Larry Ceisler’s Inquirer Op-ed on Jim Gardner’s Retirement and the Future of Television News
Gardner’s impending retirement marks the end of an era, writes our Founder. With the media landscape changing, TV’s coverage of news must evolve.
Matt Rourke / AP
Larry Ceisler, For the Inquirer
Television news became the story this month when beloved Action News anchor Jim Gardner announced plans to soon curtail his schedule and then retire at the end of 2022 after more than four decades as Philadelphia’s most trustworthy and influential news personality.
Philadelphia has been blessed with its share of trusted personalities who have achieved long-term status — CBS Philly’s Ukee Washington, retired longtime broadcaster Larry Kane, and the entire crew at KYW Radio come to mind. In sports broadcasting, Eagles commentator Merrill Reese and the dearly departed Phillies announcer Harry Kalas are institutions. Angelo Cataldi, who has hosted mornings at 94-WIP for more than three decades, announced recently that, like Gardner, he plans to retire at the end of 2022.
Yet, even among that group, Jim Gardner is special. The word anchor is part of anchorman for a reason. Gardner set the tone for the broadcast. He brought gravitas and credibility, which allowed him access to important newsmakers. He has interviewed every president since the 1970s and, closer to home, shared some of the biggest moments in Philadelphia’s history — from two papal visits to one Eagles Super Bowl victory.
Over his 45-year tenure, Gardner built trust among his viewers and never betrayed that through scandal or pandering, through overreach or silliness. He is likable and sometimes affable, but there is always a weightiness behind what he is saying. He remained objective in reporting the news, telling viewers the facts of each story without inserting his opinion or bias.
In that respect, I appreciate all of the local stations. While national cable news outlets are capturing their slice of viewers by skewing left or right, Philadelphia’s TV stations have done the job of covering the news as... well, the news.
Gardner’s departure marks the end of an era, both for him personally and for local television newscasts overall. While Philadelphia is lucky to have multiple stations offering credible and important information, TV news is no longer the destination viewing it used to be. Once upon a time, we’d all get home from work to catch the 6 p.m. broadcasts with dinner and then flip on the 11 p.m. report before Johnny Carson came on.
These days, the need for instant information has certainly cut into those ratings. People don’t have to wait to get their news. I imagine that in 2021 most people can’t even tell you the names of the anchors and featured reporters on local and national stations.
Fortunately, those stations have adapted. Their reach may, in fact, be larger than ever with excellent websites offering a range of stories — hard news and features, sports and weather. Action News on 6abc, for example, has 873,000 followers on Twitter and 260,000 on Instagram. And its individual reporters have large followings all on their own. Look no further than meteorologist Adam Joseph, whose mix of personal and professional updates on Facebook draws nearly 260,000 followers.
I appreciate how freedom from time constraints enables local outlets to run deeper, meaty stories online — again, showing how stations have adapted and evolved.
At the same time, live, local, and objective over-the-air broadcasts remain critical. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the local stations offered valuable day-to-day updates on what was happening in our region. They were appointment viewing during the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. And, most recently, we all tuned in together to witness the devastating impact of the tornadoes that ripped through our region in early September.
What is changing is the role of one central figure as a deliverer of that news.
Eventually, someone else is going to sit in Jim Gardner’s anchor chair at Channel 6. And that won’t be easy for whoever that is. Replacing a legend is daunting — just ask David Lee Roth, who tried to succeed Howard Stern on radio.
In truth, you can never replace a Jim Gardner. But life goes on. The local news will just look and sound a little different. But we need to have it and we need it to thrive — on traditional television and in all ways we consume the internet — because we need to move forward as an engaged and informed society.
Accountable local news is an integral part of that equation.
Appeared in the November 21, 2021, print edition as 'Philly can never replace Jim Gardner | Opinion.'
Larry Ceisler is the Founder of Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy