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L.A.'S MOST VISIBLE Office Romance : When TV news co-anchors Jim Lampley and Bree Walker became a team off the air as well as on, tongues started wagging. What's it like to conduct a romance when so many people are watching?

March 16, 1990|NIKKI FINKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When they arrived arm-in-arm at the Los Angeles Area Emmy Awards last May 20, a buzz swept through the startled crowd. Many people gawked. At least one man dropped his cocktail.

The worst-kept secret in local TV news was now out in public. With a simple show of togetherness, KCBS-TV co-anchors Bree Walker and Jim Lampley confirmed what their colleagues had been whispering for months: that while married to other people, the pair had become L.A.'s most visible office romance.

By all accounts, it started as a typical office affair: subtle and secret, sweet but sad, and, sometimes, scandalous. And, always, stuff for the in-house gossip mill. They held hands in empty hallways, stole kisses in the parking lot and fell in love.

What was different was that these were high-salaried TV personalities who worked side by side. Eventually, details of the affair spread throughout Southern California, and beyond. As anchors for the 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts in the nation's second biggest TV news market--and the most competitive--Walker, 36, and Lampley, 40, couldn't brush hands without gossip columnists reporting it, or without at least one letter to the editor complaining they were acting "like a couple of lovesick teen-agers."

And then last Oct. 30, KCBS took the unusual step of acknowledging the office romance in a terse press release: "KCBS-TV is pleased to announce that 'Action News' anchors Bree Walker and Jim Lampley will be married in April, 1990. No interviews will be granted."

What the press release didn't say was that the pair weren't yet divorced from their respective spouses.

Severing their 10-year marriages wasn't easy, given the three children, anchor-size salaries and emotions at stake. As recently as last Sunday, Lampley burst into tears when asked about the surprise 40th birthday party his wife threw him last spring, the family portrait she commissioned for him, and the 520 roses she sent him, one for every week of their marriage, in an apparent bid to get him back.

Now that Lampley's and Walker's divorces are final (his came through in January, hers in February), the couple plan a very private wedding April 7 at an Orange County resort hotel.

What effect, if any, will their marriage have on their newscasts' flat ratings? Married anchors are a rarity; married anchors who fall in love on air rarer still. Sure, local TV stations across the country spend millions creating the image that their news teams get along. But what happens when that on-air happy talk turns to real-life pillow talk? Will viewers start watching the "Action News" anchors or the action between the news anchors?

And, for that matter, how accountable are TV news stars to the public? Should they be regarded as role models, like professional athletes and elected politicians? Of course, their rewards are big, but so are the burdens. Consider the headlines about Liz Walker, the Boston anchorwoman who quietly had a baby out of wedlock. Or Jim Jensen, the New York anchorman who secretly battled addictions to cocaine and Valium. Or Max Robinson, the Chicago TV newsman who died of AIDS-related causes.

Maybe that's why Bree Walker's and Jim Lampley's hands are so tightly entwined as they talk for the first time about the relationship they say is "bigger than any job."

"What happened between us was so powerful, and had such a life of its own, that we recognized there would be no turning back," says Lampley, his voice trembling with nervousness. "But we weren't going to attempt to tailor our behavior from that point forward, according to the professional response of our colleagues. We hoped that people would be supportive--and they have."

"I thought it would certainly be an opportunity for us to find out who our friends were," the cooler Walker notes. "And although it still makes me really uncomfortable to think about people who might disapprove of it, because I'm concerned about that, this was so big that at last my heart took over."

KCBS Vice President and General Manager Robert Highland has denied published reports that management frowned on the Lampley-Walker liaison. And while sources say one "old-fashioned" employee in the newsroom openly disapproved and kept referring to the "adulterers," by all accounts the pair's friends and colleagues at the station seemed to be understanding.

"I didn't view the relationship as scandalous or in bad taste," says former KCBS early morning news anchor Jim Moret. "You have to respect people's private lives, and you have to respect their choices in personal relationships."

When Lampley arrived at KCBS in September, 1987, he was a bona fide TV star. Plucked to cover college football while still a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Lampley had enjoyed a 13-year tenure at ABC Sports as one of the nation's best-known sportscasters. After serving as KCBS sports director for a year, he became news anchor in August, 1988.

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