The Federal Communications Commission says that, in exchange for the right to use the airwaves we all own, a broadcaster must operate in the "public interest," airing "programming that is responsive to the needs and problems of its local community."
From what a USC Norman Lear Center study has concluded -- Los Angeles television news stations manage just 22 seconds of local government coverage for every half hour on the air -- broadcasters follow FCC rules like L.A. drivers follow stop signs: as helpful reminders for anyone who doesn't happen to be in a big hurry.
And make no mistake, the people who run TV news are in a big hurry -- to create a space for news not already appearing on the Internet, to cling to viewers fleeing to their Xboxes and DVRs and to prop up endangered advertising revenue, any way they can.
Anyone even vaguely paying attention has recognized for some time that local TV operators take something less than a keen interest in elevated civic discourse.
You're sure to learn about the Guitar Hero championships. (Slammin' video. No analysis required.) But don't expect to find out much about who's running for Assembly or just how much library hours will be reduced by the latest city budget cuts.
Lear Center Director Martin Kaplan, Seton Hall University researcher Matthew Hale and a passel of unusually resilient graduate students plowed through nearly 500 hours of news from eight Los Angeles television outlets, drawn from 14 random days last August and September.
They found out, in essence, that the average half-hour of local news is neither very local nor very newsy.
In each 30-minute segment, more than eight minutes go to advertising. An additional 7 1/2 minutes focus on stories outside Southern California. Sports, weather and teasers (touting the dreck scheduled later that hour, day or week) take up a total of nearly six minutes.
The eight remaining minutes might amount to something worthwhile. But they get frittered away too -- mostly with soft features and, especially, coverage of the latest murder or string of burglaries.
Try to recall an evening newscast that didn't include an animal in a predicament or at least one story gift-wrapped in yellow police tape. A regular diet of this stuff might reasonably have you cowering in your house. Never mind that statistics (so meddlesome, those numbers that provide context) show crime in fairly sharp decline in recent years.
The Lear Center appears to have applied an unforgiving methodology in concluding that a mere 22 seconds per half-hour go to local government coverage. Stories that have government as one theme, but not the central one, were not part of the initial tally.
Still, the tabulations provide a stark reminder of what happens when news directors run after bigger ratings, casting other imperatives aside. The sports guy gets ever more jocular. And the weather gal never wants for time to show the latest cutoff low on the map in her latest low-cut top. (KCAL's Jackie Johnson, not to worry, you still clearly lead the pack.)
As USC released the study last week, former KCBS reporter Bob Jimenez derided the way local news operations wallow in a culture of "kicks, guts and orgasms at 11." A reporter still working in local news told me that many TV journalists "want to argue for a more substantive story. But there's always a rush and the beast needs to be fed. Sometimes it's easier to just go along with it." (Because he wanted to keep his job, that comment was delivered under promise of anonymity.)
The stations demonstrate an utter lack of concern about challenges to their public service content. Just look at the files they're required by the FCC to maintain (also examined by the USC investigators) on their "significant treatment of issues facing the community."
One of KNBC's reports last year listed a story about "a rare humpback whale" spotted off Australia. KTLA (which, like The Times, is owned by Tribune Co.) cited its coverage of an Abercrombie & Fitch lawsuit against Beyoncé -- over the name of her perfume.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said he was "flat-out alarmed" by the USC report. He pledged that the feds would somehow force TV operators to buckle down.
But I don't see the government suddenly sowing a great bounty in this vast wasteland.
A better hope would be for one TV operator to spot an opportunity to build audience and, thus, advertising dollars. How about one of the cash-strapped stations finding partners -- newspapers, non-profits, journalism schools -- to help create richer and deeper stories on schools, culture, health, the environment and such?
Such a revolutionary change seems like a long shot. More likely, TV newsers will keep on keeping on. And they might as well recast and recycle an old KFWB radio promo.
They've earned the right to promise viewers: "You give us 22 seconds, we give you a whirl."
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