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HOWARD ROSENBERG

People's Choice: Manson, Dahmer : Television: The high ratings for news programs featuring jailed murderers show viewers get what they want.

March 14, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

You want it, you get it.

Complaints pour in about how some news programs and much of the rest of television are turning tabloid. Greasy, twisted, hideous, frightening, irresponsible, screw-the-public, make-a-buck-at-any-cost tabloid. Such sanctimonious hand wringing by critics, such scowls, such shrieks of protest.

So what happens?

Last Wednesday's premiere of the ABC News program "Turning Point"--co-starring Diane Sawyer with ghoulish Charles Manson and two of his now middle-aged "girls"--is a Nielsen semi-blockbuster, winning its time slot with 30% of the audience while earning what ABC says are record ratings for the premiere of a newsmagazine series.

Based on Nielsen's figures, you could estimate that as many as 35 million inquiring minds tuned in, enough for "Turning Point" to soundly whip NBC's "Law & Order" and obliterate "48 Hours" on CBS.

"Turning Point" ratings were so high, Jay Leno cracked Thursday night, that competing NBC is planning a special for next month titled "The Manson Family Honors." Manson will appear on the program, he added, but has refused to perform.

Until Wednesday, the 1992 debut of "NBC Dateline" held the ratings record for a newsmagazine premiere, but that program attracted one-third fewer viewers than "Turning Point."

And speaking of "NBC Dateline," last Tuesday's edition generated its own best ratings ever, beating the heavily promoted--and usually heavily watched--annual "People's Choice Awards" on CBS. The featured segment on "NBC Dateline" that night? An interview with Jeffrey Dahmer, the value of which was to note that cannibalism can land you in jail--and on television.

It's obvious now that serial killers have become the people's choice.

They are increasingly TV's choice. Scheduled to headline a March 23 episode of "Turning Point" are the families of serial killers. Why stop there? Why not the best friends of serial killers? The pet pooches of serial killers? The gardeners? You name it. "Turning Point" could ride this gore through the rest of 1994.

*

Joking about the "Turning Point" and "NBC Dateline" programs, Leno urged viewers to tune in "Unsolved Mysteries" next week, when "Robert Stack will spend the entire hour investigating the disappearance of real journalism in this country."

Which parallels the disappearance of taste. So much so that, as we await the Fox movie and the CBS miniseries on the Menendez brothers, it's hard to imagine a tabloid scenario that would be too cynical or bizarre for television.

After all, these topics wouldn't get on the air, again and again and again, if there weren't an audience for them. As the ratings affirm, the audience for them is enormous, reflecting a ravenous public hunger for sensational crime topics that contradicts the protestations about such programming.

Turning point, indeed. Last week's Nielsens may be a seminal moment in the history of TV's newsmagazines, to say nothing of the wider media--in effect validating the increasingly contemptible editorial choices that are being made. You know how it goes: "The public is making us do it."

The more we see of these topics--the more they linger on the air and the more we get accustomed to them--the more we'll become desensitized to their negativity and harmfulness.

Diverting our attention from things more relevant, they literally scare the hell out of us, creating and feeding a fear far out of proportion to reality, leaving the impression that Charlie Mansons and Jeffrey Dahmers lurk en masse outside every door. Instead, they lurk in the minds of an increasing number of news executives.

ABC News President Roone Arledge obviously knew what he was doing when--offering no excuses or platitudes--he scheduled Manson to open "Turning Point." But was it that washed-up freak Manson alone who was the draw, in conjunction with his accomplices in the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders, or was it Diane Sawyer? Or was it the charismatic pairing of these two troupers that viewers found so magical? If so, stay tuned for Manson II.

All right , Charlie. You're on your way again. Stare that stare, grin that grin, sing that song. What the viewers want, they get. And what they want is you.

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