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The woman who launched Philly’s anchor obsession (no, not Alycia)

IT HAS OF course, been a riveting year in local TV media, what with the return of a prodigal weatherman and the salacious front-page saga of Alycia Lane and Larry Mendte. But Philly’s insatiable appetite for anchor gazing wasn’t born of today’s (admittedly juicy) newscaster news: This month marks the 25th anniversary of the death of the original celebrity anchor, Jessica Savitch.

Savitch first engrossed Philly viewers as the pretty, homegrown half of KYW’s “Dream Team," alongside an avuncular Mort Crim. A Kennett Square native, she attended Ithaca before taking a  job in Houston, quickly breaking ground as the South’s first anchorwoman. But when, in the early ’70s, local KYW brass heard about the beautiful blonde with a brainy delivery and offered her a spot at the Philly station (which trailed WPVI in ratings), she moved back home. Suddenly, a star — and a new era in Philly news — was born: The reporter became the reported. Viewers became obsessed with the so-called “Camelot” of the evening news; by 1975, KYW had closed the gap in the ratings war.

But while gossip hounds trailed her off-camera, and mail (and gifts, and marriage proposals) piled up at the station for her, Savitch was building a bigger career. By 1977, the 30-year-old had signed on as a weekend anchor for NBC’s Nightly News in D.C. She appeared to be on track to be the first woman to anchor the nightly news (beating Katie Couric to the punch by nearly three decades), but her mercurial rise slowed with new headlines: the suicide of her husband, her supposed coke habit, an on-air breakdown that seemed drug-related. And then, the final tragedy: The car she was riding in veered off the road and plunged her to a watery death at age 36 in New Hope’s Delaware Canal.  

 

Savitch first engrossed Philly viewers as the pretty, homegrown halfof KYW’s “Dream Team," alongside an avuncular Mort Crim. A Kennett Square native, she attended Ithaca before taking a  job in Houston, quickly breaking ground as the South’s first anchorwoman. But when, in the early ’70s, local KYW brass heard about the beautiful blonde with a brainy delivery and offered her a spot at the Philly station (which trailed WPVI in ratings), she moved back home. Suddenly, a star — and a new era in Philly news — was born: The reporter became the reported. Viewers became obsessed with the so-called “Camelot” of the evening news; by 1975, KYW had closed the gap in the ratings war.

But while gossip hounds trailed her off-camera, and mail (and gifts, and marriage proposals) piled up at the station for her, Savitch was building a bigger career. By 1977, the 30-year-old had signed on as a weekend anchor for NBC’s Nightly News in D.C. She appeared to be on track to be the first woman to anchor the nightly news (beating Katie Couric to the punch by nearly three decades), but her mercurial rise slowed with new headlines: the suicide of her husband, her supposed coke habit, an on-air breakdown that seemed drug-related. And then, the final tragedy: The car she was riding in veered off the road and plunged her to a watery death at age 36 in New Hope’s Delaware Canal.  
Today, Savitch remains an object of obsession: A YouTube generation still views her on-set meltdowns. (One link shows 650,000-plus hits.) But more than just a placeholder in pop culture, says Temple journalism professor Francesca Viola, Savitch was a pioneer: “She had the skill and the guts to pursue a career in TV journalism when there was no clear path for women. Which means there’s now room for all of us, even the plunging-neckline happy-talkers who riddle cable news. I doubt that even those women would be sitting there now if it weren’t for women like Jessica.” No word at this juncture on whether Alycia Lane is grateful or not.  — Alanna Nash

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