Once again, it's time for TV's house of mirrors.
Much of this month's local programming will seem familiar. That's because February is one of those three-times-yearly, look-alike, sound-alike ratings sweeps periods that are crucial in setting advertising rates for local TV stations. The four-week race officially begins Wednesday.
The competition for audience and profits is intense. February, May and November are when stations imitate the party buffoon who tries to attract attention by standing on the piano and doing impressions while wearing a lamp shade on his head.
Even foolishness is an exhaustible commodity, however.
So stations, after running out of new bad ideas, resort to old bad ones. Most try to inflate their ratings by recycling and retooling past inane, exploitative and manipulative news and program gimmicks. They repackage, retitle, rehash and regurgitate. Details may change, but the fundamental burlesque remains.
The deja voodoo repeats season after season for only one reason: Viewers continue to tune in--either because they have short memories, can't see through the camouflage or enjoy reruns of reruns.
There were some genuine attempts to resist the traditional sweeps frenzy last year, such as KCBS-TV Channel 2's November series on South Korea. And in May, Channel 2 kept a relatively low sweeps profile in its news programming.
Generally, though, the usual repetition and familiar staples prevailed in Los Angeles. For all three ratings sweeps months, network-owned stations totaled 14 series or stories on kids, 13 on sex (rarely delivering the prurience promised in the misleadingly hot-blooded ads) and 11 on cars or traffic. That old reliable, gridlock, caught the attention of both Channel 4 and Channel 7 almost simultaneously, for example.
As for quality. . . .
Flash back to February, 1987.
It was a typical sweeps month in many respects. It was a month when bitter news rivals KABC-TV Channel 7 and KNBC Channel 4--as if on the same kinetic wave length--broke devastating, meticulously researched, brutally honest, unbearably candid, no-holds-barred, incredibly penetrating, simply shocking stories. . . .
Third-place KCBS-TV was just as aggressive, breaking journalistic ground with a gutty probe of office romances and a relentless five-part series on infidelity. Thumbing its nose at convention, moreover, it boldly and daringly examined the Los Angeles singles scene.
And skeptics said it couldn't be done.
Not to be outshone, Channel 7 was exposing the underside of video dating and "the heartbreak of interracial love." After exhaustive digging, meanwhile, Channel 4 aired the story that could not remain secret any longer, stunning all of Los Angeles with the truth about what it's like to photograph beautiful models.
On it went: tough, incisive, sizzling, head-turning reports on traffic school, men's infertility, sports cheerleaders, paradise travel spots, kids who eat too little, kids who eat too much, kids who rat on their parents to the cops, kids who don't sleep enough, kids who don't accept discipline, women having babies, young self-made millionaires, gourmet cooking, L.A. trends and--a hot topic on everyone's mind--the perils of valet parking.
Ratings sweeps periods are a circus.
You want vacuous? Last May brought "Celebrity Bodyguards" on Channel 4 and anchor Tawny Little's ruminations on her own pregnancy on Channel 7, where reporter Larry Carroll, in November, reported on the premature birth of his daughter.
That same month, Channel 4 scooped everyone on buried treasure, allergies, tips on becoming a game show contestant and the real story on bargain shopping. Channel 7 delivered on celebrity moms (what--no moms of celebrity bodyguards?), the reasons some people murder and what you can tell from a person's face. No comment.
Meanwhile, those old competitors on Channel 2 and Channel 7 respectively, "2 on the Town" and "Eye on L.A.," battled furiously to see which could "out-dumb" the other in playing up sex.
What else but "2 on the Town" could give new meaning to the term global hotspot by promoting eroticism in the turbulent Philippines last February and revealing "Israel's Secret Resorts" last November? And viewers are still buzzing about February's unique two-segment depiction of females by "Eye on L.A.," the profound "Sexy, Single and Scared" followed by the awesome "Combat-Ready Women."
To entice lusting viewers during sweeps periods, both shows have used print ads to promote themselves as flesh markets, frolicking at beaches and international playgrounds in order to showcase water-slick beauties in Barbie-sized bikinis.