If you are fed up with your local late evening television news, it could be because most of the half hour is taken up with ads, weather, sports and street crime stories — with the latter frequently leading the news once, twice, thrice and sometimes four segments in a row. That practice, by the way, is called “if it bleeds, it leads; if it thinks, it stinks.”
Now, remember that the television station tells you it is the late evening NEWS, not the late evening entertainment program, nor the late evening titillation program or the late evening trivialization, chit-chat program. All that material comes later on the nationally syndicated late night shows.
How much news do you get in that thirty minute time period? Once you take out commercials, averaging 10 minutes, then 8 minutes of sports and weather, then the police blotter with sirens, there isn’t much time left to report on what was going on in the community. Citizen activity, other than mayhem, business, labor, education, the arts, elections, the local and state governments are low priorities. The Los Angeles TV stations, still on O.J. Simpson overdoes, virtually ignored coverage of the Mayor’s race.
Now comes hard information that you can use to call your TV station manager and express a higher viewer expectation of what these profitable television companies should be doing with your property — the public airwaves. Or call your local newspaper’s television commentator.
The Rocky Mountain Media Watch (RMMW) is at your service (P.O. Box 18858, Denver, CO 80218) with their regular reports on local TV news content. Founded by Dr. Paul Klite, a former professor of medicine, practicing physician and radio producer, RMMW is dedicated “to challenging the diet of violence, sensation, fluff and commercialism in the media.”
Helped by volunteers around the country who can tape some 200 stations’ local TV news, Klite and his vigorous associates are able to document for people the excess in the stations’ focus on superficial coverage of street crime and disasters, while ignoring corporate crime and other activities in your city.
RMMW has published a report called “Pavlov’s TV Dogs” which defines yardsticks for Mayhem and Fluff and offers a Pavlov Index, “a measure to quantify the use of highly emotional content as an audience preparation mechanism for the benefit of advertisers.”
One prominent television executive told New York Times columnist, Max Frankel, that these programs are not “news.” They are “spot deliverers” or low cost noisemakers to attract the largest possible audience for the advertisers.
TV local news is the cash cow for most stations. The stations have the formula — it is easy and cheap to produce -and the other competing stations use the same formula. Their best investigative stories are reserved for “sweeps” — usually two or three months a year when the ratings are measured for how much they can charge their advertisers.
When I asked one television station manager why, if the best reports about consumer ripoffs, government and business misbehavior are good enough for sweeps to attract audience, they are not done throughout the year. The answer was: “money”. It cost money, camera crews, reporters and those expenses reduce some of the annually booming profits of the television stations and their networks.
Sound bite, body bag journalism, as some critics call local television news, has its share of caricature. For example, consider the time dedicated to the weather, starting thousands of miles from where you live. Stations are now advertising their weather reporters and their latest doppler radar equipment.
With the teases, chitchat and remote weather coverage, three minutes can go by before you get what you are interested in — the weather in your area. Valuable time wasted that could be used to cover your community’s important issues, including how citizens are trying to make it better.
Add to all this, the pressure by supermarket chains, car dealers and realtors to go slow on their critical stories — or else — one can understand how the news division of the stations come to resent the censorious inferences conveyed to them by their advertising divisions. It is so much easier to use canned material, fluff or street crimes and police sirens — if not local then brought in from afar by satellite.
Get in touch with Dr. Paul Klite and share his enthusiasm that viewers can change this decaying situation using facts, shame and citizen agitation. His phone number is (303) 832-7558.