Over the summer, a portal to the 1980s opened on the internet. It started with Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi, who came across a painfully dated old promo video of WRC-TV’s local news team and shared it on X (formerly Twitter). The YouTube clip was nuts: the whole Anchorman-ish crew in a quick-cut series of outdoorsy vignettes, set to the cheesiest possible ’80s pop tune. As online views for the commercial shot up, people too young to recall the heyday of local news wondered: Was this really what it used to be like?
Wow—this is from a long-ago era of local TV news (41 years ago, to be exact). The premise here seems to be that the channel 4/DC “team” was really good because they all went camping together. https://t.co/7lPBLHWF3E
— Paul Farhi (@farhip) July 24, 2023
It was. By the time that commercial aired in 1984, the Channel 4 (now branded NBC4) news crew was the most popular in town—which back then meant its anchors were genuine local celebrities. And the goofy ad actually served a serious purpose. A few years earlier, the station had been a distant second in the ratings to Channel 9, which sold itself as the home for serious news. But WRC’s research suggested that Washingtonians might welcome a friendlier kind of newscast, says Bob Casazza, the station’s promotions manager at the time.
Channel 4 TV News Ad
Channel 9 TV News Ad
Working with an LA-based ad agency, Casazza and the WRC brass ginned up the idea of framing the newscast not as a bunch of people doing different jobs but as a “team” that viewers would want to spend time with. They weren’t pros in a studio—they were pals in your living room. And it was quite a bunch: main anchor Jim Vance, weather guy Bob Ryan, sports reporter George Michael, consumer advocate Lea Thompson, and entertainment ace Arch Campbell, among others.
The first spot, which aired in 1982, showed the on-air staff playing football, then cooking a crab feast together. Campbell remembers people at other stations razzing him over the silly footage. But the strategy worked, and WRC began its decades-long stint atop the ratings. That first ad, Casazza says, “made us number one.” Its success led to a series of corny team spots over the following years, including the one Farhi found. Stations around the country then copied the WRC idea, even using the same song (with permission).
Surprisingly, what started as a marketing gimmick turned into reality, bringing the talent together. “We actually became a team,” Campbell says, recalling nights spent socializing with his coworkers. Campbell fondly remembers one ad in which the crew goes sailing on the Chesapeake Bay: Behind the scenes, there was “a lot of partying and drinking and carousing.” Casazza says an especially lubricated Michael was enraged that his hotel room wasn’t grand enough and seemed about to take a swing at Casazza before Ryan defused the situation. Those kinds of shenanigans only solidified the bond, according to Campbell.
Now it’s hard to imagine any local news program having so much fun. With audiences in retreat, stations are risk-averse, says Casazza. But the ’80s ads captured something that people found irresistible back then—and clearly still do today.
This article appears in the October 2023 issue of Washingtonian.