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Is Anyone Fooled by TV's Self- Promotion?

Howard Rosenberg

May 13, 1994|Howard Rosenberg

Happiness is watching television during ratings sweeps. Take this week, for example.

I really loved NBC's "Heart of a Child," but what I loved even more was meeting the "real people" behind that docudrama on the KNBC-TV Channel 4 news.

I really swooned over the CBS movie "Getting Gotti," but an even bigger hoot was meeting the real mobster-bashing lawyer and the actress who played her on the KCBS-TV Channel 2 news.

I really felt terror while watching a fictional epidemic on ABC's "The Stand," but even scarier were the unrelated virus stories dredged up on the KABC-TV Channel 7 news, to say nothing about a companion feature on the show's makeup.

I really enjoyed the rerun of "To Catch a Killer" on KTLA-TV Channel 5, but even more stimulating were Channel 5 reporter Ron Olsen's live reports from outside Joliet State Prison, where the real John Wayne Gacy was being executed. The only thing recently comparable was Channel 4 anchor Paul Moyer boldly crashing "The Big House."

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I have really been laughing at "Late Show With David Letterman" on CBS, but even more hilarious are Channel 2 entertainment reporter David Sheehan's several-times-nightly chats with Letterman and others in celebration of his week of tapings in Los Angeles.

Holy hype and hoopla.

Television's self-promoting is so pervasive in newscasts that it's become routine, a familiar part of the environment, probably desensitizing many viewers to its ugly implications.

Bad enough is the relatively benign practice of anchors gratuitously patting newscast colleagues on the back: "Great story. . . ." A truer measure of a newscast's corruptness, though, is its tendency to embellish and even manufacture stories, in effect using its news hole to promote favored topics that benefit itself or its corporate parent. The Los Angeles Times equivalent would be the Metro section doing a gushy story about entertainment reporting, using only Calendar as its model.

Keeping it in the family is a crucial component of this practice. There are no stories related to the competition's entertainment programs, only those airing on the newscast's station.

Self-promotion comes in a variety of categories. How sordid are some of these tactics? This sordid:

Channel 5's TV Times ad for its Monday movie announced: "At 10:01 tonight, history's most notorious serial killer is scheduled to die in an Illinois state prison. Now the true story of how convicted murderer John Wayne Gacy was brought to justice. Brian Dennehy in his Emmy-winning performance, 'To Catch a Killer.'

"Tonight, his story ends."

Not only was it macabre rerunning this 1991 docudrama to coincide with the execution of a serial killer--as if this were some kind of entertainment--but also, for good measure, Channel 5 dispatched reporter Olsen to the prison to provide a human tie-in between the movie and the 10 p.m. newscast.

The execution was a legitimate story, one given epic coverage on all of that evening's newscasts. Yet it's doubtful that Channel 5's usually low-key 10 p.m. newscast would have flown a reporter to the scene if not for the station's simultaneous airing of "To Catch a Killer."

The Olsen/Gacy pairing served its purpose. Several times during the movie, Channel 5 headlined Olsen in promos for its coming newscast. Said anchor Hal Fishman in the last of them: "The execution of John Wayne Gacy is scheduled to take place just a few minutes from now. We'll have a live report coming up." There were several live reports from Olsen, in fact.

For sheer newscast cynicism, though, nothing this week has topped Channel 2's electrifying "Dave on Dave" reports. The format: Letterman speaks, Sheehan laughs.

A "Dave on Dave" highlight:

Letterman: "It's hard work entertaining America night in and night out."

Sheehan: "Ha ha ha ha ha."

Setting a modern record for calling Letterman "the new king of late night" in consecutive newscasts, Sheehan hasn't been this effusive since his week's worth of self-praise touting his own NBC special in his previous life as entertainment reporter for Channel 4.

After somehow persuading the "new king of late night" to talk about his mother in advance of her appearance on Wednesday night's show, Sheehan gave viewers the kind of candid advice that he's known for: "So be there then!"

Showing his versatility, Sheehan this week has also interviewed Letterman's behind-the-scenes personnel and bandleader Paul Shaffer. When Shaffer said he was proud of his career, Sheehan's response was swift and merciless: "You should be."

Give KCBS credit. Any 11 p.m. newscast that manages to squeeze in both "Dave on Dave" and a searing profile of "The Sex Criminal Next Door" is certainly eclectic. Ethical is another matter.

Meanwhile, one can only speculate wildly about the exotic tricks that KNBC is planning for its own 11 p.m. newscasts in conjunction with next week's New York tour by "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." Or about what Sheehan would bluntly say about that show were he still at Channel 4.

Be there then!

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