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Send In the Clowns : Some local sportscasters try almost anything for popularity . . . and frequently they outshine the news anchors

January 22, 1989|STEVE WEINSTEIN

During a TV interview, Keith Jackson, the leviathan tight end of the Philadelphia Eagles, elected to hold the earpiece used to hear his questioner by pressing his enormous fingers against his ear. After airing the interview on KCBS-TV Channel 2, wisecracking sportscaster Keith Olbermann summed up Jackson's provocative comments about illegal payments to college athletes, quipping: "Jackson said he would wait until the Eagles playoff games were over before having surgery to remove his hand from his ear." Channel 2's entire news team then signed off the show . . . with their own fingers stuck in their ears.

At KCOP-TV Channel 13, lunatic sportscaster Vic (the Brick) Jacobs, decked out in spiked hair and bolo tie, punctuates his denunciation of some sports superstar for stupidity beyond the norm by hurling a plastic-foam brick at the camera.

KNBC-TV Channel 4's coverage of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's interminable farewell trek through the cities of the NBA makes use of a cardboard map of the United States, upon which mischievous sportscaster Fred Roggin glues a miniature of the gift each team has presented to the great center. Roggin's biggest worry is whether he'll be able to fit all of Kareem's paste-up presents on his poster-sized map.

Maps, bricks, bloopers, puns, camel races, obscure references to French literature or country and Western tunes and Robin Givens slurs interwoven with the scores of the day: Such is the stuff of sportscasting on the local news--a high-stakes sport in itself these days where lunacy and outrageousness are translated into big bucks and big ratings.

Sports personalities such as Roggin, Olbermann and Jacobs, through their very outrageousness and high visibility, have become as well known if not more popular than many of the news anchors they work with. Like the clowns in the circus, they have begun to outshine their more serious colleagues, and they've driven their more straightforward counterparts, including KABC's Jim Hill, the dean of local sports anchors, into relative obscurity.

Last year, with Olbermann jumping from independent KTLA to CBS-owned Channel 2, Channel 13's replacing the straightforward Mike Chamberlain with the crazy "Vic the Brick," and Roggin's continuing reign as the most popular sportscaster in town, the importance of the sports personality to a local newscast loomed larger and larger.

Management at several stations concluded that sports shenanigans for four or five minutes a newscast and the opportunity to promote a charismatic, even wacky, sports personality is what it takes to compete in the cutthroat world of local news.

But at what cost?

There's no denying that the antics of Roggin and his comrade in comedy, weatherman Fritz Coleman, and KNBC's persistent promotion of its goofy, yuppie duo helped catapult the Channel 4 News to the top of the Nielsen ratings for the first time in more than a decade. But there are some who contend that this no-holds-barred reliance on humor and entertainment trivializes the newscast--that by shifting so unself-consciously from the serious news of the day to the bloopers and one-liners of the sportscaster, television stations are in danger of junking the credibility of the entire news operation.

"People like Roggin and Olbermann really are performers," said Dan Gingold, assistant professor of journalism at USC and a former executive producer of news and documentaries at Channel 2. "They're up there on the news doing one-liners and I'm waiting to hear the rim shots. It's what used to be called gonzo journalism. The story centers on the reporter rather than on what he is reporting, and I think that is a line that should not be crossed.

"In the guise of a legitimate news broadcast, when you step into the role of a performer, it calls into question the whole nature of news and the news service. If you can do it with sports, you can do it with anything. Next, we could see a reel of gaffes and bloopers featuring the presidential candidates."

But John Rohrbeck, KNBC's general manager, who promoted Roggin and his tomfoolery ahead of longtime straight-ahead sportscaster Stu Nahan several years ago, believes that the news audience craves something sweet and light to break up the somber tone of the newscast. And sports, he said, is just the place to give viewers what they crave.

"Should you try to make something dull in order to become journalistically responsible?" Rohrbeck said. "I don't think showing an elephant race for 20 seconds at the end of the sportscast trivializes the news portion. There are nights when I want to put my head under the pillow because the news is so dreadful: a plane crash, a murder, another gang shooting. To come in with something that is fun and at least lets you go to sleep with a smile rather than the feeling that it would be better if the world ended tonight, I don't think there is any conflict at all."

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