In the current broadcasting environment, it's unusual for some anchor teams to last as long as five years. WPXI's Peggy Finnegan and David Johnson reached a milestone this month: They continue to anchor the news together 20 years after they were first paired in January 1990.
Ms. Finnegan and Mr. Johnson, who anchor Channel 11's 90-minute news block at 5 p.m. weekdays, are the longest paired Pittsburgh TV news team currently and one of the, if not the most, durable TV coupling in local TV history.
Few would have believed it two decades ago when Ms. Finnegan joined Channel 11 from a station in Syracuse, N.Y. At the time, WPXI was the revolving-door station of the market with anchor teams getting put together and subsequently ripped apart with some regularity.
"I never expected to be in Pittsburgh longer than five years, so in that respect, yes, I'm surprised that I'm here 20 years later," said Ms. Finnegan. "But I'm not surprised I'm with David. It's just such a natural fit. That part doesn't surprise me."
Mr. Johnson had been at WPXI for five years before Ms. Finnegan's arrival. Before he was given the 6 and 11 p.m. anchor job in 1989, the station auditioned others for the position, including Nick Clooney, a veteran TV anchorman from Cincinnati (before working as a host of classic movies on cable) and actor George Clooney's father.
"I would have known George Clooney!" Ms. Finnegan exclaimed at what could have been.
"They brought him in three times," Mr. Johnson said. "He was such a sweet man. He knew I was a competitor [for the job], and I guess either he didn't want it or he cost too much or maybe they did think about his age."
Once station executives settled on Mr. Johnson as the male anchor, they began auditioning women to work alongside him, including former Headline News anchor Lynne Russell.
"She came in in a pink leather miniskirt, I heard," Ms. Finnegan said, laughing.
"There were about four or five women, and as great as some of them may have been, I knew right away, and [management] did, too, that she was right," Mr. Johnson said, gesturing toward Ms. Finnegan. "How do you explain chemistry?"
Retired WPXI general manager John Howell, who hired Mr. Johnson in 1985 and Ms. Finnegan in 1990, said the team worked because of their personalities.
"You're always wrong if you generalize, but generally anchors are not the most stable employees you have," Mr. Howell said from his home near Palm Springs, Calif. "But these two people are just solid as a rock. I cannot remember a time when either of them wanted to play what we used to call 'anchor games' and 'ego games.' We just hit the jackpot. They were not only good at what they did but they're really decent people and terrific to have around."
The team soon found itself anchoring at 5:30 p.m. and later that first year at 5 p.m. -- once they learned there would be a 5 p.m. newscast.
"One night, [I was] wandering around the art department, and there was a finished magazine cover with the headline 'Join Peggy and David for "First at 5" debuting in September.' We're like, WHAT!?!" Mr. Johnson recalled of how he and Ms. Finnegan learned the evening news would expand to 90 minutes. "We found out about it from the Channel 11 magazine they mailed out to people."
The newscasters have anchored with others from time to time, and a few years after Ms. Finnegan started a family with her husband, Mike Donnelly, she cut back to part time, anchoring only in early evening. But since that 5 p.m. newscast started in 1990, Ms. Finnegan and Mr. Johnson have been an uninterrupted team in the time slot.
"We've always been expecting them to put somebody in at 5:30 but it hasn't happened," Ms. Finnegan said. Not that she's complaining. The co-workers feel at ease with one another, which comes after 20 years of working together.
"Sometimes he'll tap me if he sees I'm looking at something [on the computer in the anchor desk just before it's time to read]," Ms. Finnegan said. When a script is loaded late, sometimes producers don't divvy up which anchor is to say which parts when both anchors are framed in a two-shot, allowing the pair to decide who reads which portions.
"I know when she'll stop reading," Mr. Johnson said. "It's not marked in the script and sometimes she'll use her foot to tap my leg [under the desk] but not always."
"It kind of comes naturally," Ms. Finnegan said. "If I'm anchoring with somebody else it can be a little awkward."
WPXI's "all-news, no-fluff" format allows precious little of the anchors' personalities to show, something the anchors admit they sometimes lament.
"But something must come through on the screen about us because I hear too many times people say, 'You look like you like each other,' 'You look like you get along,' " Mr. Johnson said. "And to this day, I still get, 'Are you married [to each other]?' I thought I finished hearing that five or six years ago but it was just a couple weeks ago someone said, 'Will you see her at home?' No."
Mr. Johnson said viewers get a sense of their personalities in the way they read the news.
"She's incredibly compassionate," Mr. Johnson said. "When there's a story about something sad, some tragedy or turmoil -- Haiti or gang violence here -- I hear it in her voice and see it in her eyes and her face. The way she reads, it's clear she cares about this town, the people."
"I think people don't realize that he's really clever," Ms. Finnegan said as the pair posed chummily for a Post-Gazette photographer Monday afternoon in Channel 11's studio. "He's really, really intelligent and very witty."
When the photographer suggested they lean against the back of the anchor desk, Ms. Finnegan worried about the camera picking up smudges on the desk.
"I want to wash it," she said. "It's the mother in me."
Ms. Finnegan and Mr. Johnson have worked with WPXI camera operator George Parfitt and director Calvin Washington since they began as a team.
"She'll say, 'Oh, you boys,' when we act up," Mr. Washington said.
Mr. Howell praised the pair for setting a positive tone in the newsroom, particularly when PCNC debuted and more was asked of Mr. Johnson, who anchors a daily evening newscast on the cable channel. Mr. Howell said Mr. Johnson understood that adding PCNC meant adding another revenue stream that would help keep the station financially healthy, and he was willing to pitch in.
"People take their cues from the anchors. If [the anchors] goof off or take long dinners or complain about the hours, they take cues that they can do that, too," Mr. Howell said. "David and Peggy were terrific leaders in the newsroom. They were able to show those people who come through 'this is how we do things here' and that mattered a lot."
In addition to more newscasts, the anchors say the stakes are higher today, particularly because WPXI is no longer an also-ran station. Although ratings have been down somewhat recently, there have been times over the past 20 years when Channel 11 routinely came in first at 5 and 11 p.m. Even today, the ratings race with KDKA and WTAE remains tight, particularly in demographic ratings used to set ad rates.
Ms. Finnegan and Mr. Johnson said they are hopeful they will continue to anchor together for another 10 years but acknowledge the realities of the TV business.
"When you age, you certainly worry," said Mr. Johnson, 52.
"I think it's better for women today," said Ms. Finnegan, who turns 50 this year.
"You don't look 50, first of all," Mr. Johnson said. "And we're in a town where -- this isn't San Diego or Los Angeles where they're looking for the next 25- year-old."
Current WPXI general manager Ray Carter praised the anchors and said no disruption of their pairing is planned.
"The audience is just so comfortable watching the two of them together," Mr. Carter said. Covering news is most important for a TV station, he said, but having competent professionals on-camera who connect with viewers is also a high priority for a TV news outlet.
"For us it's been important to have that 20-year ride," Mr. Carter said. "This was a station that had a revolving door with anchors, so now to have the longest paired team in the market, that's really saying something."
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In today's online TV Q&A, there are responses to questions about "Glee," "Mercy" and new HD channels carried by Comcast. Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Lost" videos, TV-related events around town and "A Family Is a Family Is a Family." Read online TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
In this week's Tuned In podcast, online features editor Sharon Eberson and I discuss "White Collar," "Caprica" and "Lost." Listen or subscribe at post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV editor Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow Rob on Twitter or Facebook at RobOwenTV. First Published January 29, 2010 5:00 AM