The hour was late, the rock music was blaring and the Friday night festivities were at full steam at Pinot Hollywood as the guest of honor, newly arrived from the Midwest, made the rounds. As new KCBS anchor Paul Magers mingled with dozens of his colleagues who had gathered, Laura Diaz -- the night's host and Magers' co-anchor -- approached her new partner to see how he was doing.
"He had this big smile on his face and he said, 'The Doors are playing, and I'm in Los Angeles,' " Diaz recalled of that January night. "He said, 'It doesn't get better than this.' "
If the party was loud, Magers' entry into L.A. was not. On Jan. 5, he quietly slipped behind the anchor desk and began putting his imprint on KCBS Channel 2's 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts. With an authoritative demeanor, deep and resonant voice and off-the-cuff sense of humor, Magers is the station's $2-million-plus gamble.
In a landscape that stretches from Hal Fishman's professorial sensibility to Paul Moyer's polished-casual style to Marc Brown's personable approach, Magers has been tough to pigeonhole.
Just two months into the job, the 49-year-old Magers already seems at ease with his co-anchor. But the TV news veteran is still feeling his way and hasn't yet had the opportunity to show many of the qualities that made him the star KCBS chose to build its future around. Once he hits his stride, though, the station is counting on him to work the kind of ratings magic that he did in Minneapolis, where he helped turn KARE into the city's top-rated station and was dubbed the "anchor god" by C.J., a Minneapolis Star Tribune gossip columnist who featured his name frequently.
He has his work cut out for him in L.A.'s highly competitive local news scene, where seven English-language stations offer news and where winning a few ratings points can translate into millions of advertising dollars. In the critical 11 p.m. spot, which remains the most lucrative slot for news, KCBS is No. 3, averaging more than 221,490 households -- far less than No. 1-ranked KNBC with 388,958 households.
Magers' hire is part of a larger strategy by CBS' corporate parent, Viacom Inc., which is on a spending spree to beef up the local news operations at its affiliates around the country. Although CBS is the country's most-watched network in prime time and during the day, its local news affiliates in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- the top three TV markets -- have generally trailed their competitors in the ratings. And "Late Show with David Letterman's" camp has made no secret that it wants better lead-ins. During the past year and a half, in addition to Los Angeles, new anchor teams have been set up at Viacom-owned stations in Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami and Denver.
In Minneapolis, Magers was a popular anchor who drew mostly good notices during his 20-year run, excelling at two very distinct skills: handling breaking news coverage and making people laugh. He made his name in the Twin Cities for the first time in 1985, when a tornado hit and Magers anchored the newscast, said Jeff Passolt, an anchor at Fox affiliate KMSP who worked with Magers at KARE from 1983 to 1994. That day the station's helicopter happened to be testing a new gyroscope lens.
"The chopper decided to stay in the air and Paul was out there live on the set voicing over the pictures and talking to the pilot," Passolt said. "It was the kind of TV that everybody was talking about the next day and beyond. That's where Paul really shines: the live TV stuff, election night and live on the scene."
In 2002, Magers earned national praise when he moderated the political debate on CNN between Walter Mondale and Norm Coleman in the Senate race to replace the late Paul Wellstone. "He kept it moving and lively and just did a terrific job," said Diana Pierce, who co-anchored the news during Magers' tenure at KARE. "He loves politics and elections coverage. He eats, breathes and sleeps it."
Meanwhile, his penchant for colorful, stylish suits, his $1.8-million estate in the city's Lake of Isles neighborhood (made famous by the opening sequence in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), and his wife, Kathryn, who was active on the charity circuit, helped make him a regular feature in the Twin Cities' newspapers.
Over the years, Magers occasionally filled in as news anchor on NBC's "Weekend Today." He doesn't appear to be on the CBS News anchor track, which historically has required extensive reporting experience, according to sources at the network. Still, Magers has characteristics that have already established him as one of CBS' top local anchors, said Dennis Swanson, chief operating officer of Viacom's Television Stations Group.