On Thursday at 4 p.m. as the nation begins to come to grips with its Oprah Winfrey withdrawal, WSB-TV will debut a brand-new Action News broadcast with Monica Pearson and John Bachman. Given how Winfrey and Pearson's careers have fatefully intersected over the past 35 years, it's only fitting that the Queen of Daytime Talk's time slot be filled by the Queen of Atlanta TV News.
To mark the occasion, WSB sent Pearson to Chicago to cover Winfrey's final show tapings last week. Upon her return to town, we sat in Pearson's newsroom cubicle and asked her to reflect on her and Winfrey's remarkable 35-year journeys in the then-predominantly white male TV news business. After all, in 1975, Pearson got the job at WSB that Winfrey (and Jane Pauley!) had applied for (a career milestone Winfrey has never let her forget, incidentally).
She also discussed her latest assignment starting Thursday at 4 p.m. with Bachman and why 2012 will "positively without a doubt" be a "hard wrap" for her 35-year anchoring career at Atlanta's TV news leader.
For Action News viewers, the end of "Oprah" also signals the end of Pearson anchoring the 11 p.m. newscast. As of Thursday, she'll only anchor the 4 and 6 p.m. newscasts. Privately, Pearson is thrilled with her new schedule. In fact, a few weeks ago when we spent the afternoon trailing the Action News 5 p.m. team of Jovita Moore and Justin Farmer, Pearson greeted us on-set as she recorded promos for the 6 o'clock newscast. Glancing over at the team who will eventually inherit her and John Pruitt's anchor chairs, she told us jokingly: "I can't wait for Jovita to take over at 11 so I can take my brown butt home at night!" After tonight's 11 p.m. news, Pearson gets her wish.
"It's wonderful," she said laughing. "It's finally here. It feels strange to say this but I began to wonder if it was ever going to happen. I've been doing the 11 o'clock newscast for 35 years." After three and a half decades of rushing back to the newsroom each weeknight at 9:30 p.m., Pearson is looking forward to experiencing the simple things we all take for granted each evening. Says Pearson: "A glass of wine with dinner. I will actually be able to have dinner with my husband and not have to rush back to work. I will be able to go to plays without having to leave at intermission. I can actually go to a movie during the week! John Pruitt told me when he came off the 11 o'clock it was like gaining a second life. His wife said the same thing. I'm excited."
Her Action News bosses first approached Pearson about anchoring the station's new post-"Oprah" era 4 p.m. newscast a few months ago after deciding on weekend anchor John Bachman as her co-anchor. The plan is to have Pearson and Bachman get viewers into the earlier Action News habit before she retires next summer. And yes, this time it's for real. Pearson's final day on the air at WSB-TV will be July 31, 2012.
Said Pearson: "Believe me when I tell you this is a hard wrap (TV news jargon for the absolute end of a broadcast)! There's just so much I want to do. I'm 63 years old. Let's be realistic here. I want to enjoy what I've worked for. I look at John Pruitt. We did the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation dinner together the other night. He's travelling now and to see the difference in him is amazing. He's so much more relaxed. It's just getting out of the grind that's made the difference. Now he only works when he wants to. I'm really ready for that."
For Pearson, covering the "Atlanta edition" of Oprah's grand finale broadcast Tuesday was the most incredible. The show featured Atlanta director Tyler Perry, Atlanta pop star Usher and some of the 415 men of Morehouse College educated through the Oprah Winfrey Endowed Scholarship Fund. The grads showed up on stage each holding a beam of light as Tony-winning "Wicked" star Kristin Chenoweth sang "For Good." Those successful grads have now pledged more than $300,000 of their own money to educate future Morehouse men. It was the emotional highlight in an hour of television filled with emotional highlights.
Ever the reporter, when Pearson got to Chicago she was curious after noticing a sign that read: "Welcome Morehouse College." A few phone calls later, Pearson had figured out Oprah's big surprise and with a camera crew in tow, captured the Atlanta connection for an Action News exclusive (see the report here)
"It was the moment that made everyone cry," Pearson recalled. "Oprah just bawled. She was hugging them all. It was an incredibly powerful moment to witness. It was just stunning. People in the audience couldn't stop applauding and crying. Mascara was running everywhere!"
Pearson was unable to convince Miss O's people to pair them up for one last interview together, however (Winfrey is allowing her final shows to speak for themselves). Pearson had no idea about their joint WSB-TV job application history until she interviewed Winfrey in 1986 when "The Oprah Winfrey Show" first went into syndication.
"We had such access then," Pearson recalled. "I was riding in a limo with her and this was just when she was starting to date Stedman [Graham]. I remember her being concerned and saying to me, 'My mama always told me not to date men better looking than me.' 'I told her, 'That's not true. You're just as good-looking as he is.' It was that kind of conversation. That's when she told me, 'You got the job I was supposed to get.' I said 'What do you mean?!' She said, 'Didn't you know you, me and Jane Pauley were all up for that job at WSB?' I didn't believe her!" When Pearson got back to Atlanta, she went to then-WSB general manager Don Elliot Heald who confirmed Winfrey's comments.
"I couldn't believe it. Oprah was getting syndicated and Jane Pauley had become a very big deal. I told Don, 'I must have been the cheapest!'"
For the past 25 years, Winfrey has teased Pearson mercilessly about "getting my job" each time the two meet. To this day, Pearson still can't understand it. Laughing, Pearson said: "Can we be honest here? Can we be real honest here?! She's Oprah. Now I think, 'What if I hadn't gotten this job? Would I be Oprah? Would I be Jane Pauley?' Would I have liked to have been Oprah? Probably not, because I've got some crazy relatives who would have come out of the woodwork too! I wouldn't want to have to go through what she's been through to have that kind of fame. God puts you where he wants you. I'm just grateful that our paths have crossed in such a unique way and that we've both had outstanding careers. I wouldn't trade my life in this city for anything."