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A 71/2-hour game of trivial pursuit

Gimmicks, misleading promos, an overdose of crime stories fill the TV news airwaves.

November 29, 2002|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

We've heard it for decades: We're drowning in local television news shows that are obsessed with crime and celebrity, the visual and the visceral. When a Washington-based news-media think tank released its annual "grades" of local TV news in 17 cities earlier this month, it gave each of Southern California's three network affiliates low Cs for their 11 p.m. newscasts. The Project for Excellence in Journalism criticized the stations for relying too heavily on crime stories, failing to do sufficient numbers of "enterprise" stories that went beyond daily events and lacking a commitment to their communities.

But what does a "low C" look like on your screen?

In a decidedly unscientific attempt to answer that question, I sat down with my remote control on the same day the grades were released and watched local news from 4 to 11:30 p.m.,I surfed the three English-language network affiliates and the four VHF independent stations. What follows is a microcosmic portrait of what we watch, and what TV journalism in L.A. has become: a world in which the mundane news of the day is punctuated with bizarre trivia, misleading promos and, November being a "sweeps" period, a dose of gimmickry.

4--4:30 p.m.

(KABC-TV Channel 7, KCAL-TV Channel 9)

Rain has begun falling in Northern California and as far south as Santa Barbara. This is a big story. Not because L.A. is going to get particularly wet -- forecasts call for intermittent soaking rains of perhaps one-half to three-quarters of an inch of rain a day during the next two days, a normal occurrence. No, this is a big story because it gives the stations an opportunity to showcase their equipment and troop deployment.

"Using every bit of technology at our disposal," promises Eyewitness News co-anchor Marc Brown early into KABC's 4 p.m. broadcast. "Two helicopters, Doppler 7000 radar"-- and weatherman Dallas Raines.

Raines, strikingly handsome in a dark suit, appears in front of a video-game-like rear projection that fills the screen. He crouches athletically so he can gesture toward the South Bay lower on the map. Colored blotches show approaching rain.

"We want to zoom in closely because we can do this with Live Doppler 7000," the "real-time" weather system the station introduced early this year, Raines says. "What's gonna happen over the next several days?" More rain tonight and tomorrow. Details later. It is the tease, long the basic staple of TV news, designed to get you to keep watching until at least the end. The weather can be made into an even bigger story because it is the first significant moisture of the year and takes place against the backdrop of major summer brush fires. Heavy rains could mean mudslides. The stations show fire fighters filling sandbags, campers bemoaning their ruined vacations and CHP officers warning people to drive slowly.

Both KABC and KCAL move from rain to a sexual attack in Long Beach, which may be the latest in a years-long string of assaults by a serial rapist. KCAL does a troubling story about a darkly dressed man with a high-powered rifle firing three-dozen shots from the roof of a school in Rosemead. It takes a full minute before reporter Jay Jackson explains that (a) this occurred in the middle of the night and (b) nobody was hurt.

4:10: KABC does its first tease for the 4:30 newscast, hyping an interview with celebrity-taunting comedian Kathy Griffin, who is performing locally. ("Her routine is the hottest ticket in town!" says co-anchor Brown.)

4:15: KABC does a minute-long story on guilty pleas by four members of the Symbionese Liberation Army in a 1975 murder in a Sacramento-area bank.

4:22: Another KABC tease for the Kathy Griffin interview. ("She's got a quick wit and a sharp tongue!" says co-anchor Michelle Tuzee. )

4:25: KABC reports that singer Bobby Brown, whose career has withered but who still qualifies as a celebrity since he is married to R&B diva Whitney Houston, has been arrested in Atlanta.

4:26: A third Kathy Griffin teaser ("...the redhead with the blue humor," promises the interviewer, entertainment "guru" George Pennacchio).

KCAL ends its half-hour with the story of a Kentucky woman who finds, and returns, a $30,000 diamond to its rightful owner. The station then closes until 8 p.m., advising viewers to switch to KCBS-TV, which merged its news operations with KCAL this summer. This used to be unthinkable until the government changed the rules to allow a single company to own two stations in the same city. With that relaxation of federal regulations in 1999, this merger--along with News Corp.'s ownership of KTTV-TV Channel 11 and KCOP-TV Channel 13 -- was permitted.

4:30-5 p.m.


Channel 2)

4:32: In the wake of the Winona Ryder shoplifting verdict, KABC shows the first pictures of the stolen clothes. The report includes an interview with a law professor about whether Ryder was prosecuted properly (19 seconds) and an interview with an entrepreneur selling "Free Winona" shirts (42 seconds).

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