Bill Kurtis, Walter Jacobson reunite at WBBM-TV for 6 p.m. newscast

The boys are back in town.

The duo who are synonymous with serious, professional journalism are back for another run. CBS-owned WBBM-TV announced today it was reuniting the anchor duo of Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson for its 6 p.m. newscast, effective Sept. 1. The reunification of Kurtis and Jacobson has been rumored for several months.

Kurtis and Jacobson were largely responsible for the station’s dominance in the 1970’s and 1980’s, sending WBBM to number one in  the ratings news and sign-on to sign-off. With John Coughlin on weather and Johnny Morris on sports, the news team was the newscast to beat in Chicago, even calling itself at one point THE 10 O’clock News.

WBBM stayed on top even when Bill Kurtis left for CBS’ morning newscast in 1982. They were reunited again in 1985 but by that time, the wheels were already coming off as ABC-owned WLS-TV rode to the top of the ratings and a boycott by Operation PUSH over the demotion of anchor Harry Porterfield helped send WBBM crashing to third place by 1986 (Porterfield has since returned to the WBBM fold.) By 1989, Jacobson’s role at the station was reduced when Linda MacLennan became Kurtis’ co-anchor. Except for the period when they rebounded to finish second overall from 1987-90, and in 1993 when its 4 p.m. newscast tied WLS in the ratings, WBBM has been struggling in the ratings ever since

Jacobson departed WBBM in 1993 for Fox-owned WFLD-TV where he was until 2006, while Kurtis departed in 1996 to focus more time on other projects, including overseeing his production company and hosting A&E programs, including Cold Case Files. 

Last November, Kurtis and Jacobson were reunited for a one-night only stunt which did well in the ratings. Jacobson rejoined WBBM’s 10 p.m. newscast a few times a week for his Perspective commentaries, which were a signature segment of the newscasts of the Kurtis-Jacobson heyday.

The move is in the lastest of changes WBBM is making to improve ratings. Recently, WBBM poached Kate Sullivan from WCBS-TV in New York City to co-anchor with Rob Johnson at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m.

The pairing of Kurtis and Jacobson in 1973 was the idea of then-GM Bob Wussler and news director Van Gordon Sauter, who went on to work for CBS News. The newscast were known for the “working newsroom” concept, and the use of the mini-cam unit to provide live reports instead of using film shot in the field and compiling reports through the use of ENG, or Electronic News Gathering. These innovative concepts are common in local newsrooms today.

Thought: Here’s the reality check: While this was great as an one-night stunt, bringing back Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson to do a 6 p.m. newscast isn’t an answer to the station’s ratings woes. Journalism has changed a lot since they last did a newscast together on a regular basis, and not for the better as today’s local newscasts often starts with the latest shooting, fire, or car accident. Unfortunately, this “it bleeds, it leads” mentality is what brings in the ratings, and Kurtis and Jacobson won’t drop down to that level.

It’s great to see them both back at the anchor desk, even if its only at 6 p.m. But it won’t be a ratings hit.

The real question is: can they handle the daily grind once again, especially at their age? Only time will tell.

Read the official press releasse