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HOWARD ROSENBERG

News: Lots Of Stuffing, Little Meat

November 26, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

No Thanksgiving is complete without TV turkeys.

KNBC Channel 4 and KABC Channel 7 qualify as whoppers for using their newscasts to promote entertainment programs during the high-stakes November ratings period.

So much for integrity. So much for titles. At the very least, these stations should stop calling their 11 p.m. programs newscasts. On the contrary, they're half-hour shill games.

Who's in charge, journalists or hucksters?

There was a time when Channel 4 was above this kind of news slumming. But no longer. On Nov. 17, for example, Channel 4 keyed part of its 11 p.m. newscast to "Kate's Secret," that night's earlier NBC movie about a woman with a serious eating disorder known as bulimia.

It was a tossup as to which disorder was worse that night, eating or newscasting.

The result was classic, the typical no-depth 11 p.m. story: fleeting sound bites from a couple of local bulimia victims followed by a help-line number. Informative? Hardly. Self-serving? Very.

This paltry micro-reporting was enough of a tie-in with "Kate's Secret" that Channel 4 anchorman Keith Morrison could tout the local bulimia interviews on a local cut-in during the movie. Hence, viewers of the movie would be inclined to stay tuned for the Channel 4 news.

More was coming. On Friday, Channel 4 boldly broke the big "L.A. Law" story, the shocker that no other Los Angeles station dared report.

Just as Kelly Lange advertised, it was "a look behind the scenes" of NBC's new drama series about a high-priced law firm. In other words, Channel 4 was doing a story about one of its own programs, one soon to switch time slots and in need of promotion.

Reporter Phil Shuman mercilessly grilled co-executive producer Steven Bochco, who finally fell all apart and confessed that "L.A. Law" was special and worth viewing. "Watch us!" Bochco pleaded in only half-jest.

Watch us is what Channel 4 was saying.

When it comes to brazenness, though, it's Channel 7 that has long been state of the art, flaunting its grubbiness the way a streetwalker flaunts sex.

Channel 7 really outdid itself Sunday night, managing to enlist even memories of the Nazi Holocaust in the cause of ratings.

It hoped to use its 6 p.m. news to promote "Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story"--that evening's ABC movie starring Farrah Fawcett as the pursuer of war criminal Klaus Barbie--and then use the movie to promote the station's 11 p.m. news.

And so it began, the shilling and the blurring of news and entertainment.

The early news featured a portion of a Gary Franklin interview with Fawcett. In local cut-ins during the Klarsfeld movie that followed that evening, moreover, Channel 7 billed its 11 p.m. newscast as headlining more Franklin/Fawcett plus interviews with the real-life Klarsfeld and Simon Wiesenthal, the greatest Nazi hunter of them all.

It sounded almost like news. The merger of movie and newscast was completed.

As things turned out, Klarsfeld's inclusion in the 11 p.m. newscast was barely a blip. She appeared via a 20-second sound bite from ABC's "Good Morning America" where she was interviewed last week by David Hartman (the purpose of that initial Hartman/Klarsfeld interview had also been to promote the Sunday night movie).

Klarsfeld was followed on the newscast by more Franklin/Fawcett, during which the scorching Franklin disclosed that Fawcett "strikes me as one of those people I have respect for."

Having dispensed with Fawcett, Franklin then promoted his regular stint on KABC radio: "I'll see you in the morning on Ken and Bob."

Then came weather. Then came sports. Then, finally, came the advertised Wiesenthal, facing questions from Channel 7's resident shrink, Dr. William Rader. The interview wasn't exactly new.

It was taped in 1981.

Channel 7 could argue correctly that Wiesenthal's thoughts on Nazis are timeless. But viewers could argue that they were had, that they'd been led to believe before 11 p.m. that the Wiesenthal interview was current. They could argue also that much of this newscast was merely a cynical attempt to exploit the Holocaust for ratings.

The Wiesenthal interview was tagged with grisly footage of bones and those pitiful walking dead who survived the death camps. Then, live in the studio, Rader said, "You can't improve life without respecting life." Then anchorman Harold Greene added, "Never again," something he said glibly the way one says, "Beat the Celtics."

Then Greene reminded viewers of his own weeklong series on "how you can find fame and fortune on a game show." And someone mentioned Rader's five-part series probing why people shop a lot.

The larger question is why people watch such mind-mushing drivel and why other people can stand to put it out. Do they feel good at Channel 7 after a newscast that trivializes the very Holocaust victims they purport to honor? Do they give each other thumbs-up to signify victory? If so, victory over what? Intelligence? Honesty?

Game shows, shoppers, Holocausts. After a while, they all run together and become indistinguishable.

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