Is it an old rerun of “CHiPS” or is it TV news? Lately, it’s been hard to tell.
Car chases on the streets and freeways of Southern California, televised live via helicopters, have become the latest fad to sweep the newsrooms of local TV stations. In the last two months, four police pursuits have prompted nearly all the local stations to blow out good portions of their regular newscasts or to interrupt entertainment programming to broadcast what several news directors agree is a “good show.”
During one recent chase, six channels--every local VHF station except KTTV Channel 11--was on the air with its own helicopter pictures of a yellow cab weaving through freeway traffic with several California Highway Patrol units close behind. Last week, KCBS Channel 2, KNBC Channel 4, KABC Channel 7 and KCOP Channel 13 all scrambled their helicopters and went live with a border patrol chase of a shiny green pickup.
Exciting stuff? Sure.
But are these chases really news events--events worthy of the kind of urgent treatment generally reserved for floods, earthquakes and the Rodney King beating trial?
It depends on whom you ask.
“Any time you have a car driving down the highway at excessive speeds, endangering the lives of other drivers, perhaps armed, that’s a story and we are going to cover it,” said Nancy Valenta, news director at Channel 4.
“There really is no big deal about these chases,” said Bob Tur, who reports from his helicopter on news events for Channel 13 and KNX-AM (1070). “I have covered 170 police pursuits over the years I’ve been flying. The only difference is that now they’re putting them on live.”
“If you look at the kind of thing a car chase represents--something going on right now, something people out on the freeway are seeing, cars whizzing by, something that reflects the safety of people in the Southland--all those things pass the test of the kinds of things we want to cover,” said John Lippman, news director at Channel 2.
“In an ideal news program that tries to cover the world in which we live, live coverage of car chases would be ludicrous,” said Joe Saltzman, an Emmy-winning TV journalist and professor of broadcast journalism at USC. But Saltzman added that compared to the “flimflam and trivia” that make up the bulk of what passes for local TV news today, an event like a car chase might be considered an improvement.
“Are (car chases) important stories? Of course not,” he said. “But it isn’t like the car chase is creating a situation in which important news stories are being squeezed out. Television news is not covering them anyway.”
The Highway Patrol says that despite TV news’ newfound fondness for them, police pursuits are everyday occurrences.
“It’s nothing out of the ordinary,” said CHP Public Affairs Officer Mark Lunn. “It’s business as usual, but it’s dang good television. It makes for a good watch. They will continue to do it until it gets old and then they will probably move on to something else.”
A quick survey of about a dozen local TV news directors and current and former reporters and producers suggests that three factors converged recently to thrust car chases into the forefront of local TV programming, even though the majority of these pursuits do not warrant a mention in newspapers.
First, the chase on Jan. 3 was a genuine headline grabber.
A man who allegedly killed a good Samaritan in Central California traveled hundreds of miles in a red convertible Volkswagen at high speeds with the Highway Patrol in hot pursuit. At one point the Highway Patrol rammed the car and the driver shot out his own rear window in retaliation. After a chase through Los Angeles city streets and heavy freeway traffic, the car ran out of gas on a freeway off-ramp in Westminster. Highway Patrol officers who slowly approached the car said that the driver moved for his gun and that they shot and killed him.
“It was like an old Wild West shootout live on television,” Tur said. “It graphically showed the dark side of what happens in this city, and we were able to broadcast it live to its tragic conclusion.”
This spectacular chase, which every news person interviewed for this story agreed was a legitimate news event, inflated expectations of TV journalists. How could they decline to cover subsequent chases?
While news directors at Channels 2 and 4 conceded no mistakes in news judgment, Warren Cereghino, news director at KTLA Channel 5, and Jeff Wald, news director at KCOP, both said that the third and fourth chases, both of which ended rather uneventfully, probably did not deserve such TV attention.
The second factor, the Highway Patrol’s Lunn and several journalists said, is that the last three chases all occurred during the February ratings sweeps, when the competition is unusually intense and local newscasts are crammed with attention-getting stunts. No matter their news value or what other stories they might supplant in a newscast, chases are practically tailor-made for such times, said Irwin Safchik, a former KNBC news director.
Third, and perhaps most important, is what Cereghino calls “the live interrupt syndrome” that has overtaken the local news business. With the three network-owned stations and four independents all making substantial financial commitments to news, no other market in the country is as competitive as Los Angeles. In order to stand out, stations are using the technological ability to interrupt their regular programming, once reserved for something catastrophic, as often as possible in a high-stakes TV game of chicken.
“Stations are breaking in like this to show your audience that you are on top of things,” Cereghino said. “To show how good you are, that you are out there covering everything that happens and you can only see it here. All we hear in the newsroom is, ‘Who else is on with it? What have they got? Why can’t we get on before them?’ The temptation is too strong not to give in to it.
“I remember a chase in the early ‘70s where a bull had escaped from a railroad yard and he was chugging up the L.A. River with all these black-and-whites in pursuit,” Cereghino said. “It was marvelous. You had this wonderful animal seeking his freedom versus a society trying to contain him. Every time the police would get close, the bull would vault over the car. It went on and on and no one put it on live back then. Today, every single station would almost have to put that on air.”
Wald agreed that the pressure of competition plays a role in these live stories, saying that covering a chase as it happens tells viewers that his station is the place to turn to whenever any news event breaks. If a station decides not to cover an incident that is available on another station, that viewer’s trust could be jeopardized, he said.
“It’s one way to build a reputation,” Wald said. “But obviously it can turn against you if you break in live and you’re just crying wolf and the story is not worth it. I still think that a car chase on the freeway is affecting a lot of people and is significant, but probably from now on this fad will be judged a little more on a case-by-case basis.”
Bob Henry, news director at KCAL Channel 9, said that his station, which televised the first two chases but not the last two, does decide “on a case-by-case basis. If it is a chase covering hundreds of miles, if the driver is suspected of murder or some other serious crime and is firing at police, if it is unusual, then KCAL will cover it.”
Several news directors justified their decision to cover the chases by saying that while the pursuit might end uneventfully, they can’t know that while it is in progress. To skip one that ultimately ends in an accident or gun battle would mean missing a real news event. All insisted, however, that they never put a chase on the air with the expectation or hope that it will end in “conflagration, death or destruction.”
“You can’t blame them for putting them on,” said Dan Gingold, a former executive producer at Channel 2 and an assistant professor of broadcast journalism at USC. “Everyone has a helicopter up in the air. It’s like all these hawks circling. Is it news? Probably not. But it could become news. The opportunity is so rare for a news operation to look as if they are covering breaking events. Because they have the technology, they are waiting with bated breath to use it.”
And the public seems to loves it. Wald said that during the first chase, which went on for several hours, he decided to return to regular programming. KCOP was immediately deluged with calls insisting that it dump “Matlock” and return to the pursuit.