Newscasts Tooting Their Own Horns--There Ought to Be a Law


All the news that’s fit to air?

Shame on KABC-TV Channel 7 and KNBC Channel 4--one for reporting non-news, the other for non-reporting.

Through the years, Channel 7 has taken a back seat to no Los Angeles TV station when it comes to blatantly using its news programs to promote its entertainment programs, especially in such ratings sweeps months as May.

Tradition was again served Sunday when Channel 7 carved out a chunk of its 6 p.m. newscast for a purported story on “Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure,” that night’s movie on ABC.


Actually, it was less a story than an outright promotion that featured excerpts from the movie and interviews with some of the stars, including Pat Hingle, who promised viewers that Jessica’s was a terrific story. Hold the presses for that objective critique.

Channel 7 later followed through with the second half of the equation by also using its 6 p.m. newscast to advertise interviews with Jessica’s parents and a feature on the making of “Everybody’s Baby”--all scheduled for its 11 p.m. newscast following the movie.

Newscast plus movie plus newscast equals ratings: You use your newscast to advertise your movie and your movie to advertise your newscast. Very cute.

And very cynical.

That same night, meanwhile, Channel 4 ran an extensive story on the local Emmys-- its local Emmys.

Channel 4 did lead the pack, picking up 13 awards. Among the awards that it omitted reporting, however, was the most coveted one of all, the one that KCBS-TV Channel 2 won for the best regularly scheduled local newscast.

In this case, however, Channel 4 does earn the award for dishonest, infantile reporting.

That Channel 2 ranks third in the local news ratings--despite being ranked first in local news by the Emmy voters--is not surprising. TV news continues as a celebrity medium, primarily living or dying by its news faces, not by its news coverage. Channel 4 rose to No. 1 in news ratings by rising to No. 1 in news entertainment.

Not that Channel 2 doesn’t also play the news faces game, only that its news faces are not winning the popularity contest.


Maybe May Co. senses the profitability of popular news faces--witness its print ad campaign featuring the beaming faces of Channel 4 anchors, so far including John Beard, Kelly Lange, Linda Alvarez, Kent Shocknek and Carla Aragon. The anchors peer at readers from TV sets. They aren’t named, but May Co. seems to be counting on their familiar faces needing no identification.

A Channel 4 spokeswoman insisted that the ad does not imply an endorsement of May Co. She called the ad a “reciprocal promotional arrangement.”

Also very cute and cynical. TV anchors are used to sell TV sets and VCRs, and in return, Channel 4 and its anchors use May Co. to advertise themselves. News personnel, in effect, becoming commercial spokespersons? That’s always been an unwritten no-no.

Because there is no law against tackiness, the anchors are doing nothing illegal. If they want to allow their news reputations to be tied to product advertisements, that’s between them and their employer.

Well, you expect tackiness from some quarters. You don’t expect it from anything involving Linda Ellerbee, one of the most genuine and genuinely likable people in the communications business.

Ellerbee also is one of the brightest, funniest, most distinctive talents anywhere, electronic or print. Her commentaries on CNN are incisive, wittily irreverent and acutely on target.


Her commentaries you look forward to. Her coffee commercials you don’t.

That’s right. Among her multiple endeavors, Ellerbee is now also starring in commercials for Maxwell House coffee, paired in part with Mr. Dignity himself, Willard Scott of NBC’s “Today” program.

Ellerbee is in that gray area occupied by quasi-journalists still thought of as full-time journalists and consulted about journalistic issues. No longer regularly employed by a news organization (as she once was by NBC and ABC), however, she’s ethically free to do what she wants.

The problem is one of form. The problem is that Ellerbee doing a commercial here sounds a great deal like Ellerbee doing a commentary (a la Paul Harvey juxtaposing the two on radio). And when commercial and commentary run in reasonably close proximity on CNN--as they sometimes do--there’s real potential for confusion.

Not by accident, surely, for Maxwell House is no dummy. It didn’t hire Ellerbee hoping she would be mistaken for Mrs. Olson. On the contrary, it hoped her credibility as a journalist/social commentator would rub off on its product.

Reached in New York, Ellerbee was in a fighting mood, accusing her critics of “arrogance” in assuming that only they among viewers can distinguish between Ellerbee the journalist and Ellerbee the commercial spokesperson.

Maxwell House had wanted to shoot the spots in a news setting, and only at her insistance did the company agree to switch to a set meant to resemble a talk show, Ellerbee said. “I’ve never done news on a set that looks like that,” she said. “I guess I should have sat in a truck.”


Ellerbee said she signed with Maxwell House “for money. And it’s worked out so well,” she added, defiantly, “that I’ve just signed a long-term contract with the Khmer Rouge.” The cosmetics people?

News anchors, at least, have been seen as living, breathing, huffing celebrity advertisements for years: advertisements for the newscasts they front.

The point is proved by Randy Reiss, executive vice president of the Walt Disney Studios, which is considering turning its recently acquired KHJ-TV Channel 9 into an all-news station in prime time. That could make it a bright light.

But around whom will an expanded Channel 9 news be built?

Disney first thinks about hiring reporters, producers, editors, directors and other editorial personnel, right?

Wrong! Disney first thinks about hiring anchors, those camera-tailored swells who have the least to do with shaping newscasts, but--judging by their salaries--the most to do with shaping ratings.

Disney officials have been meeting with Channel 7 superanchor Jerry Dunphy and former Channel 7 anchor star Christine Lund, Reiss said recently. “You have to have the talent to staff those shows,” he said.


The light dims.