Nice to see you again: DFW TV veterans are back on the air

The Texas Daily

6 p.m. Monday-Friday (repeats at 9:30)

KTXD/Channel 47

Posted 8:08am on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013

ADDISON -- Troy Dungan, Tracy Rowlett and John Sparks have just finished "Paper Route," a segment of The Texas Daily in which the hosts riff on topics in that day's newspapers, when there's a scene change.

As he detours to the sofa-and-table interview set, Dungan, wearing one of his trademark bow ties, smiles wide.

"This is fun!" he chirps, as giddy as an intern on his first day. "This is much more fun than the real job used to be."

Dungan, who spent more than three decades doing the weather at WFAA/Channel 8, and his friends on The Texas Daily -- a who's who of DFW TV news teams from the past 20 years -- are enjoying second chapters in an industry not known for allowing many of them.

"Demographics be damned" could be the tag line for The Texas Daily, which began airing in October as a morning show on little-seen KTXD/Channel 47 and shifted to 6 p.m. in early January.

Its premise: Take veteran broadcasters and put them back in front of cameras, where TV people like to be.

But instead of having them live up to their old anchor/reporter personas, let them be themselves, banter with one another in a style that's more genuine than newscast "happy talk" and express opinions in ways they couldn't in their original TV incarnations.

"On Sunday, I'm saying, 'This is great, because tomorrow I get to go in there,'" says Dungan, 76, who usually appears Mondays.

"You get to sit down and actually say what you think about stuff and make comments either intelligent or inane, on occasion. It's a serious program, but you can have some fun with it."

More talk show than newscast, The Texas Daily features 13 faces from the DFW TV past -- some recent, some stretching to the '60s -- taking another shot at TV.

Jeff Brady, a former WFAA anchor, hosts many of the segments. The rotating lineup includes former WFAA entertainment reporter Gary Cogill; former WFAA/KDFW anchor-reporter John Criswell; recent WFAA alum Debbie Denmon; Iola Johnson, who worked at WFAA, KTVT/Channel 11 and KKDA/730 AM; and former KXAS/Channel 5 sports reporter/anchor Scott Murray.

Almost everything about the show is old-school, from its relaxed pace and low-key sets to the contributors steeped in local TV history.

"One of the great things about this group is that you don't worry," says Brady, the only cast member who appears every day. "There's no on-the-job training. Everybody has skins on the wall. Everybody is standing on years and years of experience in broadcasting.

"I could easily [sit] out a segment. It's more about just teeing up a great conversation."

For some viewers, the pacing of the hourlong show might be a little too relaxed. Compared with other newscasts, it's downright low-tech. During a recent segment on domestic violence in Dallas County, one of the contributors held up a map showing the neighborhoods where the most cases appear instead of displaying a graphic.

At first, she held the map upside down.

But that's part of the show's appeal. For longtime local TV viewers, it's a bit of comfort food, with the ad-libbing and give-and-take among veteran TV personalities relishing the opportunity not just to be on TV again but also to do it like old friends hanging out and shooting the bull over coffee.

"This whole idea that people over 50 are forgotten is a truth in this business," says Rowlett, 70. "I had a news director tell me once, 'I just don't give a damn about people over 50. We're not shooting for that audience.'

"And that's not the point of view from this place."

How it began

The Texas Daily was the brainchild of Philip Hurley, the 60-something executive vice president and chief operating officer of London Broadcasting, which owns KTXD .

The idea has been on Hurley's mind for so long that most of The Texas Daily cast members were still on the air, pre-retirement, when it started.

"It's really something that I've carried around with me for a long time," Hurley says. "I basically wrote a white paper on doing a senior channel, and I actually thought about it being a cable channel. I got some traction in a couple of locations, but back then, funding was kind of difficult. And I was thinking of it as a senior channel, not a senior program."

Hurley was -- and is -- bucking what has become conventional broadcast wisdom, that the 18- to 49-year-old demographic is the most important to advertisers. Hurley points out that baby boomers, almost all of whom have passed that 49-year barrier, make up a large, growing and affluent demographic. And he believes that the older group can be equally attractive to advertisers.

Needless to say, The Texas Daily is not a show that gets big ratings or that appears to be concerned about it.

"One of the things that people get too wrapped up in is, 'What were our latest numbers?'" Rowlett says. "Well, it's possible to have a quality show, or something that's interesting, that doesn't necessarily attract everybody in the viewing audience. So I think that this station is willing to get a lower number but to have fun with putting a product on the air that a certain group -- and in this case, it's people over 50, probably -- will enjoy."

When London Broadcasting bought KTXD in early 2012 and began airing the nostalgia-oriented Me-TV network (reruns of old shows such as Route 66 and M*A*S*H) Hurley, who grew up in Dallas, saw a way of adapting his idea.

"When we bought the [station], most of these folks were already retired," Hurley says. "I saw 'retired,' but I think every one of them has another interest.

"They were very active in their retirement years. I think they're reflective of the audience. More people are retiring, but then they have a second interest or a second career."

What it took

Persuading these personalities, who had spent decades in front of the camera, to come out of retirement wasn't necessarily easy.

That job fell to Brian Joyce, who was then KTXD's station manager. He had a list of about 15 people to contact, and he managed to track them all down by phone.

"All of them said the same thing: 'Who are you again?'" Joyce says. "And 'I've not any interest in getting back on television' and 'I'm not interested in doing the 5, 6 or 10 o'clock news.'

"But then when I told them the idea of the show, and what we were going to do and what we were all about, it piqued their interest a little more."

Many of them came into the studio to learn more.

Still, some were reluctant.

"I told 'em 'no' three times," Rowlett says. "Frankly, it wasn't till Troy and I had dinner one night and got to talking about it, and we saw the fun in the two of us being able to come back, because we're very close friends and always have been and we share a similar sense of humor and we've always been able to play off each other."

Dungan says he was also initially reluctant until he was, well, biblically inspired.

"Proverbs 18:13 is why I did this," Dungan says. "They called and I said, 'Nah, I don't think I want to do that.' So they wanted us to come over and talk.

"Proverbs 18:13 says, 'He who answers a matter before he hears it, that is his folly and shame.' I said, 'I think I'm supposed to go talk to these guys.'"

Joyce recalls that the first person on his list -- and the last he was able to track down -- was Iola Johnson, who had worked at WFAA from 1973 to 1985 and spent 12 years on KKDA, then returned to TV in 2000 to work with Rowlett (with whom she had teamed at Channel 8) on KTVT.

He finally found her in her home state of Arizona (she has homes there and in DFW), where she was recovering from back surgery. The idea appealed to her immediately.

"I describe it as doing the opposite of what we always did as news anchors," Johnson says. "I always prided myself on the fact that people didn't know what my political persuasion was, whether I was conservative, liberal, whatever, in terms of finances, politics and life in general. Now we openly talk about our feelings and concerns."

Some cast members had a hard time giving their opinions on-air.

"[During] the [presidential] election, Troy very openly and very proudly said that he was supportive of Republicans and that he's a conservative and he's supporting Romney," Rowlett says. "I had a very difficult time saying, 'Well, here's who I'm going to vote for.'

"And I'm still conditioned to look at what both sides are saying. I'm still sitting there looking at MSNBC vs. Fox and trying to compare what I'm getting."

But for most of the cast members, it is liberating to shed their old identities and, well, be themselves. And not just when it comes to politics.

"We have a lot of people who have aged and a lot of people who have put on weight and a lot of people who have gray hair," says Johnson, 62. "That's not something that you see on your standard news program. So we are diametrically opposite of what you see on most news shows."

But what they may lack in Q rating, they make up for in experience, Joyce says.

"These people have had historic careers in broadcasting, and they all have stories about things that really shaped our lives in this area," Joyce says. "They can bring back things about when JFK got assassinated or when Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys or whatever it may be. ... Viewers want to hear that. We get more response about the stories they talk about from when they were on TV than we get on anything else."

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872

Twitter: @rphilpot

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