The space in Belinda Jensen’s basement is normally used as a guest bedroom for her parents or to stash ski equipment.
These days it’s a TV studio.
The longtime KARE meteorologist is one of many members of the local news media forced to work at home during the coronavirus pandemic. Now TV journalists are applying their own makeup, swapping teleprompters for laptops and using table lamps for lighting.
“At first I really fought it, but the news director didn’t really give me an option,” said Jensen, who has fresh flowers delivered weekly to brighten up her makeshift set. “But now, there’s a lot of things I like about it. It’s pretty nice that, between broadcasts, I can preheat the oven, prepare some vegetables and feed the puppies. Plus, I only have to dress nice from the waist up.”
People are checking out this unprecedented approach to broadcasting in droves. According to Nielsen, viewership for major local newscasts is up 45% from a year ago.
That increase can be largely attributed to the public’s interest in keeping up to speed on the pandemic’s impact. Ratings for the network news broadcasts, once thought to be an endangered species, have also jumped, about 42%.
But don’t underestimate the appeal of getting to know your favorite TV personalities in a more intimate way.
Astute viewers of Jensen’s forecasts can spy Stormy, the doll from her series of children’s books. Her colleague, sports director Eric Perkins, has a baseball in a glass case, a memento from the first over-the-fence homer his son blasted in Little League.
Fox 9 sports director Jim Rich owns a pinball machine. Meteorologist Ian Leonard collects kitsch art, including a series of paintings in which human bodies are sporting deer heads.
“I wanted to share a little bit about who we are and how we live, sometimes to my wife’s chagrin,” said Leonard, who’s as well known for his quirky sense of humor as he is for his weather predictions. “We’re a prank-filled house that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I made a decision not to wear a suit and tie. I mean, if I invited you over for dinner, I wouldn’t be dressed up with special music playing. I want you to feel like a guest in my house and give you a break from how surreal all of this is.”
KARE anchor Julie Nelson admits she’s getting a kick out of peeking into other people’s private lives.
“I’ve become a voyeur,” said Nelson, who admits that she took some extra time selecting the coffee table books on display during her at-home broadcasts. “Whenever Jimmy Fallon is on, I’m trying to get a look around. I’m always thinking, ‘Do those folks live in the type of house I thought they would or am I way off?’ ”
Nelson returned to the office last Monday — she’s switching off with co-anchor Randy Shaver so that only one of them is at the studio at a time — and savored being back among colleagues.
“I couldn’t wait to talk to the five people that were there,” she said.
Most of KSTP’s anchors never stopped coming into the office, although they are sitting at least 8 feet apart from each other while reading the headlines.
“Our position early on here was to try to retain as much normalcy in our production as possible,” said KSTP’s news director, Kirk Varner. “We want to inform people, but not overstress them. We’ve got a plan in place if tomorrow everyone has to work from home, but we don’t want to pull that trigger until it’s necessary.”
At WCCO, 80% of the entire staff is working remotely. But lead anchors Frank Vascellaro and Amelia Santaniello still report to the office and can cozy up next to each other at the desk. That’s because they’re married in real life.
“We’re in a unique position,” Santaniello said. ”We haven’t skipped a beat in terms of how it looks cosmetically. I suppose that brings viewers some sense of comfort.”
All that alone time, without the usual gaggle of colleagues to chat with, can create its own kind of stress.
“I insist we drive separate cars to work,” she said. “We can’t have that much togetherness.”
Jokes aside, the WCCO lead anchors are taking the pandemic seriously.
They’re fully equipped to work from home if they, or any of their kids, contract the virus. In case the WCCO studio gets contaminated, news director Kari Patey has a backup plan to shoot from the station’s booth at the State Fairgrounds.
KSTP’s Varner credits Patey with coming up with the idea that the four local stations share one pool camera at Gov. Tim Walz’s news conferences.
Varner has also been impressed with how forgiving viewers have been when it comes to picture quality and a lack of you-are-there reporting. Viewers are more likely these days to see TV journalists crouched over their laptops than broadcasting from the scene of a crime.
“One of the first things we’re learning in the TV news business is that people are much more interested in what they are saying rather than how they look,” said Varner, who previously worked at WCBS in New York City and was news director for ESPN’s “SportsCenter” during its first decade.
Local anchors are also getting an education, one that’s teaching them about the perks of being stationed at home.
Nelson, who has worked a night shift for nearly two decades, has been able to spend more time with her teenage daughters, who have listened in on her conference calls with the KARE bosses. Jensen has been able to wear yellow and green, colors that are taboo for meteorologists standing in front of a studio “green screen.”
Fox 9 morning anchor Kelly O’Connell gets to sleep in an extra half-hour.
“I never thought my profession would be one in which you could work from home,” she said. “But we’re proving we can do it.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 @nealjustin