The Dark Files

Bret Dark, morning anchor for WBIR Channel 10


Married to wife Kristy, a marketing specialist. Proud adopted father of a mixed-breed dog named Kona (after the region of Hawaii where the Darks spent their honeymoon). Both wife and dog have made guest appearances on the Channel 10 morning show.

In Kendrick Place, downtown near Chesapeake's.

Golf, basketball, traveling (annual trips to Mexico).

What time does he get up to do the morning show?:
3:15 a.m. He's in the office by 4 and on the air at 5:30.

Do he and Terry Gruca really get along?:
Yep. Gruca and her husband often join the Darks for outings. "We go out to dinner, we go to parties together. We're friends outside of work, for sure. It certainly makes it easier. Having somebody that you truly work right next to for a big part of the day, you'd better get along or people are going to see that."

Is his name really Bret Dark?:
Yes, it really is.

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

Bret Dark says that when people meet him in person they usually say, "Oh, you're shorter and skinnier than you look on TV." Which is kind of true, although his height is more average than diminutive. But we expect all TV personalities, even local ones, to have a certain stature, a larger-than-life quality to match the oversized personas they cultivate for the camera. In fact, Bret Dark off the set seems an awful lot like he does every morning as the co-anchor of Channel 10's a.m. newscasts: smart, to-the-point, and sometimes a bit of a wise guy.

It's the latter trait especially that has made him the most watchable of Knoxville's mostly interchangeable morning show hosts. With a slightly raised eyebrow or a deadpan flatness of tone, he often adds an element of unexpected sharpness to a terrain full of billowy feature stories and endless, repetitive weather forecasts. Among other things, his dryness helps offset the preternaturally enthusiastic gushings of cohort Terry Gruca.

"That's my style," he says with a slight grin, between bites of a monstrous cheeseburger at Manhattan's (his slimness is apparently not a product of dietary caution). "That's the way I am at home, with my wife and my family and friends. It's just kind of my sense of humor, I guess, kind of a dry wit. And it wouldn't work if Terry didn't [know that]. If she thought I was serious about being a smartass some of the time, then it wouldn't work."

Being himself has worked well for Dark, who has had a fairly charmed career in a medium not noted for them. TV news is a notoriously competitive and fickle industry, full of back-stabbing, mercurial management shifts, and wholesale layoffs. The vast wasteland of network television is littered with the aborted careers of would-be Tom Brokaws and Connie Chungs. It's the kind of field that demands but only intermittently rewards great ambition, favor-currying, and pavement-pounding. But so far, things have gone nowhere but up for the easy-going Texas A&M grad who kind of fell into broadcasting.

"I was a political science major, thought I might want to go to law school, but after four years of college I realized I didn't want to continue any education stuff," he says. "So I started selling insurance in Houston and did that for about three months and realized that wasn't what I wanted to do either—too many cold-call hang-ups. So I went over to KTRK, which is the ABC affiliate in Houston, just 'cause that's where I grew up, and asked them if I could hang out and just kind of learn the sports TV business."

Apparently seeing something in the kid with the superhero name, the station bosses acquiesced. After six months as an intern, Dark started sending out résumé videos to small TV markets. The first bite came from Lufkin, a town of about 30,000 in upper East Texas. From there he made his way through increasingly large Lone Star stations, finally landing as a sports reporter and producer at KDFW, a Fox affiliate in Dallas. Along the way—in Tyler, Texas, to be exact—he met and married his wife, Kristy (who made her own WBIR morning debut a few months back as a guest on a cooking segment). Then came the call from WBIR.

"They had seen my tape through a nationwide search firm," he says, "and they asked if I was interested in making the switch from sports to news."

Specifically, Channel 10 was looking to fill the void left by longtime morning anchor Gene Patterson, who left the station at the end of 1997 to work for Mayor Victor Ashe. Dark was enjoying himself as a sports reporter, covering Cowboys games and flying around the country, but the prospect of a broader mandate intrigued him. A visit to WBIR sealed the deal—"A good station, good management, good people," he says earnestly.

"The opportunities in sports obviously are a lot more limited simply by pure numbers," he says. "There are a lot more news jobs than there are sports jobs. And to continue to grow and improve and get better jobs and make more money and all that good stuff, to branch out a little bit was a great opportunity."

Seeking to introduce the fresh-faced fresh face (he was 30 at the time), WBIR last January launched a series of promos centering on—what else?—Dark's name. Which raises the inevitable question...

"First of all, it is my given name," he says with mock gravity. "There's nothing fake about it. It was unusual because in no other job I've ever had, in any of the other TV markets, did anybody make a big deal about it. But here they did. I think it's been a help, because of the old saying, who cares what they say about you as long as they get your name right."

When the Channel 10 morning crew went to New York last year to film promo spots with NBC's Today show staff, morning TV goddess Katie Couric did a bit urging viewers to watch "Bret Dark, Man of Mystery!" In fact, Dark says, the name does have dramatic roots—he was named after Bret Maverick, the TV western hero played by James Garner in the 1960s. "He spelled it with one 't' just like I do," he says. "I guess my mom was a fan."

Coming to work for the number one station in the market was both a boon and a challenge. Although Dark was stepping into a successful franchise, he was aware of the big shoes he had to fill. Patterson had been doing the show for 17 years and was both popular with viewers and well-regarded as a reporter and political commentator.

"People were used to every morning waking up and seeing him on the TV and hearing his voice as they drink their coffee and read their paper," Dark says. "And all of a sudden you throw something different at them—you can expect there will be a bit of an adjustment period."

The pressure got turned up even more in mid-'97 when Robin Wilhoit—Patterson's old co-anchor and an established draw in her own right—moved to the evening newscasts. With the hiring of Gruca to replace her, WBIR had an almost completely rookie morning crew. But "adjustment period" or not, the show's ratings haven't dipped a bit.

"It's been a good feeling for me to know people are accepting of what I bring to the table," Dark says.

Among the things he eventually hopes to bring is the kind of thoughtful discussion of local events that Patterson specialized in. So what does the political science major make of the machinations of Knoxville's power structure? Dark, after just a year in town, is cautious about making pronouncements.

"I don't really know enough about it to comment on it," he says. "Just on a very superficial basis, I like all the guys that I've met. I like Victor, I like Tommy Schumpert. Tom Ingram with the Chamber Partnership, I like what they're doing. I like the guys on a personal level; I'm not really in tune with their politics yet. I think that still has to come."

One issue he is personally concerned about is the development of downtown Knoxville. That's because Dark and his wife actually live there, in one of the renovated brownstones of Kendrick Place along Locust Avenue.

"They kind of look like Boston—my wife went to graduate school in Boston—and we like downtown, urban-style living," he says. "We're not much into the 'drive in 20 miles and then go back out to the strip shopping mall and live in a house where they all look the same.'

"Just like this," he says, gesturing at the antique-filled interior of Manhattan's. "When this is hopping on a Friday or Saturday night, this is a cool place to be."

How long will Knoxville seem like a cool place to be for Dark? He shrugs.

"I don't know," he says. "I mean, I really do like it here. I really do like my job, I love the schedule—having my afternoons free and having the morning show format where we can really have some fun with the show. Having an hour and a half to get on there and be myself is a lot of fun. I'm certainly not thinking about going anyplace else right now.

"But everybody who starts in this business usually has a goal to make it to New York, Chicago, L.A. and be in one of those positions. To say that that's not my goal would be a lie. However, there's plenty of time for that."