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In Thru the Out Door

Gene Patterson comes back to TV—with some question marks.

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

Gene Patterson was in a good mood Tuesday morning. He'd just gotten off the phone with a friend in Sweetwater who had watched Patterson's return to the local airwaves Monday night. "He said, 'You were a little rusty,'" the new Channel 6 anchor says with a laugh.

In fact, by the end of Monday's 11 p.m. broadcast, Patterson looked pretty well at ease in his new surroundings, flanked by WATE stalwarts Lori Tucker, Matt Hinkin and Jim Wogan. When he told Tucker he was glad to be there, he sounded like he meant it.

It's no wonder. For the past three years, Patterson served as deputy to Mayor Victor Ashe, running interference for hizzoner on assorted contentious issues and generally putting a friendly public face on Ashe's often prickly administration. Before that, of course, he was a reporter and anchor for 18 years at WBIR Channel 10, the big megillah of Knoxville TV news. His arrival at WATE is interesting in all sorts of ways.

First of all, the timing is good for Channel 6, a perennial second-place finisher in the ratings. WBIR just said farewell to all-star anchor Bill Williams, whom it's almost impossible to describe without using the word avuncular. His replacement, former Live at Five goofy guy Ted Hall, is popular (as evidenced by the fact that he's the only person other than Williams to ever win Metro Pulse's Best of Knoxville "Favorite TV Anchor" award), but doesn't necessarily command the same level of respect. Patterson, who covered local politics extensively for WBIR and indisputably knows his way around town, is now the de facto senior statesman of the Knoxville broadcast market.

Whether that translates into viewers is, of course, an open question. "I think there's a lot of room to grow," Patterson says cautiously. "Clearly, 10 is the distant number one, but being the number two station, there are a lot of opportunities." WATE news director Brian Trauring concurs. "I think there's a good likelihood there'll be increased sampling [of the newscast] as a result of the changes that have gone on in the market," he says.

The more unsettling question is how easily Patterson—and viewers—can separate himself from his just-vacated post (now to be filled by News-Sentinel veteran Frank Cagle, in the endless game of musical chairs that characterizes local media's back-scratching association with local government). Like WBIR news director Margie Nichols, who left Channel 10 for a few years to work for County Executive Tommy Schumpert, Patterson will have to avoid appearances of favoritism. Trauring says he's not worried about it—"We've got more than 40 people in our newsroom who all contribute ideas and opinions." But there's still something troubling about the ease with which our local journalism community accepts these revolving-door shifts; anyone who reads the trade press knows that such coziness is not treated so blithely elsewhere in the industry. Patterson knows he'll have to tread carefully.

"There is going to be a group of people out there [who] I'm not going to convince I'm playing things straight up," he says. "Margie had to deal with that coming out of Schumpert's office, I have to deal with that coming out of the mayor's office." As for Ashe himself, Patterson says, "One of the conversations I had with Victor as I was leaving was, 'Obviously you and I are friends, but it probably won't be long before we get sideways with each other.' And that's just the nature of the beast."

As for his former WBIR colleagues who are now his fiercest competition, he says, "Margie Nichols and Ted Hall both have called. They're friends, that's what's so weird about this."

Patterson returns to broadcasting with an appreciation of public life from the inside and media operations from the outside. He says (like many before him) that he'd like to see more "thought pieces" on the local news.

"There is unfortunately a culture out there in TV news that [says] 'Show me the picture, and if the picture's good enough, we'll build a story around it,'" he says. "60 Minutes has made its bread and butter on talking heads. Consultants will tell you that's boring, but the fact is it's not boring. It's what they say that's interesting."

One place he'll probably get to implement that philosophy is in WATE's Sunday morning local politics show. Unlike the similar program Patterson moderated at Channel 10, Channel 6's program has in recent years focused little attention on explicitly local news, instead letting local pundits blab on about national affairs. For example, Patterson says, the recent city-county agreement on annexation boundaries (which he helped shape), got little notice.

"They spent three minutes on it on that show," he says. "I thought that was wrong."

As they say, stay tuned.

January 11, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 2
© 2001 Metro Pulse