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'Tabloid-tv' Aimed At Yuppie Viewers

March 10, 1987|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The headlines are unmistakably brash and tawdry:

"Paper Airplane Flies 37 Miles!"

"Two-Headed Man Sings in Stereo!"

"Pencil Chewers Beware: Tiny Worms Found in Office Workers!"

"Reincarnation Debate Flares: Baby Born With Tattoo!"

"Family Eats Bald Eagle!"

"Moose Inherits Men's Store!"

Who in the world would read such, to put it mildly, nonsense?

Yuppies, otherwise known as young urban professionals, replied John Hawkins, reporter and "advance man" for "Tabloid-TV," the offshoot of a new Hollywood corporation, Entertainment Tabloid News.

Hawkins said he and his 29 colleagues have been paying attention. Marketing surveys, in his words, have documented a drop in the average age of readers of such supermarket bibles as the National Enquirer, the Globe and the Star.

"From 1977 to now, it has gone from 45 to 32," Hawkins said, "and they're mostly yuppies. It used to be only women read tabs. Now men read them, too. Baby boomers use tabloids to escape reality."

Tabloids as trendy, tabloids as chic ? That's what Hawkins and his colleagues think, and two months ago they put their ideas to the test with a video version of a tabloid in a syndicated TV series first shown in Atlanta.

"Tabloid-TV," which is not affiliated with any tabloid newspaper, has spread to 33 markets, including San Diego.

It started Sunday night on KTTY-TV (Channel 69), which has its studios in Chula Vista.

Channel 69 executives are upbeat about "Tabloid-TV," as many TV station executives seem to be.

"We think it's going to be very successful," KTTY President James M. Harmon said. "When it was first proposed, we were not interested. Then we ran a pilot of it here at the station. Everyone looked at it and realized it was really off the wall. It's comedy, satire, a spoof of tabloids. And it's very, very funny.

"It's so far out, I don't see how anyone can take it seriously. The way they handle it, it's not real at all."

Hawkins disagrees, saying his show is not satire, not comedy, but real tabloid news in a video version. These people are, however, great at put-ons. Hawkins usually appears for interviews wearing Groucho glasses and a fake nose, saying, "the reporter must never appear bigger than the product."

The show is getting noticed in other ways. It has been featured on no less than Dan Rather's "CBS Evening News," "Independent Network News" and the BBC national news.

Hawkins said he and his friends, whose backgrounds he mysteriously refuses to disclose, are "having a ball." They enjoy sitting around the news room, chortling over what he calls "the superficial, the shallow--exploitative aspects of news that serious journalists seem to have no stomach for"-- such as "Nude Ghost Haunts TV Station" or "Police Believe Frozen Dog Weapon in Beating Death."

The nude ghost story came from a Denver television station, a network affiliate. Hawkins said a night watchman and "four or five other people" quit, claiming they had seen ghosts.

"They saw several ghosts," Hawkins said, "but who cares about 'several'? Once we heard one was nude, well, that's the one we wanted."

"Tabloid-TV" doesn't really care about truth, he said, and a large disclaimer heralds the opening of each broadcast.

It essentially says, in Hawkins' words: "We are not responsible for truth, accuracy or ethical journalism."

"In the framework of the disclaimer," he said with a churlish grin, "we can say anything we want."

But Hawkins quickly added that "Tabloid-TV" is not a purveyor of the unethical.

"We're very ethical," he said, adding that if a "serious story comes along, we report it immediately to a real news person. We have contacts with all the major newspapers, with CBS, with NBC."

What is such a story?

Well, as an example, he said that if a man came to "Tabloid-TV" claiming that the late President John F. Kennedy were working as his butler, "We would not be inclined to believe it," Hawkins said. "We would probably think the man was crazy. But we would, of course, check it out. If John F. Kennedy were working as his butler, we would report it immediately to the New York Times or something like that. We probably wouldn't air it."

"Tabloid-TV" has reported, in highly emotional fashion, news of a woman being accidentally artificially inseminated with sperm from a chimpanzee, leading to the birth of "Hum-Panzee." The woman showed up on television looking thrilled to be the mother of such an unusual infant, which appeared to be the product of a bad makeup job.

Hawkins insisted both mother and baby are real, that all stories done by "Tabloid-TV"--which looks like a rough amalgam of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and "Ripley's Believe It or Not"--are as real as the ratings they covet.

He claimed that "Tabloid-TV" is filling a vacuum. Real news--real events in the real world--is just too awful. People's appetite for trash has, in his mind, undergone a phoenix-like rise.

"Even the respectable are turning to trash," he said. "They need it for escapism. We want people to have fun . And I promise--we won't ridicule anyone. Look at it this way, we respect real news. It's the fourth dimension of government.

"But real news brings people closer to reality. Tabloid entertainment is escape from reality."

In harvesting trash from the Dumpsters of available news, Hawkins & Co. "believe anyone who walks through the door or writes in. The more unbelievable, the better."

The truth of what's aired is never really closely examined, but "Tabloid-TV" does draw the line. Asked to explain just where that line is Hawkins said, "Well, one guy came in claiming to be the antichrist. Hawkins said. "We don't want to touch that--ever. Our people are weird and wonderful, as we think the world is.

"In our view, real news is carrots. We're a hot-fudge sundae. Real news is maybe the Olympics. At best, we're only mud wrestling. But can you think of anything more fun?"

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