Jeff Passolt and Heidi Collins aren't just reading the headlines and making small talk with the weatherman. They're playing referee.
Most nights, the Fox 9 anchors spur on parties who hold polar-opposite opinions on a burning issue -- from regulating animal breeders to establishing a casino in downtown Minneapolis -- in hopes of generating both sparks and new viewers.
That "crossfire" approach, adopted recently by KMSP, Channel 9, and the 16 other Fox-owned stations nationwide, may be new to local newscasts, but it has driven programming for years on cable TV -- especially Fox News Channel, which is both the brashest and most successful of the all-news networks.
Some see the hand of Fox News President Roger Ailes.
"I think Ailes may be looking to add a bit more of Fox News Channel's flavor to the local news, and interviews like these are part of that formula," said Mike Schneider, Los Angeles bureau chief for TV Guide.
The strategy seems to be working. Viewership for KMSP's 9 p.m. news was up 9 percent in January from a year ago among ages 25 to 54. Fox's Dallas station boasted an 18 percent uptick during the same period, while Atlanta enjoyed a 21 percent lift.
It's also providing a boost to the anchors, who get a chance to show they can do more than read a teleprompter.
"It's something fresh, something different," Passolt said. "I look forward to it every day."
Fox 9's general manager, Carol Rueppel, said the interplay, which can last as long as six minutes, allows newscasts to be more immediate and less reliant on taped packages that could be hours old before they make the air.
"We're trying to get away from the predictable, scripted newscast," she said. "I want things to happen that we didn't know were going to happen. It makes it more lively and engaging."
Guided by passions
Sharri Berg, senior vice president for operations at Fox News, said the decision to tweak nightly newscasts came almost a year ago when Fox executives realized they could distinguish themselves from the competition by going deeper on certain subjects with more attitude and passion.
Sometimes, however, the passion can get a little out of control, especially when an anchor has to take the counterpoint role. That's what happened in November when Collins grilled Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie about the state's gubernatorial deadlock, insisting that he respond to accusations that he's an ACORN activist and dropping the infamous line: "Can I ask the questions? I ask, you answer."
That exchange lit up the blogosphere, and KARE-11 news director Tom Lindner -- whose station rose to the top of the local ratings with a decidedly more folksy approach -- described the interview as "bizarre."
In a similar vein, Passolt got tough on Lake Elmo Mayor Dean Johnston during a segment about a hotly contested library issue in the suburb, and then labeled the Minneapolis downtown library a "Taj Mahal library that looks empty half the time." MinnPost media blogger David Brauer called it a "remarkable outburst," one that would seem right at home on the Fox News Channel.
Both Passolt and Collins defended the interviews and said they routinely receive an equal amount of positive and negative feedback. Still, Collins admitted that she's more at ease when she's moderating instead of mixing it up.
"In those cases, we are put in a position not to fight, but to stick up for what the other side would be," she said. "I don't love that position. Ideally it would be great to always have different sides, but it's not always feasible."
Criticism isn't the only challenge facing the local affiliate. Ted Canova, a former WCCO news director who now runs the Internet radio site JobTalkAmerica.com, said that Twin Cities viewers have a low tolerance for screaming matches and that the new approach was better suited to more combative cities such as Detroit, Chicago or New York. While he applauded Fox for trying something new, Canova also wondered if there are enough larger-than-life personalities to make interviews truly compelling.
"It'd be one thing if we had Donald Trump or Al Sharpton or the mayor of Miami," he said. "But most of our personalties come from the arts and restaurants. That means you may end up seeing the same people over and over again from the government."
KARE's Lindner said it's possible that the competition will take notice and start mimicking Fox's approach, but for the time being he's content to rely on well-crafted packages instead of heated debate to tell stories.
"On a truly topical story on a big news day, Fox's approach can help sort out the information, but if you use it on all kinds of subjects, you can lose viewers," he said.
The Fox corporation doesn't plan to readjust its strategy anytime soon, especially with ratings on the rise.
"We're in for the long haul," Berg said.
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