A 71/2-hour game of trivial pursuit
We’ve heard it for decades: We’re drowning in local television news shows that are obsessed with crime and celebrity, the visual and the visceral. When a Washington-based news-media think tank released its annual “grades” of local TV news in 17 cities earlier this month, it gave each of Southern California’s three network affiliates low Cs for their 11 p.m. newscasts. The Project for Excellence in Journalism criticized the stations for relying too heavily on crime stories, failing to do sufficient numbers of “enterprise” stories that went beyond daily events and lacking a commitment to their communities.
But what does a “low C” look like on your screen?
In a decidedly unscientific attempt to answer that question, I sat down with my remote control on the same day the grades were released and watched local news from 4 to 11:30 p.m.,I surfed the three English-language network affiliates and the four VHF independent stations. What follows is a microcosmic portrait of what we watch, and what TV journalism in L.A. has become: a world in which the mundane news of the day is punctuated with bizarre trivia, misleading promos and, November being a “sweeps” period, a dose of gimmickry.
(KABC-TV Channel 7, KCAL-TV Channel 9)
Rain has begun falling in Northern California and as far south as Santa Barbara. This is a big story. Not because L.A. is going to get particularly wet -- forecasts call for intermittent soaking rains of perhaps one-half to three-quarters of an inch of rain a day during the next two days, a normal occurrence. No, this is a big story because it gives the stations an opportunity to showcase their equipment and troop deployment.
“Using every bit of technology at our disposal,” promises Eyewitness News co-anchor Marc Brown early into KABC’s 4 p.m. broadcast. “Two helicopters, Doppler 7000 radar"-- and weatherman Dallas Raines.
Raines, strikingly handsome in a dark suit, appears in front of a video-game-like rear projection that fills the screen. He crouches athletically so he can gesture toward the South Bay lower on the map. Colored blotches show approaching rain.
“We want to zoom in closely because we can do this with Live Doppler 7000,” the “real-time” weather system the station introduced early this year, Raines says. “What’s gonna happen over the next several days?” More rain tonight and tomorrow. Details later. It is the tease, long the basic staple of TV news, designed to get you to keep watching until at least the end. The weather can be made into an even bigger story because it is the first significant moisture of the year and takes place against the backdrop of major summer brush fires. Heavy rains could mean mudslides. The stations show fire fighters filling sandbags, campers bemoaning their ruined vacations and CHP officers warning people to drive slowly.
Both KABC and KCAL move from rain to a sexual attack in Long Beach, which may be the latest in a years-long string of assaults by a serial rapist. KCAL does a troubling story about a darkly dressed man with a high-powered rifle firing three-dozen shots from the roof of a school in Rosemead. It takes a full minute before reporter Jay Jackson explains that (a) this occurred in the middle of the night and (b) nobody was hurt.
4:10: KABC does its first tease for the 4:30 newscast, hyping an interview with celebrity-taunting comedian Kathy Griffin, who is performing locally. (“Her routine is the hottest ticket in town!” says co-anchor Brown.)
4:15: KABC does a minute-long story on guilty pleas by four members of the Symbionese Liberation Army in a 1975 murder in a Sacramento-area bank.
4:22: Another KABC tease for the Kathy Griffin interview. (“She’s got a quick wit and a sharp tongue!” says co-anchor Michelle Tuzee. )
4:25: KABC reports that singer Bobby Brown, whose career has withered but who still qualifies as a celebrity since he is married to R&B; diva Whitney Houston, has been arrested in Atlanta.
4:26: A third Kathy Griffin teaser ("...the redhead with the blue humor,” promises the interviewer, entertainment “guru” George Pennacchio).
KCAL ends its half-hour with the story of a Kentucky woman who finds, and returns, a $30,000 diamond to its rightful owner. The station then closes until 8 p.m., advising viewers to switch to KCBS-TV, which merged its news operations with KCAL this summer. This used to be unthinkable until the government changed the rules to allow a single company to own two stations in the same city. With that relaxation of federal regulations in 1999, this merger--along with News Corp.'s ownership of KTTV-TV Channel 11 and KCOP-TV Channel 13 -- was permitted.
4:32: In the wake of the Winona Ryder shoplifting verdict, KABC shows the first pictures of the stolen clothes. The report includes an interview with a law professor about whether Ryder was prosecuted properly (19 seconds) and an interview with an entrepreneur selling “Free Winona” shirts (42 seconds).
4:37: KABC runs its three-minute interview with Kathy Griffin, showing clips of her onstage jibes. “It’s not that you want to [pick on the pretensions of celebrities],” Pennacchio suggests helpfully during his interview, “it’s that you have to....”
4:40: KABC teases a story on “new hope for people suffering from multiple sclerosis.” In fact, the story will merely note that pregnancy can temporarily ease the symptoms, and that researchers would like to develop a drug that mimics that effect.
4:46: KCBS has “breaking news” from its helicopter reporter over Malibu: a three-car collision, one injured.
4:52: At KABC, Dallas Raines is again standing in front of the weather map, boasting: “Live Doppler is so powerful we can go right down to your neighborhood.” He stretches east. “Take a look at this, La Puente. How’re you doing? We’ve got some light rain, South Hacienda Boulevard along the 60 Freeway.”
KABC reporter Henry Alfaro does the weekly “Cool Kid” feature on an honors student who tutors younger students.
5 -- 6:30 p.m.
(KABC, KCBS, KNBC-TV Channel 4)
For the first time, the three network affiliates go head to head, reporting the same limited mix of stories: the Long Beach sex assault, the Rosemead school sniper, the attempted jailhouse suicide of Jewish Defense League leader Irv Rubin, the closed-door meeting between L.A.'s new police chief and African American leaders, the photos of the Ryder shoplifting evidence, the SLA plea, the first arrests in an Indonesia terrorist bombing, the government’s decision to try the D.C. sniper suspects in Virginia, the Bobby Brown arrest, the injury-free belly landing of a small plane in Georgia. And, of course, the rain, still barely falling in L.A. but receiving several times more coverage than any other story, despite the meager impact.
TV reporters are dispatched from Santa Barbara to Malibu to Glendora to the Inland Empire to Mammoth to report and speculate on the consequences of a normal November rainfall.
At KNBC, co-anchor Paul Moyer will on numerous occasions warn about the slickness of roads during the first rainfall. During the opening moments of the 5 p.m. broadcast, Moyer observes: “Santa Barbara usually gets hit the hardest and first and, by golly, that’s what’s happening right now. We can report it’s raining in Santa Barbara.”
5:14: Moyer introduces reporter Laurel Erickson’s story about child prostitution in Hollywood. This is, he intones, “a crisis that might even put your child at risk.” The report turns out to be a feature on Children of the Night, which works with runaways usually drawn to L.A. from other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, KABC runs a commercial touting Live Doppler 7000: “Everyone else’s weather is just old news.”
5:24: KABC’s Raines proclaims, “We’re zooming in right now, near Agoura,” while KCBS is running its “Health Beat” segment about “Sex and the City” co-star Kim Cattrall’s support of a program to keep tabs on pets during disasters. A minute later KNBC runs its Bobby Brown story, including his comments, and tells viewers they can get more if they tune into “Access Hollywood” at 7:30 p.m.
5:28: KABC reports that the arrest of a suspect in the sexual assault of a teenage girl is being credited to a new state law that required a DNA sample when the suspect was incarcerated.
5:32: Most stations ignore politics, but KCBS runs Linda Breakstone’s 1:50 report on onetime L.A. mayoral candidate Anthony Villaraigosa’s announcement he’ll run for City Council, and the “carpetbagger” charges that accompany it.
5:33: KNBC’s weatherman, Fritz Coleman, announces “real-time” rainfall data from Ventura County: in Thousand Oaks, .02 inches.
5:35: KNBC co-anchor Chuck Henry teases a story about “the link between this restaurant” -- a McDonald’s -- “and exploding razors.” When the actual story is broadcast 18 minutes later, the restaurant will turn out to be in Brunswick, N.Y., and involve a razor found in a restroom.
A few minutes later, KNBC covers a high school walkout in Southwest Los Angeles to protest class schedules and the state’s “exit exam.” It lasts 23 seconds.
At 5:46 and then again at 6:08, KNBC teases a story about frantic 911 calls in a recent huge freeway pileup, promising to tell why many calls were not answered. When the actual story is broadcast at 6:11, the reason will turn out to be the volume of calls.
5:48: KCBS co-anchor Harold Greene teases tonight’s 11 p.m. expose on handicapped-parking fraud by students at UCLA. Some of the stations’ most audacious enterprise reporting tends to be programmed during these sweep periods, in which ratings determine future advertising rates. This afternoon’s tease footage includes a UCLA student making an obscene finger gesture at a reporter. “No, UCLA isn’t really No. 1, son,” Greene says disapprovingly. “We’ll have more on this tonight.”
6:00: The rain will not cooperate with the foreboding tone of tonight’s weather coverage. “It’s really a pretty pleasant rain unless you have to drive in it,” reports KABC Air 7’s Scott Reiff.
6:01: On KNBC, Coleman updates “real-time” rain data. Thousand Oaks now has .03 inches, a gain of .01 inches in 26 minutes.
6:15: KNBC’s “For Your Money” is a three-minute report on buying affordable wine, followed by a tease to the station’s key 11 p.m. story: an unnamed fish (escolar) that is making some people ill. “What is this mystery on the menu?” the station asks. The story will be teased again in nine minutes.
There is no local news from 6:30 to 8 p.m., and only one newscast until 10 p.m.
Perhaps because KCAL has the turf to itself, it can afford to offer more dignified, meat-and-potatoes journalism during the following two hours. Most of the stories the other stations have covered are presented, but so is a 3:10 spot on the impact of Tuesday’s Republican mid-term-election victories by KCAL’s veteran political reporter, Dave Bryan.
Bryan’s story leads the 9 p.m. hour and is followed with the evening’s only real “breaking” news -- a Corona policeman shot by a suspected parole violator.
9:05: KCAL runs the day’s best piece on the guilty pleas of four ex-SLA members, which is about as long as KNBC’s piece on affordable wine.
9:35: KCAL runs the KCBS Villaraigosa story.
(KCAL, KTLA-TV Channel 5, KTTV Channel 11)
The three independent stations shift between rain and the Corona shooting. KTLA (owned by Tribune Co., which also owns the Los Angeles Times) carries an “exclusive” Warren Wilson interview with a mother who hopes her son, a murder suspect, will surrender. KCAL runs its much-teased special on legislation to curb telemarketing. KTTV runs six minutes on a woman believed to have been murdered for testifying against a drug dealer.
Three times -- at 10:41, 10:49 and 10:52 -- longtime KTLA anchor Hal Fishman teases a 10:55 story on a cat-trick contest won by a cat who can drink from a water cooler. “A pretty cool cat,” Fishman concludes.
(KABC, KCBS, KNBC, KCOP-TV Channel 13)
The longest and arguably the best story of the day -- replete with outrage and confrontation -- is KCBS’ handicapped parking expose. It airs at 11:07. “They arrive without crutches or wheelchairs ... convenience without conscience,” reporter Randy Paige begins. He confronts students who use expired or borrowed “handicapped” placards or fake injuries to get them. Then, after four minutes, Paige teases his own story, promising a hidden-camera look at a crooked chiropractor -- five minutes from now.
The second segment, which runs another four minutes, features hidden-camera conversations between a KCBS producer who is diagnosed with back problems by the chiropractor despite no apparent disability. The spot ends with an on-camera, “60 Minutes"-style ambush interview at a restaurant.
Meanwhile, KCOP probes the sexual exploitation of children in Tijuana and reports on how making love is more sensual with an article of clothing left on. KCBS reports about crack cocaine sales in Hollywood and includes a pledge by new Police Chief Bill Bratton to clean it up. KNBC runs its escolar expose (Japan has banned it, the U.S. hasn’t).
At 11:29, KABC’s Dallas Raines offers this: “I think by tomorrow morning, most of the streets will be wet in Southern California.”