News Branding Observations: WPVI

Not everybody watches the news, but when they do, they count on 2 familar sounds: the voice of the newscaster on record, and the mnemonic of that station: what Stephen Arnold calls “sonic branding”. Due to the popularity of my last post, I’m starting a special series on those stations whose excellence in the branding part – and to some extent, the talent – have stood the test of time. Maybe some stations with missed opportunities here and there. But to set the precedent, let’s start with the station that every news junkie in America has heard of – a little Philadelphia station called WPVI.

Actually, WPVI started out as WFIL in 1947. [Going on 70 years soon?] ABC station since sign-on. So, naturally, it spent its first couple decades in a hole. Fast forward to 1970. Rival KYW was on top thanks to its “Eyewitness News” format courtesy of Al Primo – make the reporters “Eyewitnesses”, put them into the field, insert banter in between stories, give the anchors personality (which worked out all too well sometimes for one Roger Grimsby, but that’s another station and another story). 6’s News director Mel Kampmann had something of a polar opposite idea: step up the coverage, cover the suburbs, limit 90 seconds per news story. “Action News.”

And the news theme… well, 3 had 007 music. 6 had this.

This theme grew popular in its own right. It eventually made its way to its then-sister stations in Lebanon and Altoona (remember, we’re in the Capital Cities era before ABC itself came into play). And also note an orchestral version was used in Altoona as well…but more on orchestra later.

1972. A marching band from Boston moved to Philadelphia. Well, it spent some time in the West Coast before that, but no such records exist…. for now, anyway. But this marching band made itself at home and… well, pretty much stayed for the long haul. The theme was called “Move Closer to Your World.” Al Ham and Walt Liss composed.

Standard Capital Cities open seen throughout the station cluster – look at Buffalo. Look at Raleigh. Look at Fresno.

But then… well, something happened. In Philly, it eventually got to be less about the graphics (which echoed ABC’s “This is the Place to Be” campaign), and more about the city.

Putting aside that you’re seeing a guy that that was more famous in Tampa than in Philly, what you just watched is the beginning of the rest of that station’s life. Observe.

Notice a pattern? Skyline shot, news van, random shots, helicopter in halfway point, more random shots, big buildup with Action News logo. It reinforces this point: Action News is Everywhere. That’s the way it’s been done for almost 40 years; the theme itself used for OVER 40.

Well… there is one small affair in 1996. You remember that orchestral version of the first Action News theme in Altoona? Well, someone had the bright idea of getting the London Philharmonic to record what you’d call a cover of “Move Closer”.

FOUR DAYS. ELEVEN ACTION NEWSCASTS. That’s all it took. Lessons were learned: “Don’t fix what isn’t broken.” Due to this logic, WPVI has kept the slogan “Delaware Valley’s Leading News Program” to this very day.

Now we’re in the era where WPVI is an ABC O&O and owned by the same company that signs my paychecks. That lesson from 1996 has stuck. Graphics packages changed. Technology improved. [Aside: for decades, 6’s news desk had a green screen background – such was the popularity of Action News, EVERY DAMN STATION (except for WTXF) had it – while the AccuWeather had a magnetic board. Come 2000, green screen desks and frowny-faced clouds long bit the dust. End of aside] The marching band stayed.

2006 – preparation for Action News HD. As we always say at Disney, “The Show Must Go On!” [note an elaborate new graphics package was designed by Giant Octopus for the occasion. Until that point, WPVI’s graphic look was little more than basic]

WIDESCREEN!

Then in 2010, it was pretty decided. The voice of Jeff Kaye, NFL Films alum, the announcer of these opens? TOO FAR GONE.

So, guess who stepped in? Charlie Van Dyke, longtime recognized voiceover artist, whom to that point just did promos for the channel.

Then came some nice shiny curves, courtesy of Cake Studios.

As you can see, major improvements. Went from a basic studio with magnetic board to a bigger studio with a video wall, to an even bigger studio with fully functioning weather center, to an even BIGGER studio than that. The background, let’s call that Action News blue, got a 12-screen upgrade, allowing pictures behind the anchors for the first time since the greenscreen days (…which weren’t so long ago); just another growing trend, of course.

You’ll also notice there’s something just as lasting as that music: the talent. Jim Gardner, Rick Williams, Monica Malpass, Rob Jennings – longstanding members of that club of AT LEAST 2 decades or more.

To review: The talent. The sonic branding. And the mentality not to fix what isn’t broken. It’s what got 6 to number 1 in Philadelphia, and what keeps it there today.

And by the way… if your theme song is so popular, your dog takes notice… you’re doing SOMETHING right.

Next time, we run the Rocky steps and cross the Canadian border.

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Author: mtparson

Amateur journalist

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