Blinded by the Smoke : Television: Some viewers are upset about there being so much fire coverage, proving once again that you can’t please some of the people any of the time.

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There are some tough critics out there.

About a dozen calls were made to me Wednesday and Thursday complaining--bitterly--about television coverage of the fires that have roared across vast sections of Southern California this week.

What they said was . . . boggling. Call it a case of smoke getting in their eyes.

One woman wanted to know why Bosnia wasn’t getting the same level of coverage. More typical was the woman who called Wednesday’s live coverage--which preempted regular programming on a spate of stations--”a terrible disservice to the community.”

Come again? It’s a disservice when your first priority is to drop everything and cover fires so savage and devastating that Gov. Pete Wilson declared most of Southern California was in a state of emergency?


Exactly, the caller said. “Pyromaniacs and arsonists are excited by fire,” she said. “Showing it all just makes things worse.”

Ah, yes, the copycat argument: Putting a fire on the screen motivates the nuts among us to start fires themselves; television is creating the story it’s covering.

Yes, well, there’s no denying TV’s tradition of blowing things out of proportion though gratuitous coverage, whether of crimes or natural disasters. All too often it’s the footage--not the news component--that drives the story, turning non-events into overblown events.

But please. If ever an event demanded all-out coverage, with stations stretching their resources to the limit at significant financial loss, this was it. They should be saluted, not slammed for it.

The media should habitually examine the consequences of their actions. They don’t do it enough. But letting fear of copycat arsonists dictate coverage of a story like this would make no sense at all. It’s just too big.

We can’t blame TV for everything.


Meanwhile, local TV was at it again Thursday morning, with KNBC-TV Channel 4 going the furthest in extending its coverage of the smoldering landscape and damaged lives through the morning. Not too far behind were KTTV-TV Channel 11 and KABC-TV Channel 7, which preempted ABC’s “Good Morning America” for its own fire-reporting effort.

Continuing his yeoman duty in Laguna Beach was Channel 7’s Joe McMahan, commenting on--but never harassing--a woman who was wandering silently through the ruins of her house. Monitored by the camera from a distance of about 20 yards, she paused in front of the fireplace, perhaps freezing in her mind the memories of what had been. Then she moved on.

The lifestyles of the formerly rich.

“Yesterday, the sun came up to a forest of pine trees and eucalyptus trees,” Channel 7 anchor Gene Gleeson observed about decimated Laguna Beach. “Today, it’s a forest of chimneys.”

And media, thank goodness.


Ooooh, ahhhh, ohhhh.

Fire-related sounds? Well, sort of.

Tuesday’s devastating fire in the Thousand Oaks area caused a number of television channels to go out of whack in the region served by Ventura County Cablevision. Included was the channel that, from 3 a.m. to 5 p.m., carries the CNBC network and goodies beamed to TV customers as part of the system’s basic cable package and that, the rest of the time, is scrambled--available only to viewers who pay a separate fee to see the mostly raunchy programming on the Playboy Channel.

That changed when the fire temporarily knocked 14 of Cablevision’s channels off the air Tuesday and also damaged the system’s scrambling equipment. The result--courtesy of this fire-caused technology snafu--was that viewers who were channel hopping at about 9 p.m. may unexpectedly have come across the moaning, groaning “Three Daughters,” a very, very adult flick that the Playboy Channel was running as part of its sensitive and insightful Tuesday night “Erotic Cinema.”


This “bonus” programming reached only homes equipped with a certain type of converter, less than 10% of Ventura County Cablevision’s 90,000 subscribers, said Richard Yellen, the system’s marketing director.

Some of these viewers may have been jolted by this sexually provocative material that ran until 3 a.m. Some may have been pleased. But were any angry?

For a report on the firestorm of protests, back to Yellen. “We only got a few complaints,” he said. Obviously a tribute to the films’ high quality.

Of course, Ventura County Cablevision could have shut down the Playboy Channel on Tuesday, denying access not only to unintended viewers but also to those viewers who pay extra for it. But Yellen said everyone was too preoccupied with the system’s numerous other fire-related problems to think of that. “In the future, that’s what we’ll do,” he said.

As for “Three Daughters,” divulging the plot would not be fair to those who haven’t seen it. Suffice to say that it has a rousing climax.