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HOWARD ROSENBERG

So You Want News Now? Get Mad, Tune Out

January 31, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"I don't have to tell you things are bad--everybody knows things are bad."

Those are the words of nutty--well, maybe not so nutty--anchorman Howard Beale in Paddy Chayefsky's "Network." They're applicable just about everywhere. For example:

Question: Will some local TV stations ever stop, or at least curtail, their fusion of news and promotion?

Answer: Yes.

Question: When?

Answer: When viewers stop being suckers. When so many of them protest this unholy grail that the offenders will be pressured into reforming. When viewers shout (read Howard Beale's lips): "I'M AS MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"

When they get mad as hell about this: "Tonya Harding makes a startling admission."

That was an "Eyewitness News" promo for its 11 p.m. program that Ann Martin read during a commercial break in prime time last Thursday on KABC-TV Channel 7. And what exactly had the embattled Harding confessed? Viewers easily could have inferred from the word startling that she had admitted involvement in the assault of fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan. That definitely was the implication.

In any case, if it's news, you report it, right? Wrong. Don't be so musty. Join the '90s.

Channel 7 viewers had to wait until 11 p.m. to learn that Harding had not confessed to participating in the alleged conspiracy against Kerrigan. Instead, she had admitted learning after the fact that people "close" to her may have been involved.

Significant? Absolutely. There was speculation that the admission alone could cost her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Startling? Only if you are someone who is easily amazed.

Oh, those "Eyewitness" teases. In the same newscast, Harold Greene reported: "One of the most familiar faces on television is dead tonight after a long bout with cancer." The familiar name?

Sorry, that information (the deceased turned out to be actor Claude Akins) was held until after the commercial break that followed. Just in case you were thinking of switching channels.

Meanwhile, at KNBC-TV Channel 4, where nearly every news promo advertises a "bombshell," the heavy thinkers obviously equate a news story with a play to be presented in four acts. Either that or a trail of bread crumbs.

Apparently believing that their viewers are either stupid or sit spellbound in front of mostly repetitive local newscasts for hours, Channel 4 continues trickling out stories, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, across several newscasts, the purpose being to keep viewers in so much Hitchcockian suspense that they won't switch channels. Anchor John Beard complained of the practice when he fled Channel 4 last month for KTTV-TV Channel 11.

Imagine how this would play out if extended to a truly significant story.

At 4 p.m., viewers are informed about the assassination of a famous political figure.

At 5 p.m., they're told where it occurred.

At 6 p.m., they're told who did it.

At 11 p.m., they're told the identity of the victim.

Abraham Lincoln.

At 11:25 p.m., sports.

TV news and marketing didn't merge overnight. What we're seeing is an extension of something that began decades ago, when some wise guys in broadcasting decided that news--as one of their fastest-growing profit centers--was far too valuable a franchise to leave in the hands of news people . They'd just mess it up.

So enter the ratings-driven Barnums and Baileys, the showmen and salesmen, the pumpers and thumpers, the promoters, the startlers and bombshellers. The result? The news team is a sales team. What other label applies, for example, when KNBC reporters are instructed to shout "You're live on Channel 4!" when asking questions during live coverage of press conferences?

It's one thing to layer tongue-in-cheek narcissism into a format as a send-up of traditional newscasts--witness the relentlessly irreverent morning news on KTLA-TV Channel 5. It's quite another to do it with a deceptively self-serving straight face.

Promotion is now threaded through the very fabric of TV news, from chauvinistic stories tied to entertainment programs to intracellular backslapping and applause to little things like equipping microphones in the field with clips that display channel numbers. It's the foundation, a foundation that's spread to the entire building, having become so solidified that desensitized viewers tend to accept it as the norm.

Well, it is the norm. But it doesn't have to be.

Every structure that goes up can come down. If you don't like what you're getting, be a human earthquake. Write, call, switch channels, protest. Get mad as hell.

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