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Forget Demographics! Viewers Want the News

November 11, 1996|BILL SMITH

So 2,500 television news executives pour into town, determine that TV news is in desperate trouble and conclude the solution is to target younger viewers ("News Execs Sing Demographic Blues," Calendar, Oct. 12).

"Truly alarming," says the media expert. Younger viewers must be found "or it will be bad for business."

It's truly alarming all right, alarming that so many experts can ponder so thoughtfully, and the best they can come up with is the cliche, go for younger audiences.

With younger reporters and younger anchors.

Sure! And Cedars-Sinai should hire teenage doctors. JPL should hire teenage scientists. Delta should hire teenage pilots. That'll draw younger customers. Experience? Who needs it?

So in quest of those younger viewers, the question posed at the recent convention of radio and television news directors was whether news content should be "watered down" or "pumped up."

Well, it's hard to imagine TV's news content being watered down much further, awash as it is in lightweight lifestyle fluff and fill.

Maybe the best testimony on that subject came right off the witness stand in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. One neighbor, trying to pinpoint the time he went out for a walk, said it was 10:20 p.m. How was he so sure of the time? He always watches the 10 o'clock news, and 10:20 is the time they run out of news and go to the filler stuff.

So much for watering down versus pumping up!

Then the news directors' association president says there is a fear that TV news doesn't "understand the expectations of the audiences of tomorrow." Based on the "dwindling audience," as The Times article put it, TV doesn't understand the news audiences of today. And all these fancy surveys and research campaigns won't help.

So as a 20-plus-year veteran of the local TV news street wars, reporting variously on KTTV, KCBS and KTLA, let me give you some sophisticated research of my own.

As I stand near my festively antennaed TV news truck, logo-adorned microphone poised in my hand awaiting an imminent live shot, I become a lightning rod for comment. The people of Southern California constantly come up and tell me what they want from TV news.

And surprise! The answer is news.

There's no demographic tilt either. Age, gender, ethnicity; they want news. Chase after Madonna's baby? Fine, they say, so long as we first pursue why the gangs dominate schools, why cocaine is a growth industry and where all the good jobs have gone.

Most amazing is the range and sophistication of their comments. The guy tossing refuse into a trash truck is as likely as the three-piece suit with the leather briefcase to discuss the Tupac killing or the Keating retrial. Yes, the trash truck guy knew all about the S&L scandal since it had wiped out his mother's life savings. And the suit, who clearly preferred Gershwin over gangsta, still figured the rapper's murder was as likely a music industry feud and not a referendum on rap.

*

Curiously, most of my ongoing impromptu sample have a handle on the top news philosophies and dilemmas. Most favor news cameras in the courtroom, the Denny's waitress in Agoura saying the camera was the only thing in the courtroom that didn't lie. Most thought TV news was in too much of a hurry with its blizzard of quick-cut short stories. "Doesn't anybody in the news business have an attention span?" asked the 7-Eleven clerk in Tustin. And most see through our most prized efforts at consultant-inspired coverage. "Storm Watch," the carwash manager in West Covina said with a laugh, "two clouds pass over Malibu and you've got nine live shots at the PCH nursery by the creek." "Team Coverage," scoffed the day-care center worker in Torrance, "stories that are barely worth one reporter get three!"

And on the age thing. The CBS News president lamented network news viewership is down 20 points in 20 years. Yeah, just about the time the networks started thinking "younger" and dumped Walter Cronkite, the "trusted uncle" America believed in. Funny how that "older" and more "experienced" face on the news generated ratings. When my sidewalk survey sample tells me, "you've been around quite a while," it's not said with disdain, it's said with trust. In the current preoccupation with younger demographics, maybe there's a lesson in that.

So, with the TV news experts back home after their week in Los Angeles, guffawing over the latest guru-inspired goodies, from the video wall of monitors (which is like watching the news through a chain-link fence) to the latest in fancy anchor desks (the No. 1 Rated Furniture in Los Angeles, what an honor!), I ask only one favor.

Believe in the news, will ya?

Never mind the graphics and the gadgets. The true star of TV news is the minicam. Take all that money you were going to blow on market research and high-tech gimmicks, and spend it on common sense. Buy as many minicams as you can. Hire as many photographers, reporters and editors as you can. Then cover as much news as you can. Plenty of good stuff goes uncovered out there every day.

And don't get distracted by demographics. From all my years of research out there on live shot duty, they don't mean a thing.

*

Bill Smith, currently reporting on KTLA, won Golden Mike and L.A. Press Club awards for best TV reporting at KTTV, and shared an Emmy at KCBS for the station's live earthquake coverage.

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