’d been hired away to ESPN; a month later, Channel 9’s Brett Haber said he was stepping down to pursue other opportunities, such as the side work he’s done for the Tennis Channel. There was some chatter on Twitter. There were a few blog posts and Style-section updates. Then viewers—and station management—moved on.

Both Czarniak and Haber seem to be casualties of the changing media landscape. Sports fans nowadays don’t have to wait for the 11 p.m. news to find out how their team did. They can watch games on their cell phones, follow play-by-plays on the Internet, or, of course, just flip over to Czarniak’s new employer, ESPN. Having lost the audience of people who really care about sports, the folks who broadcast at 6 and 11 have, in turn, downgraded the once-prominent job of sports anchor.

“Sports is just not as relevant [to local news] as it once was,” Haber told the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi after resigning. “If you asked me will my job exist as currently constituted 10 to 20 years down the line, I would say probably not.”

It’s hard to get too wistful about the journalistic implications of this change: Though there have been stellar news people working local TV-sports jobs, there have also been plenty of knuckleheads with a penchant for soft questions and even softer analysis.

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But the disappearance of the sports anchor also heralds some cultural changes that are worth pondering. Local TV—in all its goofy glory—once represented something that residents of a region as big and diverse as Washington had in common. The fact that Haber (a stalwart defender of Washington City Paper against Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s lawsuit) and Czarniak are leaving with such little fanfare only underscores how that’s no longer the case. The severing of yet another connective cultural thread isn’t just a loss for the stations and their advertisers. It’s a loss for anyone invested in our sense of community.

There was a time when the local sportscast was a basic part of what made the several million people in the Washington region feel tied together. George Michael, who left Channel 4 four years ago and died in 2009, was the last one of the older generation of sportscasters in the area. But ask any native Washingtonian about a sports anchor he or she misses, and chances are you’ll hear about Glenn Brenner.

Brenner came to Channel 9 in 1977. For the next 15 years, he was the funniest, liveliest, best thing on local TV. His own portions of the broadcasts were full of silly stunts. He had a nun pick football results (against the spread, of course). He named some overpaid athlete or sports owner Weenie of the Week each Friday. There was no question Brenner knew he was reporting on fun and games; the joy he took from all of it shone through the television.

Like many households in the area during Brenner’s time here, my family watched Channel 9’s newscasts nightly. Sure, features like Weenie of the Week may have been tailor-made for adolescent boys like me. But Brenner added warmth and kindness to his sophomoric shtick, and the results were magic.

When Brenner died in January 1992, after being off the air for a few months with what turned out to be a brain tumor, the whole city mourned. President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush issued an official statement. Channel 9 ran a 30-minute prime-time retrospective, mixing clips of Brenner at his most antic with touching tributes from his colleagues and man-on-the-street interviews. Just how fiercely did people love Brenner? On the afternoon he died, I arrived at a Rockville municipal swimming pool for my high school team’s practice. The coach canceled it midway through, too distracted; he choked up as he told us to go home. None of us thought that was odd. It’s hard to imagine such an outpouring for a contemporary local-TV personality.

Of course, the ability of a sports anchor to unite a region depends in no small part on how the local franchises are faring. And it’s hard to argue that the 1980s didn’t treat the region’s teams better than our current era. The Wizards, then the Bullets, won a championship in Brenner’s second year here. The Orioles, then the only baseball outfit around, won a World Series. The Redskins, the club that truly gripped people here, won three Super Bowls in the Brenner era. Their final title came just after he died. The team dedicated its NFC championship to his memory.

These days, sports can’t pull the city together in quite the same way. It’s easy for transplants to follow their home teams thanks to cable and the Internet—after all, not everyone in a Phillies jersey at Nationals Park has driven down I-95 for the game. Winning would help, but even if the Redskins surprise the world and finish this year on top, local news on TV isn’t doing much better than local news on paper in the new media economy. “The audience has been shrinking for years,” says Scott Jones, a former news producer who now runs ftvlive.com, a site that monitors the industry.

Buyouts and staff cuts may have helped drive up profits at Gannett, NBC, Allbritton, and Fox (the corporations that own the area’s TV news stations), but they aren’t helping forge any social bonds. The news broadcast as an institution feels less essential without the big personalities of a few decades ago. After a day of reading local headlines in the morning paper, on Twitter, on blogs, and on the Web, my wife and I tune in to the late local news either because there’s some big story breaking or because we’re gripped by some sense of nostalgia—Channel 4’s Jim Vance spoke at my high school graduation, so I’ll flip over during a Daily Show commercial break.

Czarniak and Haber are probably getting out when the getting’s good. Local sports coverage is faring even worse than the rest of the broadcast, Jones says: “If it’s not becoming extinct, it’s certainly on the endangered list.” Following the advice of industry consultants, more and more stations are focusing on weather. (Witness the high-profile poaching of Bob Ryan, another throwback to the time when Michael and Brenner thrived, by Channel 7 after years with Channel 4.)

These latest two departures barely made a splash. The next time a local sports anchor leaves town, will anyone notice at all?

VIDEO: Glenn Brenner Tribute 1992

Our Readers Say

inset link in text to Youtube video of Brenner tribute.
NICE STORY MAD MIKE!

OTHER THAN JIM VANCE NO ONE HAS STAYED PUT ON LOCAL STATIONS. WAS NEVER A BIG NEWS WATCHER UNTIL I STUMBLED UPON MAUREEN BUNYAN ONE NIGHT AND INSTANTLY HAD A CRUSH ON MS BUNYAN AS A YOUNG BLACK TEENAGER. BY WATCHING HER REPORT NEWS GOT INTRODUCED TO THE SPORTCASTER GLENN BRENNER. FROM THAT POINT ON CHANNEL 9 NEWS WAS A MUST SEE @ 11P. COMEDY, SPORTS AND A BEAUTIFUL BLACK WOMAN ON THE SCREEN EVERY NIGHT. HEAVEN!

EVERYONE PLAYED ALONG WITH BRENNER ESPECIALLY SONNY AND HIS REDSKINS CONNECTIONS! THEN MICHEALS WITH HIS PRE-CURSOR TO VIDEO OF ALL SPORTS LIKE ESPN IS PRODUCING NOW. NOW WITH ALL DC TEAMS SPORTIN LOSIN' SEASON FOR QUITE A WHILE ITS A WONDER THAT THE FOLK WHO DID STAY FOR A PERIOD OF TIME STAYED AS LONG AS THEY DID.

IVAN CARTER IS HOLDIN IT DOWN ON CSN ALONG WITH HOMER CHICK HERNANDEZ AS SPORTSFOLK ON T.V. I CAN IDENTIFY WITH AND SMOKIN AL BEEN AROUND FOR A WHILE. BUT YOU ARE RIGHT THE NETWORK TV SPORTS ANCHOR MAINSTAY IN THIS AREA IS PRETTY MUCH DONE.
I think it's so hypocritical the way people talk about local sports becoming extinct. I can turn on the weather channel at 10:58 or go to weather.com to get my local weather and not watch one second of local news. Besides, I don't want to wait 42 minutes into sportscenter to finally hear about the redskins. I know I can find my sports news at 11:25. Chopping local sports in the newscast is just a cop out and sports is the scape goat.
While Haber was a surprise, I think most of us got done mourning for Czarniak some time ago. It was always rumored that the folks at the network had their eye on her, so the bigger surprise was that she went to ABC/ESPN instead of NBC Sports. We all knew she was destined for bigger things - it was simply a matter of when and where.
Thank you for keeping the heart of the matter beating..... . . ............;.;;!
All politics is local.. all the weather and all the reach of "tuning in"... gets tune out if it doesn't have the reach of home. And Local stations need to pulse with the beat of their local viewing audience not ratings ... owned and operateds are best suited... affiliates have more of a challenge. Where are the icons of broadcasting on this?
I don't have comment to make. But I am kindly asking you Sir, for my brother to be part of your or member.

Please write him everyday you are sending information out.

Thanks

Sincerely yours,
Larry D. Gee,Sr.
On behalf of Isaac Jabah
I don't have comment to make. But I am kindly asking you Sir, for my brother to be part of your or member.

Please write him everyday you are sending information out.

Thanks

Sincerely yours,
Larry D. Gee,Sr.
On behalf of Maxwell tarr
I don't have comment to make. But I am kindly asking you Sir, for my brother to be part of your or member.

Please write him everyday you are sending information out.

Thanks

Sincerely yours,
Larry D. Gee,Sr.
On behalf of Maxwell tarr
I don't have comment to make. But I am kindly asking you Sir, for my brother to be part of your or member.

Please write him everyday you are sending information out.

Thanks

Sincerely yours,
Larry D. Gee,Sr.
On behalf of Maxwell tarr
Where were you when WRC 4 did not renew the contract of their only African American Sportscaster, the late Darrian Chapman, or when WJLA 7 let Rene Knott, their only African American Sportscaster, go, or WUSA9, who let go of the excellent Levan Reid, yes their only African American Sportscaster? When George Michaels roared on TV that only a woman would be considered for Jill Sorenson's replacement, many viewers thought an African American would be selected. With Lindsay Czarniak selected many viewers could not continue to support WRC 4. As revered as George Michaels was, viewers also became disenfranchised with his sports coverage of rodeos and Jack Russell racing instead of basketball or football games outside of D.C. WUSA9 did not care to cater to the sports viewing audience because it would mean shortening or eliminating the all-to-frequent Weather reports. (Look at Fox5 morning newscasts for excellent examples of this.) Viewers had no other choice but to turn to the internet or smartphone for these highlights especially when TV stations believe coverage of shows such as Glee or American Idol are news worthy.
I don't think the days of the viewing audience getting to kknow and wanting to know their sportscaster are over. Yes the business has changed. When I originally signed on with Fox 5 in 1993 I was getting 7-8 minutes a night. When I left there 6 years later it was more like 21/2 to 3 1/2 minutes.
That's why my network Comcast SportsNet is the place to be for any sportscaster. I get 90 minutes a day of airtime to do what I do. All those many years ago as an intern for Glenn Brenner, and the things he told me back then, I am able to use them ten fold because I have the time to do it. Will viewers care when you leave, I'd like to believe they will when some of eventually do.

CHICK

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