US TV pays dearly for its image of anchorwomen

DRIVE INTO any large American city and you will see them - billboards entreating you to watch such and such a television station for the excellence of its evening news. Beaming down at you with impossible smiles will be the faces of that station's newsreaders. Almost always, it will be a man, chisel-chin and serious eyebrows, accompanied by a woman, all glamour and cheekbone.

The faux-family formula has proved irresistible to roughly nine out of 10 local stations across the land. Pair a man (preferably young and attractive) with a woman (obligatorily young and attractive), get some chemistry going between them and the viewers will reward you. Never mind if the practice violates the normal standards of equal opportunity and fairness in hiring and firing. Only ratings count.

Stay tuned, however, because the picture may soon change following the successful suit brought by former star of the Connecticut news market Janet Peckinpaugh, 48, against her old employers at the CBS affiliate in the state capital, Hartford.

Ms Peckinpaugh said she was dumped from the station's prime-time evening newscast in 1994 because she was a woman. Ruling that she had indeed been the victim of gender discrimination, the Hartford jury awarded her damages totalling an astonishing $8.3m (pounds 5.2m) - more than double what she had been seeking.

For a decade, Ms Peckinpaugh was, as it were, the perfect package for WFSB-TV. With blond hair, green eyes and a high-energy manner, she was groomed for stardom as the co-anchor of the station's all-important 6pm Action News. But, eventually, as she passed the dreaded 40th birthday, she began to encounter friction.

Her demise finally came in 1994 when WFSB-TV hired a new male anchor from a competing station and decreed that all three of its existing female newsreaders audition before the cameras with its two male anchors, including the newcomer. Ms Peckinpaugh scored the lowest of the three women and was demoted from the evening show.

The guy-girl format rules on the national breakfast time shows, too, the most celebrated pairing being that of Katie Couric (no longer really young, but perky) and Matt Lauer (puppy-dog face but can look serious) on NBC's ratings runaway, the Today Show.

Where it does not apply is on the nightly network news programmes, broadcast nationally, of ABC, NBC and CBS. Presiding over them alone for more than a decade have been - all men here - Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather. CBS tried pairing Rather with Connie Chung a few years ago but then dumped Ms Chung when ratings dived.

After Thursday's verdict, Ms Peckinpaugh said her battle had been for all women in an industry where nature treats the sexes differently. In TV-land, in other words, women get old while men get distinguished. True, there are some female newscast stars with the national networks, who are, shall we say, no longer in their springtime years - notably Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and Leslie Stahl. But as the New York Times noted last week, none among them dares show one grey hair before the cameras.

Although the issues of age and gender were closely linked in the case, the jury dismissed the age discrimination element of Ms Peckinpaugh's suit. This, however, did little to dull the verdict's impact. "This is a major victory for every woman in television, and every woman who wants to go into television," Ms Peckinpaugh said. "It's about time that my industry caught up with the rest of the country."

Those billboards are not coming down just yet, however. David Klatell, of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, warns that it may take more to persuade the industry to change its habits. "I wish I could be more sanguine that this would change the hiring pattern in American TV news. I fear that it may instead result more in changes in the firing pattern, with lawyers instructing news directors to be more careful in the way they let people go," he said.

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