Dick Ellis on TV, Then and Now
The veteran (ex-)anchor says 'it's a young man's and young lady's game'
Dick Ellis chokes up when asked what he misses about delivering the news five nights a week on TV. "I miss people coming up to me and saying, 'You make a difference in my life,'" he says, tears welling up in his eyes. "It's that person who I don't even know who walks off the street that says thank you."
For 34 years Ellis' Texas twang, spiced with ain'ts and 'ems, has been part of local TV news. In September, the 55-year-old grandfather was pushed aside at Fox affiliate KTBC-TV, replaced by hunky Mike Warren, an anchor from Phoenix who, if nothing else, is noticeably younger than Ellis. In turn, Ellis landed as the new director of communications for Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, whom he has known since he was a young reporter and she was president of the Austin school board.
When we sit down to talk in his new office in the LBJ State Office Building, he refuses to discuss his departure from KTBC. He's more nostalgic for the old days of TV news, when reporters carried Bell & Howell film cameras and people reported on the weather by looking out the window. He started in TV in 1970, when his news director pushed him on camera, even though he wanted to stay in radio.
Austin Chronicle: Were you actually scared of television?
Dick Ellis: Sure. From the day I started to the day I left, I always had I wouldn't say scared but I always had a respect for it. And I always had to be on edge in case something went wrong. Every time I went on the air, the palms of my hands were sweaty just a little bit.
AC: What were some of the highlights of the last 34 years?
DE: I had a great opportunity several years ago to do what I consider a marvelous interview with Lady Bird Johnson. I had been after her for quite a while. We finally made it work one sunny spring morning when the flowers were in bloom. She and I sat out in the middle of a field of flowers and just talked about things. It was really, really good.
AC: Any others?
DE: I knew and reported on George W. Bush when he was governor here. I got to interview his father when they opened up the George Herbert Walker Bush Library in College Station ... the yogurt shop murders. I hate to consider a tragedy like that as a career landmark, but it was. I got to know the families very well and still know them well.
AC: How has local TV news changed over the last 10 years?
DE: I would say in the last 10 or 15 years there has been a lot of change in the style in most news departments, gravitating more to a producer-oriented newscast. The coverage of the story by a reporter is much the same, but there's more of a dependency on the producer to say this is what's going to be in the newscast and this is what's not going to be in the newscast.
AC: And a producer has generally different ideas and priorities than a reporter.
DE: Well, sure. And different experiences. I would like [producers and reporters] to switch jobs sometimes.
AC: Certainly political coverage and coverage of offices like the one you're working for now has moved down the priority list for local TV newsrooms.
DE: Local TV news is hampered by a couple of things. In general, staffs. In general, budgets. And things of that nature. To some degree they're hamstrung. When the Legislature opens, it is real easy to cover. And it's a real easy story when the Legislature closes. But it's not easy to cover everything that happens in the middle of the Legislature.
I do think stations are trying to come back and cover a lot more substantive issues. A lot of research has shown that people are getting tired of some of the fluff that's out there.
AC: Studies say that people are mainly turning to local news for weather. What do you think about that?
DE: I think there is a lot of other news that goes on besides weather. If he comes up and says in the first 10 minutes of the newscast that it's clear and sunny, the picnic tomorrow is going to be fine, then that's all I really wanted to know, because a lot of other stuff is going on.
AC: But it's hard to do in-depth stories when you're hiring young reporters from tiny markets.
DE: But the bar has been raised some. When I first started we were hiring kids right out of college. That doesn't happen anymore. Yeah, Austin is kind of a medium market, and we get a lot of our people from smaller markets. It used to be just people in Texas rolling around and moving up the ladder. Now we draw on all areas of the country.
AC: Do you think we're going to see many over-50 anchors in the future?
DE: Sure, there are some over-50 anchors in the business. You go up to Dallas, Houston, there are more of the older ones.
AC: So you wouldn't agree with the perception that local TV news is jettisoning older staffers?
DE: Sure, it's a young man's and a young lady's game. But there's plenty of room for people who have a lot of experience. CBS is not going to fire Mike Wallace and replace him with a 20-year-old kid. I think the more seasoned generation has their place.
My particular circumstance was that there was a situation where I felt I could be a great service to people, working with and for Comptroller Strayhorn. It was a time in my life after 34 years of going out on stories and doing stories, maybe I needed to do something different.
AC: It seems like the business does not value experience the way it used to.
DE: You said that.
AC: Do you disagree?
DE: Yeah, I disagree. I disagree up to the point that I believe people who are older still have great value to television and to the people they are trying to serve.
People get very comfortable with anchors. When they come home in the evening they want to know what Fred is going to say. Not necessarily razzmatazz, or anything like that. I've always felt that people want to know what I'm telling them because I've done it for so long I'm not going to throw out a bunch of BS. I'm going to tell it to them the way it is.