Roger Bell, KABC-TV Channel 7's news director, defended his station's decision to use the 11 p.m. newscast Wednesday as an extension of the Oprah Winfrey interview with Michael Jackson, claiming that the event was the most newsworthy story in the world at that moment.
"If there had been something else happening in Los Angeles at that moment, we would have put that on," Bell said. "But we looked down the list and everything else available had been reported on our earlier newscasts."
President Clinton had held a nationally televised "town meeting" earlier that evening, but Bell said KABC didn't include a report on it because he knew that ABC's "Nightline" was going to cover that story immediately following his newscast at 11:30 p.m.
Bell acknowledged that the station received some complaints from viewers about neglecting the rest of the day's news, but said that there were no more than on an average day.
KABC's move provoked criticism from other news professionals. "I don't know why they called it a newscast if they didn't have any news on it, but nothing that is done these days on local television newscasts to capture ratings surprises me anymore," said Irwin Safchik, a former news director at KNBC-TV Channel 4.
And capture ratings KABC did. On a typical night, Channel 7, the top-rated news station in the Los Angeles market, averages an 8 or 9 rating and 20% share of the audience. On Wednesday, KABC scored a 32.6 rating (representing more than 1.6 million homes) and 62% of the available audience.
But in achieving such big numbers, a news staffer at a competing local station contended, KABC abdicated its responsibility to the community. "It all depends on how you define what you are doing," said the journalist, who asked not to be identified. "Are you doing news, or are you simply there to gather an audience to sell to your advertisers?"
Bell argued that he could not predict beforehand whether the Jackson interview would be so highly rated. He added that the huge audience for the newscast validated the decision to go with only Jackson-related stories, save for brief weather and sports reports.
"The numbers are clearly their only measure of success, but that's not the only kind of success they should be striving for," Safchik countered. "If they are going to call themselves a newscast, then they should do news. The ratings show that they gave people what they want. And maybe it's very old-fashioned of me to preach that there is a higher priority than what people want, but news to me is when you are obligated to tell people what is of importance as well as what is of interest to them. That clearly has changed."
Warren Cereghino, news director at KTLA-TV Channel 5, which has the top-rated newscast here at 10 p.m., marveled at KABC's ratings but insisted that his station would not have done what KABC did.