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Published: Saturday, 1/13/2001

WTOL's Jeff Heitz looks back as retirement nears

BY ELAINE LINER
BLADE MEDIA EDITOR

Ih his 28 years on WTOL newscasts, anchorman Jeff Heitz choked up only twice on the air. The first time was in 1988, when it fell to him to report to viewers that his 31-year-old co-anchor, Sue Parcell, had died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Heitz, who'd worked alongside Parcell for only six months, had learned the sad news shortly before the evening newscast.

As Heitz explained to viewers what had happened, he couldn't hold back his grief. “I couldn't help it. It was such a tragedy. Sue was a wonderful young woman,” he told a visitor to the WTOL studios recently. The memory of that day still brings a noticeable catch to his voice.

The second time viewers saw Heitz shed tears came during a trip to Normandy to report on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Getting ready for a live report from the edge of an American military cemetery, Heitz turned and looked behind him just as the camera rolled. As he remembers it, the sight of line after line of white grave markers suddenly hit him hard.

“It was overwhelming and I could barely speak. I teared up but I tried to compose myself and get on with it.”

When Heitz ended the live shot, a reporter for another station who had been standing nearby congratulated him on the moment of televised drama. “How did you do it?” the other newsman asked, assuming Heitz had summoned his tears on cue.

“I couldn't believe this guy,” Heitz said. “He thought I was faking it.”

Others might have. Heitz didn't have to. But the exchange serves to illustrate what the TV news business has become - reporters too eager to fake their emotions on the air - and explains one reason why, at the age of 57, Heitz is retiring from WTOL after tomorrow night's Toledo 11 News

Having anchored the No. 1-rated 6 and 11 p.m. news at the CBS affiliate since 1974 (he was a reporter-photographer for two years before that), Heitz now says he's ready to leave a business that is moving in directions he's not comfortable with.

“I tend to think that a lot of newscasts we and other stations do are cookie-stamped. News today is very boring,” Heitz said.

He gets specific: Consultants have become too meddlesome in newsrooms, the news product too predictable. Too much time in local newscasts now is taken up by pre-packaged infotainment features deemed newsworthy not by TV journalists but by market surveys of what viewers want and by demographic-focused young producers trying to propel ratings during sweeps weeks.

“Consultants and young producers are the bane of my existence,” Heitz said. “Consultants give you an excuse to fail. Ratings go down? Fire the consultant and get a new one.”

The biggest change during his three decades of TV news has been the improvement in technology, he said. Heitz remembers shooting stories on black and white film at WSAV in Savannah, Ga., long before videotape came into use. But with slicker methods of broadcasting have come too many ways of tricking viewers into thinking they're getting more news than they actually are.

One of the most recognized news features on Toledo television is WTOL's “Crackdown on Crime” report fronted by Heitz and 5 p.m. anchor Jerry Anderson every Monday and Friday. “But we don't even produce that,” Heitz admitted. “It's a package from Ivanhoe Broadcasting in Winter Park, Florida. I just read the scripts in the booth. Some editor will put them together later. It's just a way to fill the time.”

Heitz also disdains cheap theatrics, like the ubiquitous “live-for-live” shots that pose a reporter in front of a closed courthouse on a Sunday night simply because the story has a legal angle.

“That's just really stupid,” Heitz said. “Just like in a snowstorm, you send someone to the freeway or the salt piles. You stick the weatherman outside the studio door so viewers will see it snowing on him. Makes no sense at all. But viewers have come to expect it.”

He gave up objecting to such inanities long ago. “I'm not in charge. Some people think I am, but I'm not. I was just the anchorman. And I got tired of bashing my head into that brick wall.”

To the estimated 280,000 viewers who tuned in to watch Heitz anchor the news at 6 p.m., and the 180,000 who watched at 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, he was the old-school authority figure. He didn't waste time with chirpy cross-chat with his co-anchors, most recently Chrys Peterson. He kept a serious, some would say stiff, demeanor.

Off the air, however, Heitz is friendly and forthright. Definitely more relaxed. And at 6-foot, 4-inches tall, he's an imposing figure. Somehow on TV he doesn't look that tall.

“I sit short,” he said with a grin. “Sitting next to Chrys, we're the same height for some reason.”

It takes some prying to get him to talk about his accomplishments. The regional Emmy he won for a documentary on the 20th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Silver Circle Award given to him last year by the Cleveland chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, recognizing his contributions to Toledo television. He credits WTOL's long-running status as the most-watched news operation in Toledo not to his success as anchor but to powerful lead-ins like Oprah and the First at Five newscast anchored by Jerry Anderson.

He's generous with praise of other journalists he's worked with. He's had five co-anchors at WTOL: Bob Lawrence, Jill Olmsted (now a tenured professor at American University), Sue Parcell, Marilou Johanek (now a Blade columnist), and, for the past seven years, Peterson.

“Marilou and I got along great, even though she's a liberal and I ain't,” he said with a shrug. “And Chrys has been wonderful. What you see on the air is exactly how she is.”

Peterson said that as an anchor team she and Heitz “just clicked.” Getting a new on-air partner will be like “changing husbands,” she said. “Jeff and I had a great rhythm together on the air. You have to develop that with somebody new.”

Peterson said she kids Heitz about being “an old curmudgeon ... slow to accept change.” But she also said she “cannot imagine him ever telling a lie or saying something that wasn't true. He's a stickler for checking facts. And he gave a lot of stability to the newsroom here. That's rare in a business with a lot of high turnover.”

There was a time back in the late '70s or early '80s when Heitz briefly entertained the idea of moving on, maybe trying for a network news job in New York City. It's what young anchors did and still do, work in a small to midsize market for a few years and then scramble for the star-making gig.

“It just eventually dawned on me that I'm not a traveling man. I'm a homebody. I was comfortable here and successful here. I didn't want to take the chance. This is a nice town. People have treated me well,” Heitz said.

He never even got around to getting an agent.

Heitz's best friend is Orris Tabner, who retired as WTOL sports editor in 1996 after 38 years at the station. The two ate dinner together between newscasts for years and now are golfing buddies.

“When I left WTOL, Jeff said, `Good Lord, who am I going to talk to now? There's nothing but kids around here,'” Tabner recalled.

With his degree in English (from Florida's Rollins College) and love of literature, Heitz was the newsroom's go-to guy for questions about grammar and spelling, said Tabner. “And he has tremendous powers of concentration. I used to go up to him and say, `Jeff, your pants are on fire,' and he'd just keep reading.”

Tabner thinks the biggest adjustment Heitz will have to make in retirement is resetting his sleeping and waking schedule.

“After all those years of going into work in the afternoon and getting home at midnight, your inner clock is set that way. I still watch television till 2 or 3 in the morning,” Tabner said.

Heitz said he's simply looking forward to “doing whatever I want to do” after tomorrow. He shares a home in Ida with his wife, Frances, who's a computer programming analyst at the University of Michigan, and their three dogs and five cats. A Dayton native, he's taken up genealogy and wants to do some traveling to research relatives going back eight generations. He and Fran recently vacationed in Las Vegas with Tabner (who said Heitz is such a craps fanatic he studies books on the game before hitting the tables).

No more working Thanksgivings and Christmases (as he did last year). No more driving home alone on dark snowy nights. Best of all, no more skirmishes with pushy consultants and green producers.

It's been a good run, said Heitz of his years at WTOL. His working philosophy there was “do the news your own way, not like anybody else.”

There is no secret formula to being anybody's favorite anchorman, he said. “I just did the news. I always believed the trick in broadcasting was to make them understand it the first time. If they don't, you've lost them.”

Heitz's retirement is one of the biggest changes in Toledo media in years. His replacement, 38-year-old Bill Hormann, signed a five-year contract with WTOL, but realistically has maybe two or three ratings books in which to prove he's a worthy successor.

Heitz had nothing to do with Hormann's hiring, but plans to check out his performance. “Will I be watching? Of course. I'll be curious,” said Heitz, who said his TVs at home are usually tuned to CNN and CNBC.

Orris Tabner thinks WTOL “is going to get a challenge” from second-place ABC station WTVG for news ratings. “WTOL has been No. 1 for, lo, these many years and probably one of the good reasons is Jeff. He's sort of the young man's version of Walter Cronkite. He stayed around while other stations changed anchors. There's not anybody who can really replace Jeff,” Tabner said.

“It's a tough thing to lose Jeff,” said WTOL's news director C.J. Beutien. “He's the favorite of a lot of viewers.”

Beutien plans to redesign Toledo 11 News after Heitz leaves. There'll be less “sitting and reading the news” and more “walk and talk” by the anchors, he said. He'll put Hormann and Peterson outside the newsroom occasionally, a technique called “field anchoring.”

Sounds like something Heitz wouldn't have liked doing. But it's something consultants and young producers think is a really swell idea.



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