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Mark* was a sophomore in college, interning at a popular local television station in a medium-sized city in the South, when his boss told him to consider plastic surgery.
“One of the first things he said was ‘Oh, your ears are a big distraction. You should think about getting them pinned back.’” Mark, whose ears stuck out from the side of his head — “awkwardly,” he admits today — was stunned. “He said it to me like it was nothing else. I think when someone tells you to change your body like that, you expect it to be a serious conversation. But he was so casual about it.”
The following summer, as he dreamed of becoming a TV news reporter, Mark and his parents agreed to plastic surgery. While he was under, they had the doctor perform a chin implant, too. He never told his coworkers or classmates about the surgery.
Seven years later, as a reporter at a network affiliate in a large midwestern city, Mark now meets once every three months or so with a consultant who sorts through his suits and ties and tells him what to wear and what to avoid. “You’re pretty much banned from wearing shirts that aren’t solid light blue or white,” he says. “They don’t like me to wear green. They don’t think it’s my color, so I don’t really wear it. Unless my news director’s out of town.”
Mark’s experience, though extreme, is not uncommon. He and nearly a dozen other newscasters who spoke to Racked requested anonymity to freely discuss their experiences with image coaches, a small but powerful group of consultants whose job is to get us to trust, like, and watch our hometown Ron Burgundy.
Local TV news is still a more popular source of information for Americans than newspapers, network news, or radio. But viewership continues to slip, giving consultants even more sway over who's on our screens, what they wear, and how they look. Stations conduct focus group research that offers a window into viewer preferences, including what they think about an anchor’s hair, makeup, and wardrobe. At the network level, this is most obvious in Fox News’s stringent, and sexist, dress code, which made news last summer. “You’ve got to wear your skirts short and your heels high,” former Fox News anchor Diane Dimond said on Dana Pretzer’s radio show. Dimond’s claims have been echoed by other network correspondents, though Fox’s wardrobe preferences aren’t a perfect analogue to the way hometown stations tweak their talent’s outfits to build credibility with the viewer.
At local stations, image coaches want you to believe the person on the screen is authentic, whatever you interpret that to mean. And because viewers with remotes can flip from Eyewitness News to Action 5 at a moment’s notice, managers are willing to try anything to keep their attention — that includes telling their anchors to switch from paisley ties to stripes or from neutral-colored blouses to bright jewel-toned ones.
Image coaches are not a magic solution to dwindling viewership, but as competition among media outlets intensifies — there are more venues to get information, on air and online, than ever before — executives look for anything that can give their station an edge. Just as a competitive swimmer shaves his body to save a few hundredths of a second, news managers turn to image consultants to keep a few hundred viewers. They’re subtle tweaks, but to hear newscasters tell it, essential ones, designed to avoid the greatest sin in broadcast journalism: being a distraction.
There was a time when reporters would protest image consultations.
If I do good work and people trust me, then they’ll watch, they’d say.
“I always thought the consultants were full of shit,” says Steve, a veteran reporter who has since retired from the industry. “If I’m being a watchdog for the people, does it really matter what I wear when I go knock on a corrupt politician’s front door?”
But don’t tell that to Patti Shyne. “Oh no, that’s gone,” she says with a laugh. “That’s gone, so gone now. Hollywood, the Kardashians, E! TV. Oh, come on. It’s all about appearance now.”
Shyne, an image coach and stylist, has worked with local television anchors and reporters for 26 years, since a friend who was a producer at KUSA, Denver’s NBC affiliate, suggested she help the station’s on-air talent with their makeup and clothes. Today, she consults with stations in ten to 14 markets at a time, mostly in large cities with competitive ratings, like Atlanta, St. Louis, and Charlotte.
“You can have a ‘Big J’ journalist come in and say it doesn’t matter, blah, blah, blah,” she says, referring to old school reporters who are skeptical of her work. “No more is that gonna fly.”
Like most image coaches, Shyne meets with her clients regularly and discusses her feedback with the newsroom managers who supervise day-to-day broadcasts. She’s tough, and admits as much. “I’ve thrown out ties,” she says. “I’ve seen some really ugly ties. They needed to go.” Other sins include beige — “wonderful on walls but not on people, and especially people on TV,” she says — and blood red or black dress shirts for men. (“Oh my God, that makes my toes curl under.”) Shyne knows her job is subjective and that not everyone will agree on what dress looks the best on a particular anchor. “Am I looking for perfection?” she asks. “No. Are [news directors] looking for perfection? No. But how you put yourself together matters. There are so many venues to watch news.”
Shyne says she wants the story to be most important, but distractions abound. Elaborate “weather walls” and more on-screen graphics fight for the viewer’s attention. If Barbara and Gene are sitting in their recliners talking about the weather anchor’s clothes, it’s easy to lose focus and reach for the remote. “If a female meteorologist is wearing a printed dress in front of all those graphics, you go cross-eyed,” Shyne says. “It’s a distraction. And then you change the channel.” In that way, Shyne’s work differs from the short-skirt-and-high-heels approach at Fox News. “You can wear a beautiful outfit, a beautiful suit, as long as the focus is on the story,” she says. “That’s the most important thing. And, yes, you have to look good. But your story is the number one. What I do is make sure is that there are no distractions so the story is the focus, not the talent.”
Lately, though, her clients comprise an increasingly young and image-conscious pool of on-air talent. As station budgets dwindled during the recession, budget cuts in medium and large cities forced out a generation of older, higher-paid journalists in favor of younger, less expensive anchors and reporters. “That’s changed everything,” Shyne says. Stations are loosening their dress codes in response to their younger talent and in hopes of attracting millennial viewers, whose dollars advertisers crave.
Men who used to wear navy blue suits and white shirts can now get away with plaid blazers and slacks. Women avoided bare skin on television; today, many female anchors wear sleeveless dresses. “I do not — do not — homogenize my talent,” Shyne says. “I do not want them looking alike and go to great pains to make sure everyone looks different.”
She is well-respected in the broadcast industry, even if reporters at stations she works with dread her visits. Shyne isn’t alone in that reputation; reporters often grumble when consultants pay a visit. But despite the stigma associated with image coaches and the side-eye glances and sweaty palms that precede their visits to newsrooms, reporters and anchors also know that having “the look” can mean the difference between a network job and a lifetime spent at the third-place station in Cleveland.
“Hell, we all signed up for it,” Mark says. “The vanity of TV news is something people should understand before getting in the business. I don't think on-air talent can be mad at anyone but society for making it socially acceptable to be so appearance-driven.”
The reliance on image coaches is likely due to two significant shifts in the TV industry during the past 15 years: the advent of high-definition broadcasting, and the consolidation of TV station ownership groups.
As local affiliates switched to HD signals, viewers began to notice every wrinkle, gray hair, and questionable outfit choice. The age of small, fuzzy screens went the way of test patterns, replaced by sharp pictures that made flawlessly groomed talent even more of a necessity.
At the same time, large media corporations were buying up local stations en masse. In 2013, 300 local TV stations changed hands, according to the Pew Research Center, and three-quarters of those were purchased by three large media companies. A year later, Pew reported that five companies owned 32 percent of all local TV stations in America. Those transactions created economies of scale; ownership groups would hire one or two consultants to serve multiple stations.
No one closely tracks image coaching in the news industry, but the sessions are more common in medium and large markets and for lead anchors in cities of all sizes. And although not every station uses image coaches, their advice is widely shared at conferences and within ownership groups. News directors pass along tidbits to their staff.
“I was told I have creepy eyebrows,” one female anchor told me.
Another reporter and anchor who works in the Midwest and is often sent outside to cover inclement weather sent a photo of a fur-trimmed winter hat that she was forbidden to wear. “It was distracting,” she said.
Mike, now a lead anchor in the Northeast, says his first news director banned hats, too. “I was told that he did not care if it was raining or snowing,” Mike says, “but I was not to wear a winter hat in live shots.” The same boss told him to wear more makeup, and another manager suggested he color his hair because “the viewers like lighter hair here.”
Many of the female journalists I spoke with said they found the advice — often delivered by male superiors — condescending and offensive.
“All my managers are men,” says Lisa, a twentysomething anchor in the deep South. “It is absolutely frustrating to have a man tell you what to look like.” Her station sent her to an image consultation with a male coach — he focused on her vocal delivery and body language more than hair and makeup — not long after she was hired a couple years ago. “I am a pretty annoyingly vocal feminist... The idea of going into this meeting where a man would tell me what I need to look like made me pretty uncomfortable,” Lisa says. “To his credit, I didn’t feel uncomfortable once I got in there.”
But Lisa, too, received the dreaded “distraction” label from her consultant.
“I love really dark red, some serious lipstick, and he said, straight up, it’s distracting,” she recalls. “I love to wear black, and he basically said ‘It looks like you’re going to a funeral.’” So she lightened her lipstick and traded black blouses and blazers for jewel tones. “His whole entire message was be approachable.”
There is a fine line between approachable and elitist, though.
Shyne knows that, and it’s why she spends time at local malls and grocery stores in new client cities to see firsthand what viewers have in their own closets. “I have to remind myself that viewers are welcoming reporters and anchors into their house,” she says. “We go shopping where everybody else goes shopping.
“But I want more Kate Middleton, less Kim Kardashian.”
*Names of sources have been changed to protect their identities.