Originally created 03/28/04

The return of Eyewitness News



NEW YORK -- In a control room above Times Square, an eight-member production team sits before a bank of video monitors, intent on the two anchors sitting in the adjoining studio.

The pair is joined by a six-time Emmy-winning producer, offering encouragement and direction. The newscasters nod in agreement and deliver their lines impeccably, reading from the TelePrompTer with the ease of a kid riding a bike.

No surprise there. Mwanzaa Brown is just 13, and co-anchor Haley Cohen only a year older. They finish their report, and depart the studio for a few laughs and some Chinese food.

It's a typical taping for "Eyewitness Teen/Kids News," a television news show delivered by teens for teens. Unlike the fare offered by Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, the half-hour syndicated show provides a kid's perspective on events from Iraq to the presidential race - or from downloading music off the Internet to dealing with school bullies.

"It's cool to be on TV," says sportscaster Cody Gifford, one of several celebrity offspring featured on the show. "And actually, it's a pretty good show for kids to learn about."

Executive producer Alan Weiss, owner of the half-dozen Emmys, provides a more adult take on the show's purpose.

"Our goal for the program is we want to make the stories appropriate, the writing appropriate, and make it come together in a professional manner," explains Weiss.

Not to mention that it's cool to be on TV.

The news program evolved from two news stories: The Columbine high school killings, and President Clinton's Monica mess.

Al Primo, a legendary television news figure, felt no one was addressing America's youth about horrors like Columbine or the Washington sniper murders.

He was struck by an idea: How about a high quality television news show just for teens? With teens as the on-air talent?

In the 1960s, Primo had developed the "Eyewitness News" formula: a team of anchors, with engaging reporters. As news director at WABC-TV in New York, Primo brought in Geraldo Rivera and ex-baseball player Jim Bouton.

He decided to resuscitate his program for a new, young audience. One of his first calls went to Weiss, a former WABC co-worker.

Weiss immediately embraced the idea, mostly because of questions from his own daughter about the stains on Monica Lewinsky's dress.

"It was like looking at a box of Post-Its: Why didn't I think of that?" Weiss recalls. "It was an epiphany, one of those 'Eureka!' moments you have every once in a while."

The show, which began airing in September 2003, now airs on 175 stations nationwide. Among the studio and reporting crews were Gifford, CNN anchor Paula Zahn's daughter, Haley, and "The View" co-host Meredith Vieira's son, Ben.

Despite the big names, none of the kids arrived with an attitude. Friendships followed, and that translated into a comfortable on-screen rapport among the teens.

"Chemistry is so important, and you can't create it," Weiss said. "I'd like to tell you it's genius, but we were more lucky than skillful here."

Typical of the group is 15-year-old John Meyers, the entertainment reporter. The precocious kid works the red carpet at movie premieres, and semi-facetiously refers to Oscar-nominated actor James Caan as "Jimmy."

"Everybody on the show, behind or on the camera, is great," says Meyers, his boyish looks belying his level of hipness. "We get along. We've become very good friends."

Meyers has handled press junkets for movies like "Elf" and "Cheaper by the Dozen," and received high praise from one Hollywood bold-face name.

"Ted Danson told me I was the best interviewer on the red carpet," Meyers relates.

But shooting in the studio - on this day, for a feature on his visit to a Manhattan candy convention - he's just one of the gang.

Reinforcing their status as typical teens, the anchors read books between takes. Mwanzaa opts for best-selling author Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons," while Haley takes on George Orwell's "1984."

"My book's not in the shot, is it?" she asks at one point.

In the studio, adults and teens mingle without any generation gap. Weiss, wearing a headset and clutching a script, is an energetic presence - rocking back and forth on his sneakers, crossing off each segment as it's finished.

For now, the scripts are mostly written by the adults. But Weiss says that the teens have developed so quickly that they're assuming bigger roles in the show.

Gifford recently pitched a successful piece on paintball, leaving the studio for interviews and doing a bit of writing. Meyers is developing his own questions for his celebrity interviews.

"Everybody's grown a lot in the last six months," says Meyers. "I feel very comfortable, and not nervous at all."