TV Shows Its Primary Colors

Time to bask, time to strut, time to trumpet one's horn.

An Emmy Award brings not only gleaming prestige, the envy of peers and bragging rights, however, but also scrutiny.

So with all due respect, just how good is "Fox 11 News at 10," the KTTV-TV Channel 11 news that last weekend received a prized Emmy naming it the best daily newscast in Los Angeles longer than 35 minutes?

This good, on the eve of Tuesday's primary in which Californians were to vote on ballot initiatives and candidates in races for governor and other offices expected to shape the state's future for years:

The election got two minutes--a quickie spritz of a story buried so deep in the hour that you needed a Geiger counter to detect it.

If there were any undecided voters in this news audience, they wouldn't be gleaning from Channel 11 anything of substance that would help them make up their minds.

Like most awards in both print and TV, Emmys for entire newscasts are based on samples that may be no more representative than a political candidate's sound bites. "Fox 11 News at 10" was just one of many of this year's news Emmy winners, for example, sharing honors with "Noticias 34 at 11 p.m.," the KMEX program given the Emmy in the shorter than 35 minutes category.

Nor was Channel 11's coverage-lite Monday an exception in a city whose commercial newscasts spent weeks largely snubbing the primary prior to Tuesday night's obligatory reporting of the winners and losers. That pathetic record is symbolic of how TV news priorities have deteriorated through the years and how, through this acquiescence, paid political spots have become a candidate's main entree with members of the electorate who pay little heed to newspapers. And if a candidate lacks the funds to compete on TV? Don't ask.


The news is not all bad, however, for contrast Channel 11's primary election anorexia Monday night with the much meatier performance earlier that evening by KCBS-TV Channel 2 (whose recent campaign reporting has been by far the best among the city's English-speaking commercial stations).

Channel 2 organized its own live gubernatorial forum at 6:30, a televised half-hour of questions put to Republican Dan Lungren and Democrats Jane Harman and Al Checchi by reporter Linda Breakstone, anchors Michael Tuck and Ann Martin and pedestrians videotaped on the street. The third major Democratic contender, Gray Davis, declined to participate, following form for a candidate reported to have been substantially ahead in the polls.

As for Channel 11's priorities, it topped its 10 p.m. newscast with seven consecutive crime stories. Business as usual. Far down the line was its election package, a wee blip that became the newscast's 21st story.

Coming after two commercial breaks.

Coming after the man inadvertently given the cash receipts at a Burger King in Orlando, Fla.

Coming after the girl surviving a gator attack in Lakeland, Fla.

Coming after the man setting an endurance record for walking in a shopping mall.

The two minutes of election coverage--a routine stump story dominated by Davis backing down from his charge that Gov. Pete Wilson promoted anti-Semitism--earned only 40 seconds more than Channel 11 granted a steer running loose in Woodland Hills Sunday night.


However, both the election and runaway animal were blooming documentaries compared with the 15 seconds Channel 11 allotted to a possible shift in the Clinton administration's policy toward India and Pakistan in the wake of their recent nuclear testing. A quick read, and that was that.

Perhaps Emmy-winning "Fox 11 News at 10" was just having one of those non-Emmy nights.

Ironically, it was KCOP-TV Channel 13, airing the city's least-watched 10 p.m. newscast, which provided easily the best election coverage during that hour Monday, not only in length (about seven minutes) but also quality. That included some 3 1/2 minutes about the health problems of Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block.

Elsewhere at 10, KTLA-TV Channel 5 found just two minutes of its own for election news, and KCAL-TV Channel 9 added a deeply submerged four minutes, following the slender stories that it ran during its earlier prime-time newscasts.

Among the network-owned stations, only Channel 2 shone much Monday night, although KABC-TV Channel 7's Mark Coogan did give a cogent explanation of Proposition 226 during the station's 4 p.m. newscast. And KNBC-TV Channel 4 led its 11 p.m. newscast with 2 1/2 minutes on the election derived substantially from excerpts of Channel 2's candidate forum earlier that evening.

But the emphasis was typically on the horse race, not the complicated issues voters would be encountering at the ballot box on Tuesday, armed with little from television that would help them make intelligent decisions about the course of their state.

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