Click here for past issues of the Globe Magazine, dating back to June 22, 1997
Click here for past issues of the Globe Magazine, dating back to June 22, 1997
Five minutes to 6, and Chet Curtis comes striding into a dimly lit lounge in Quincy's Marina Bay. Dressed casually, he unzips his jacket and smiles easily. It's early yet, and the few patrons at the bar turn to greet the man who, despite his celebrity status in local TV journalism, has always been a down-to-earth star. There's a round of "Hey, Chets" and "How are ya, Chets?" and Chet takes it all in.
Siro's is a restaurant where nearly everybody knows his name - something Chet needs right now. Even though it's the off-season along the waterfront and most of the boat slips are empty, it feels warm in here. Chet has always been avuncular and unaffected, qualities that served him so well for so long as the complement to an even bigger star, his wife, Natalie Jacobson. They were the anchor team for all time, the franchise at Channel 5.
Chet shakes free of the cold outside, where a sharp breeze whips off the water. He looks around, spots me, and heads over. In opposite corners of the cozy room, two televisions hang from the ceiling. Both are turned to WCVB-TV. It's the top of the evening news hour now, and the screen explodes in color and high-tech graphics announcing Coverage You Can Count On. Suddenly, there's Nat delivering the latest on the presidential election. Chet doesn't seem to even notice.
Twelve months ago, he would have been in the Channel 5 studio, too. He and Natalie would have been side by side, just as they were for more than two decades. But a little over a year ago, they shocked their families, friends, and colleagues at the ABC affiliate, and the viewing audience, too, with the announcement that they were separating after 24 years of marriage. Last summer, the station broke them up on-air. And earlier this month, Chet announced he will be leaving Channel 5 to join NECN as a co-host of the cable news station's nightly program NewsNight.
Life for one of Boston's most famous couples has boomeranged into single-hood, both personally and professionally. Chet is now living in a condo just a short walk from Siro's. He's fixing it up, installing new carpet and adding a fresh coat of paint. The location works for him; he can have his privacy and, nearby, people, too. Siro's even has a piano. (As a boy, Chet sang on a TV show for teenagers in upstate New York.) For her part, Nat has left their longtime home in Needham for Back Bay, buying one of the new high-rise condos at Trinity Place in Copley Square, a unit for which she paid $1.5 million.
Nat now has the prestigious 6 o'clock news at WCVB all to herself. Chet, until he starts at New England Cable News in March, co-anchors the decidedly unglamorous Sunday night news on Channel 5 and has returned to street reporting. "It wasn't my call," Chet says over dinner, talking about the split with Nat at work. "Do I wish it were otherwise? Yeah. Did I expect it was going to end this way? No. But it's reality. You've got to deal with it and move on."
Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobson are going through what millions of Americans go through - a breakup that usually ends in divorce. But there's a huge difference here. "It wasn't just a couple getting a divorce, as big as that is for anybody," says Nat in a separate interview. "But it extended to the viewer, which when you think about it, it had to be. We've had an extraordinary relationship with our viewers. We, Chet and I, and we, this television station. People have feelings about us. ... It was really hard."
For as long as most can recall, this was the city's first couple: Mr. and Mrs. News. During happier times, Chet once joked, "I think it's one word, ChetanNat." No more. It's distinctly separate now: Chet and Nat. Or maybe today, as far as local TV news goes, just Nat.
GOING BACK TWO DECADES, CHET CURTIS AND NATALIE JACOBSON provided the star power for the dominant newscast in Boston. The couple flat-out defined an era in local television, a time when stations sought to make newscasters a part of the viewers' families - a comfort zone in which to air bad news in a confusing, fast-changing world. In the end, though, what changed were Chet and Nat and the industry that made them stars.
"They were our meal ticket," says David Ropeik, an award-winning former Channel 5 reporter. In March 1972, when a group of local owners opened WCVB-TV in its new studio off of Route 128 in Needham, Chet and Nat were part of the curtain raiser. Chet, just turning 33, was already a broadcast veteran, having worked for the previous incarnation of Channel 5, while Nat, 29, still relatively new to the field, was moving from working as an off-camera producer to working on-air. Nat's pregnancy was front-page news in 1980, and a gaggle of reporters stood watch outside Beth Israel Hospital when the couple's daughter, Lindsay, was born on May 19, 1981. Over the years, we have read about Nat's clothes, changes in her hairstyle, her fondness for cooking, and the makeover of her kitchen in their Needham home. Nat was embraced as a role model - working mother and successful TV journalist - and soon emerged as the bigger star. The "News Madonna" became one of many monikers, and a 1990 interview she did ended up making local political history. Gubernatorial candidate John Silber blew a fuse when Nat asked him to describe his weaknesses. Hardly hard-hitting, but voters apparently didn't take kindly to someone growling at TV news's den mother. Silber's comfortable lead in the polls vanished, and he lost the governor's race to William Weld.
Chet, meanwhile, was known in his own right as a solid reporter who could think on his feet, ad lib, and handle most any surprise that came across the desk.
"They complemented each other beautifully," says Thistle. "Natalie is able to ask just the right question at the right time, the question in the viewer's mind. Chet, on the other hand, is a master at logistics. He knew where we were at every moment in the broadcast."
Part of the chemistry was their comfort factor. "Chet's an easygoing guy who readily accepted the secondary role on the desk, which, for a lot of men, would have been a problem," notes Bill O'Reilly of Fox News and a Channel 5 alumnus. "He's secure in who he is, and that's very rare in this business."
The anchor team was supported by a stable of reporters who became household names. Ropeik, who joined the station in 1977, became known for his environmental reporting, for which he won a Columbia Dupont Award, considered television's equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize. Ron Gollobin began working at Channel 5 in 1975 and quickly made a mark for his organized crime and police reporting. Six years ago, when the bizarre attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan exploded nationally, Gollobin broke the story that members of rival skater Tonya Harding's entourage were involved in the assault. Clark Booth won raves for pieces that somehow made television literary, and the eclectic Chuck Kraemer's participatory and often whimsical features stretched the medium's boundaries. There was also Martha Bradlee, Kirby Perkins, Susan Wornick, and Jack Harper, to name a few. And nearly every night starting in 1979, Marjorie Arons-Barron editorialized at the end of the newscast, usually about matters of local concern. The station staked its identity on being more local than any other TV news operation. To top it off, the station's nightly news magazine, Chronicle, begun in 1982, became an enduring symbol of the home-grown.
"Our strength was that we were different," says Gollobin. "The lead reporter, Jack Harper, is a bald guy. Look at me: Do I look like a TV guy?" But for all the talent, the principal and overriding faces were Chet and Nat - what Ropeik has often called the "label on the bottle."
Says Ropeik: "If you look at Chet, he's sedate; he isn't stud handsome. He's attractive, but he's not Ken. And Natalie, as attractive as she is, is not Barbie. They're thoughtful, erudite. They add to rather than fight against the substantive feel that we were all about."
But lurking in the background were radical changes that began to remake the business of local television. Corporate takeovers followed deregulation, and WCVB was not spared. Metromedia purchased the station in 1981 for a then-record $220 million, and, in 1985, the Hearst Corp. bought the station for $450 million. Four years ago, ownership was transferred to Hearst-Argyle Television; today, Channel 5 is one of 26 stations owned by the New York City-based company. Viewers, meanwhile, once considered habit-oriented, became increasingly fickle and unpredictable - wielding a remote control to surf hundreds of viewing options on cable and the Internet. "The hovering thumb," Chuck Kraemer likes to call the new dynamic of a clicker-armed audience.
News formats changed, too. Newscasts that had lasted 60 minutes and allowed for longer stories were changed to three segments of 30 minutes each. Live shots, even when there was no breaking news to report, became all the rage, and new tricks in technology had to be displayed, unleashing a barrage of glitzy graphics, gizmos, and noise.
"Those sounds effects - the whoooosh - drive me right up the wall," says Thistle. "Enough with the Star Trek effects."
In Boston, a hard-driving, graphic, and pulsing style became the hallmark of WHDH-TV (Channel 7). The station went tabloid starting in 1993 after Edmund Ansin, a Florida real estate tycoon, bought and remodeled it in the image of a hugely successful station he owns in Miami. In short order, veteran Channel 5 reporters began to feel the impact of Channel 7's emphasis on splashy crime and disaster stories in their own newscast, and it troubled them. "We were leading the race with no one in front of us," recalls Ropeik. "And instead of looking out the windshield to see where we should be going, we started to drive by looking in the rearview mirror at Channel 7." Starting in 1996, Channel 7 was hard on Channel 5's heels for top ratings at the crucial 11 p.m. newscast; by October 1998, the upstart station had overtaken WCVB in that time slot.
Channel 5 management began to lean increasingly on outside consultants for direction, and some in the newsroom grew frustrated with what they saw as an erosion in the station's "brand." Two years ago, Nat sounded off publicly against this trend. "Who appointed these consultants God?" she asked during an interview with the Globe's Don Aucoin. The station began to experience a heavy on-air turnover. Booth, Kraemer, Ropeik, Gollobin, Arons-Barron, and popular anchorman Brian Leary all left. Kirby Perkins, an 18-year veteran, died in 1997 after a heart attack at the age of 49.
But throughout it all, Channel 5 was buoyed by an anchor team that others in local television could only envy: Chet and Nat. The couple provided what one broadcaster called a "halo effect" over a TV station that was buffeted by change. No matter what the tumult was, management had Chet and Nat doing the news or hosting a special, exuding a rock-solid aura that even extended to colleagues.
"They anchored us, too," says Gollobin.
Then all hell broke loose. On a December day in 1999, the couple walked into the second-floor office of the station's general manager, Paul La Camera. Despite occasional gossip, few saw what was coming - the bombshell of their split. It was jaw-dropping news that would stun a region and leave people wondering: What happened?
The dissolution of their marriage, says 57-year-old Nat, "didn't happen overnight." But there is also no question that they grew irreparably apart in just the past three years. Their current contract - a five-year pact negotiated in 1997 - included a provision that in the third year they would cease anchoring the late newscast. It was a provision the couple had insisted upon. "It was at our request to come off the 11, with the thought of having more time, just for life, you know, for ourselves, for our families and so forth," says Nat. "I don't think either one of us realized it was going to end up the way it did."
Theirs is a marriage that begins and ends at Channel 5. Both had been married previously, although by the time Nat began working at Channel 5 in the spring of 1972, her seven-year marriage to Army officer William D. Jacobson was essentially over. The couple had married in 1965, just after Nat Salatich graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in English and Miss UNH honors. They separated in July 1972, and Nat got an apartment in Framingham, not far from her parents' home in Wellesley, where she'd gone to high school. By July 1973, the divorce, uncontested, was official.
Chet, meanwhile, had married Helen Wagner in 1960, the same year that he graduated from Ithaca College in New York. The couple had two daughters: Dana, born in 1962, and Dawn, born in 1965. Moving here from New York in 1968, the family lived for a while in Norwood and then bought a modest two-story home in Hingham, right off busy Route 228. Chet, born Chester Kukiewicz, changed the family's name to Curtis in 1969 because, according to court papers, as a television reporter he "has used the name 'Curtis' in his business for the past 13 years and is known to all his friends and associates by that name."
Chet and Nat met at work in 1972 and, over time, fell in love. "We didn't have a personal relationship right away," says Nat. Colleagues eventually caught on. "It was a quiet thing at first," says Jack Hynes, the veteran anchorman who worked at Channel 5 at the time. Within the year, Hynes says, "They started going with each other."
Chet's marriage was breaking up, and in June 1973 he moved out of Hingham. His divorce, uncontested, went through a year later. Helen remarried soon afterward and moved back to New York state. Says Chet about relations with his first wife: "I used to go to Rochester almost every other weekend to see the kids. They'd come here. We talked all the time, dealing with issues such as the girls, school and medical issues. We still talk. I had lunch with her a few months ago."
Chet and Nat were married in the Old North Church in May 1975. "That was early in our life in terms of the community," says Nat, "but we felt such a part of it that to be married in the historic Old North Church seemed just perfect."
Today, neither can recall an actual proposal. "No, I was not on my knees," says Chet. "It just sort of happened." Says Nat: "I don't think there was anything formal." Then, after a pause, she adds, "It's sort of weird to talk about that now, isn't it?"
The month after their wedding they closed on a house about two miles from work in Needham, and Chet and Nat were airborne. Their two contracts with the station were eventually merged into one, and as years passed they prospered, acquiring waterfront property on Nantucket, a condo in Florida, an airplane - holdings worth millions. They became the toast of Channel 5 and of Boston. "God, they had fun," says Gollobin, warmly recalling parties the couple hosted, which often provided Chet the chance to showcase his voice, especially at the annual holiday party the couple threw. "I loved that tradition," recalls Nat. "I used to make the food with my girlfriends. They'd come over, and we'd have a blast preparing everything. ... And my mom, God bless her, was alive then, and she'd take charge of switching the table from the main course to the desserts while we went off caroling."
During Channel 5's 15th anniversary special in 1987, the station included footage from the couple's wedding ceremony - a young Chet and a radiant Nat at the altar. For Chet's 50th birthday in 1989, Nat staged a massive party for him at Hanscom Field. "She did the whole thing for him," recalls Ropeik. "Poems. Videos. A roast. He was beaming with love and she with love for him." In 1996, the couple celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary over dinner at The Palm restaurant in Boston, where their caricatures are displayed on the wall in a gallery of local celebrities and power brokers.
The public saw them as one, even as Chet and Nat sought to keep separate their professional and married lives, like a pair of circus jugglers. It has long been said that an outsider visiting the newsroom would never be able to tell they were husband and wife. "From the very beginning," says Chet, "we made a conscious effort not to mix our personal and professional lives at the station, and we continue that, even today."
Meaning they kept their game faces on the past few years as their marriage started to dissolve. "Nobody here knew that was coming," says Nat with pride. During their struggle to figure out where their marriage stood, she says, "There were painful times, and no one knew a darn thing about it."
Even today, Chet and Nat will not get into the specific causes of their split, and friends are emphatic in rejecting nagging rumors that the end came after one or the other had an affair. It's far more ordinary, they say - though no less painful - for two people to gradually discover they are no longer in love after spending nearly three decades together.
By all accounts, Chet and Nat are devoted to family and serious about journalism. They shared these values and still do. But friends stress how different they are in personality.
"Nat's professionally driven," observes one former colleague, "and I think it's hard for her to enjoy what she's achieved. Her pleasure is in the anticipation of things. I think she spends a lot of time in the house of the future, and I think she feels her greatest achievements are to come.
"Chet, he has no trouble enjoying what he has. He's tactile, more capable of loving the moment. I think when you're 60, 61, it's only natural to want to enjoy your success."
The differences were certainly evident at work all these years. "Chet was the mayor of the newsroom," recalls Emily Rooney, a former news director at Channel 5 who hosts her own show on WGBH-TV. "He'd make sure no one was intimidated by his presence, and especially hers. Nat can be imposing, because she doesn't suffer fools gladly." Nat, the more mercurial, was given to the periodic newsroom tantrum. But, colleagues are quick to add, the blowup was never about vanity. It was about the right thing - the journalism at hand.
"She never demanded the star treatment," says Rooney.
Even so, Nat's style could grate sometimes when, arriving at work late in the afternoon, she might order last-minute changes in a story others had been working on all day. Or, given the demands of her schedule, there would be stretches when she seemed detached from the entire process. "She could be a big contradiction," says another former colleague. "Passionate versus disinterested. Informed versus uninformed. On time versus incredibly late. You never knew which Nat you were going to get." But even these remarks are not intended as slights - rather, as evidence that it's not easy for Nat to be Nat. "It's a full-time job being Natalie Jacobson," says the former colleague. Charity and community service, the speeches, never mind the full-time job as an anchor at the city's leading TV station. "She's only human," that person says. "There are incredible pressures and demands on her time."
The differences apparently became a wedge between Chet and Nat and may have been exacerbated by the wear and tear of working side by side for nearly as long as they were married. "It's like they had a 50-year marriage. Who can do that?" says a friend who does not want to be identified. "She was looking for mountains to climb. He was looking for valleys to rest in."
Today, colleagues and friends can still only excavate a few, subtle clues that would have told them what was coming. For example, Chet and Nat always had their own office located down the hall from the newsroom. In part, they needed a place to deal with the constant flow of mail from viewers. ("We'd get mail addressed simply to: 'Chet and Nat, Boston, Mass.,' " notes Chet.) Early in 1999, Ron Gollobin, for one, noticed a different seating arrangement. "Chet just came out and started working in the newsroom." Then came the much-publicized 15-week leave from work that Nat took during the summer of 1999, which she spent mostly on Nantucket, and people like Jack Hynes heard from friends on the island that she didn't seem her regular self and was often alone. "This seemed odd," he says, "because they are so social."
But associates mostly dismissed the gossip that began to pop up occasionally - especially during that summer - suggesting marital unrest. "I figured it was a well-deserved break," says Rooney about Nat's sabbatical. "I remember thinking she was probably thinking about retiring," recalls Jim Thistle. Or, others thought, maybe she was getting a face lift.
But marital trouble? Not Chet and Nat. No way.
In fact, the marriage was in a meltdown, and Nat's retreat to Nantucket was a bid to gain perspective. "It wasn't a done deal then," she says. "We hadn't made a decision." But she was taking stock, wondering what to do about the breach in their lives, and the island became a good place for all that. Says Nat: "For me, walking on the beach, waking up and looking at the ocean. The sky and all. I draw strength from that. It's easier to think things through. I can talk to my mom there. Pray there."
During the autumn, after she returned, she and Chet went over things time and again and reached a decision that just a few years earlier would have seemed unimaginable - that, as hard as dismantling their marriage would be, they had a better chance for happiness apart than together. Chet made arrangements to move out of the only house they had lived in together, and then they notified the station. The couple went public with the news on Monday, December 14, 1999.
"I remember feeling deflated, sad, heartsore," says Ropeik, echoing many. Ropeik was in the field working on a story when he called in and was told about Chet and Nat. Returning to the newsroom, Ropeik looked around for Nat but didn't see her. He did run into Chet. They hugged. "We shared tears because of the hurt of it."
It's a high-octane Nat who arrives for the appointed afternoon interview in the conference room at Channel 5 overlooking the station's newsroom, all fired up as she recaps oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court that she was just watching on television. She's a news junkie, getting her fix from all the crazy twists in the race for the presidency. She might hedge about the future, saying she's not sure what's ahead for her after her current contract expires. ("I don't know, you can't predict.") But it's talking about the future when her face opens up with the mix of energy and warmth others have described as central to her high impact. "This business is changing about as fast as the presidential election," she says. "I love to tell young people, 'You're in an experimental place. You don't know where the industry is going to be in five years.'
"You'd like to think you'll stay flexible," she says about herself. "Life is so full of opportunity. That's my greatest lament, the fact you might die by 100."
It's during talk about the past few years that a shadow crosses her face, and several times Nat pauses to wipe away tears. "I won't kid you. This has been a difficult several years. It was personal and painful. And I feel like I climbed a very tall mountain."
Last year began with the public scrutinizing her and Chet's every move - on-air and in the steady run of news and gossip columns - but one thing few knew about was Nat's physical discomfort. She underwent two surgeries to repair her rotator cuff and, typically, kept it to herself. "I didn't pick up a golf club until October," she says, "and I still haven't picked up a tennis racket."
Despite the breakup at home, Nat still isn't sure whether the on-air split was inevitable. "I don't know if it was necessary or not." She says that early last summer La Camera spoke to her and "said he felt, based on his own feelings and on some research he'd done, that the audience was uncomfortable watching us together. I don't know if that's true or not. Because I didn't do the research. He did it. I didn't envy him."
Even so, Nat acknowledges the whole complicated matter became at times awkward and uncomfortable. "I felt very sorry for my colleagues, because it was clearly difficult for them. They had to face us both, and I think most people didn't want to take sides. ... I think they felt they were walking on eggshells.
"I just hoped that time would take care of it, and I think it has. I think it's become easier. I guess. I hope so. I detect people are a little bit more relaxed."
Of the inexorable run of change that is part of dissolving a long marriage, her decision to sell the Needham house and move into Boston was one that did not come easily: "It wasn't like it just came to me one night. It evolved."
During their marriage, the couple would often anchor the 6 o'clock news, head to their nearby home to have dinner and be with Lindsay, and then hustle back to the station in time to do the late news. They fixed up the house, expanded it, and kept it filled with family. Chet's daughters from his first marriage lived there for a time. Nat's nieces, too, as well as her father. Nat had just finished redecorating the homestead when the marriage broke down.
"Twenty-five years of wonderful memories in that house," Nat says. "But it was crazy for one person to live in that house all by herself. Just logistically, it made no sense. Common sense. In terms of the emotion, which is what I think you're getting at, you know, sure, it's a house filled with a lot of memories. It was hard to be there by myself."
She moved to her new condo in September and has already made some changes to the kitchen. "My thinking was I'd like to be with people. It's lonely to be in a big house by yourself. Coming home from work at night and talking to yourself and the trees. So this is much better. It's not as lonely."
She seems puzzled that people might think she and Chet don't get along. "We're the parents of one child and two other children. We talk. It's cordial. It's not mean. It's not angry." This past fall, they went to see Lindsay at Vanderbilt University and to attend parents' weekend. "What's bigger than your love for your children?" she says. "Would it be your personal angst about something? Would you put that above your kids? Would you spoil your freshman weekend? No. It's easy to be nice, because you're there for someone you love." At Thanksgiving, Nat flew with Lindsay to Chicago to join siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces, and her father, a gathering, she says, of the "Salatich clan, my family. ... Just what you think Thanksgiving should be - count your blessings and enjoy your family."
The past 12 months, says Nat, "my life changed dramatically. My mama hat and my wife hat, you know, got put on the shelf, both at the same time." In her new life, she's the first to admit she's still finding her way. Days are filled with charity work, and she sits on the boards of several nonprofit groups, but now that she only anchors the early evening newscasts, she has her nights free. "This is the first time I've had nights off since the mid-'70s. So at first it was like, 'Oh, my gosh, I have to get back to work.' Then I realized, wow, you can actually meet someone for dinner."
She says she's been hanging out with old friends ("I have great lady friends") and finds she has more time to spend with Lindsay when her daughter is at home. "So it's a good thing."
Has she begun to date? To think about dating?
"Umm, no and no. I mean, I don't dwell on it. I'd like to date again, sure. I assume that will come."
But first thing's first, and this, too, will take some time. "I've been married almost all my life," she says. "I sort of don't know how to be single. I don't really know what single people do."
Over dinner at Siro's, Chet breaks off the conversation to insist he doesn't get it - why the public remains so fascinated with Chet and Nat. Isn't he just a kid from Amsterdam, New York, an off-the-rack guy who made good in Boston television? He wonders why so many people continue to care about "where I am, what I am doing, and who I am doing it with. Whether Natalie and I have a poodle or, you know, whatever. There's got to be something more important in the world."
There is. But he and Nat are also the two biggest names in local television. Viewers forged a bond and were allowed to be "at home" with them, even if the visits were staged at arms-length through a television screen and skewed to happy talk - parenting or cooking. Because how well do we really know them?
Chet, for example, lost both parents at an early age - losses that have never really been a staple in the public offering that is Chet and Nat. His mother died, from complications during childbirth, when he was 8 days old, and Chet, an only child, was raised by a father who never remarried and became, as Chet says, "my mother, my father, and my best friend." The year Chet turned 15, his father went to bed one night and never woke up - dead, just like that. Chet went to live with his uncle's family, and nowadays his friends are quick to point out that if Chet could get through those early tragedies, he will eventually be OK in his split with Nat. (Nat's mother died in 1979 within months of being diagnosed with lung cancer. Daughter and mother were extremely close, but Nat has never really discussed what it was like to lose her so suddenly).
The hard stuff - like their estrangement - Chet wants kept private, even if the silence comes at a price. Last spring, Chet dined at Siro's with daughters Dawn and Lindsay, a niece, and one of Lindsay's friends, and the gathering showed up in a gossip column that portrayed Chet as out on the town surrounded by a flock of unidentified young women. It read, says Chet, as if "I was trying to scoop some 20-year-olds." Last summer, Chet was out with a half-dozen friends, including one friend's girlfriend, at the Common Market in Quincy. "There's a thing in the paper that I was out partying and doing karaoke and sang 'Please Release Me,' and I was coming on to a redhead seated next to me. I mean, it's so absurd. It bothers me, and it bothers my family."
But the gossip fed a fascination with a high-profile life experiencing seismic upheaval, not the least of which was an aftershock Chet never anticipated: the loss of his cherished slot on the anchor desk of the evening news.
The end of an era in local television came on a hot Friday night, July 21, a denouement that showcases how the world has changed - both the local TV industry and Chet and Nat's ability to work together in it. The anchor team opened the newscast with a string of stories: a deadly hit and run, a mystery fire in Malden, the mourning of a murder victim, a baby rescued from a van submerged in a reservoir, and a hotel fire in Copley Square. It was a fast news run, for which Channel 5 has been criticized by station veterans and critics who bemoan what they see as an erosion in quality caused by higher story counts and a bloated diet of crime and grime. Then, during the lead-in to the weather, there was a weird moment showcasing the very thing that led worried station executives to pull the plug on the duo. Describing a not-so-hot forecast for the upcoming weekend, weatherman Dick Albert said to Nat: "You know, as the Rolling Stones said, 'You can't always get what you want.' "
Nat: "Boy, they were smart."
Goofy on-air banter any other year. Not last summer. It's a moment the audience could construe as dripping in double meaning. Albert came back fast with an odd ha-ha. "All right," he said, "let's look at the clouds wandering over Boston."
The night wound down with Chet and Nat giving away little. Ending their final newscast, Chet shuffled papers and looked directly at viewers and said, "Thanks for being with us. Good night." Then it was Nat's turn. "Thank you. Good night."
Channel 5 general manager La Camera says that the decision to end the Chet and Nat era "wasn't seat of the pants." He explains: "I can't tell you how many people talked to me about them - I mean, they were seeing things that weren't there. They weren't paying attention to the news. They were watching their body language."
The ratings, too, were part of the mix. Having spiked earlier in the year - due probably to the curiosity factor in the wake of the news of their split - the ratings period in July showed the 6 o'clock newscast barely staying ahead of Channel 7's.
"We needed to stabilize our newscast," says La Camera, "and unfortunately what was going on in their personal life was impacting the station as a whole."
The first solution was to move Chet to anchoring the early-morning newscast, but, says Chet, "I said no. Been there, done that." He continues: "If I were 31 instead of 61, I probably would have done it. But at this point in my life, I don't want to get up at 3 o'clock in the morning." He settled for anchoring on Sunday nights and general reporting, working four days a week, Sunday through Wednesday.
Given a contract stipulating that he and Nat work as co-anchors, he could have fought efforts to oust him. But, he asks, to what end? "I've spent most of my life on this planet there. What am I going to do? Am I going to go to court? No."
Maybe not, but he remained disatisfied about losing the top co-anchoring post and, during the fall, began huddling privately with New England Cable News executives Phil Balboni and Charles Kravetz, both of whom are Channel 5 alumni. On January 3, Chet announced he would make a clean break with Channel 5 and jump to the cable TV station.
In his own time, Chet has been working with a friend at a new Internet company. He's a longtime pilot and hangs out with flying buddies and regularly takes off in his single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza. "Flying is therapy," he says. So is singing. ("Chet has a real voice, a serious voice," marvels former colleague Chuck Kraemer.) Family helps, too. He talks to Lindsay all the time, often sees Dana and Dawn, and spent Thanksgiving with his two older daughters. Both are married and settled nearby. Chet has two grandsons from Dana, and Dawn had her first child, a daughter, this month. Friends threw a baby shower in early December, and Nat was there, too. Just over a year has passed since they split up, and, says Chet, "We talk almost daily."
He says he's not thought much about dating. The condo life in Marina Bay, meanwhile, is good for the short term - a friendly place. Indeed, after dinner, Chet lingers and is enveloped by patrons in the piano lounge who herald the return of a lead singer. Near the entrance, there's a well-dressed couple arriving for dinner, and the man leans into his companion to whisper, "Look over there, that's Chet Curtis, the newscaster."
For all the turmoil in their lives, maybe the worst is over. Late one afternoon at the end of the November sweeps, the WCVB newsroom cranks up for that night's newscasts, pulsing with the pressure of deadline journalism. Producers, reporters, directors, and engineers are too busy to wonder whether Chet and Nat are talking to each other. Which they are. Nat gets up from a computer where she has been tinkering with the copy she'll read during the newscast, and Chet has just walked into the newsroom. He peels out of his suit jacket and loosens his tie and goes over to chat with Nat - about Lindsay, he later says.
Chet, harried looking, has just returned from New Hampshire, where he was reporting a story about an airport expansion that will air on the late news. In the first weeks following his reassignment last summer, Chet was mostly just going through the paces. "The first couple of weeks I didn't do much," he says. "I did the Sunday. I came in, we talked about stuff."
Friends may have been expressing concern that Chet had been exiled, but Chet was not about to come unhinged. He had one move left - negotiating a deal at NECN to co-host the nightly news analysis program with Margie Reedy. "It's nice to be someplace where you're wanted," says Chet when the story breaks this month about his leaving Channel 5 after 32 years. "It's a bittersweet kind of thing. I would not have written the last chapter quite this way, but it wasn't mine to write."
At Channel 5, insiders say the workplace mood generally has improved in recent months. Taking over as news director in September, newcomer Coleen Marren has so far gotten high marks all around. If the old strategy of 5 as family has been fractured beyond repair, the new mantra is "team." Says La Camera: "Our future is a new, balanced team approach."
The station has made its share of missteps and taken some hits. For all the richly reported stories appearing on Chronicle over the years, the station in November may have aired one of most hokey segments ever when it devoted an entire show to Home Depot, a shallow piece that failed to mention the many age and sex discrimination lawsuits filed against the company in recent years. ("If that piece wasn't as discriminating as it should have been, we'll take responsibility for that," says La Camera. "But you cannot judge the whole by that.")
The local TV world was left scratching its head about Channel 5's election night coverage - why not go to its historic strength and reunite Chet and Nat for the big event? ("In news events, we will remain consistent with the decision made in July," responds La Camera. The two did appear together for public service events.)
Then there was the Washington, D.C.-based think tank that gave the station a "D" grade for the quality of the 11 p.m. newscast, a mark that put the station behind Channels 4 and 7. In a pep-talk internal memo, La Camera conceded mistakes to his staff, writing, "If we had taken our story count too high, we can and have cranked that back a bit. If we need to be more vigilant in sourcing our reports, we will address that as well." But he fiercely defended the station's overall work and unwavering community commitment. "If we strayed a bit as we were redirecting our station and its newscast, we have righted the ship and are fully back on course."
La Camera is in fighting spirit these days. He acknowledges that the absence of veteran reporters like Ropeik and Gollobin are "personality losses, no question," but he sings the praises of newer reporters like Kelley Tuthill as bringing a "fresh perspective, and we needed that as well. The danger is that people from the past at the station romanticize all of this. No one feels more passionately and strongly and loved it more than I did. But it's not 1978 here anymore. It just isn't."
Most important, he's still got Nat. Flying solo at 6 p.m., she has seized the day, tailoring the newscast to singular effect. Working alone, she says, makes it "easier for me to have a conversation with our viewers." Says one veteran Boston broadcast executive: "She's still far and away the biggest TV star in this market. She's the franchise."
The viewers have spoken, says La Camera. Just watch. "She's lovin' what she's doing."
Enter the era of Nat, which the most recent ratings ratified. November sweeps showed Nat reopening a lead at 6 p.m. that last summer had shrunk to a sliver. No more second-guessing about breaking up Chet and Nat on-air, not with these ratings.
Over dinner at Siro's, with Nat televised on the screens in two corners of the lounge, even Chet concurs. "Nobody's beating down the doors to go back to the old ways," he says.
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