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by Bob Campbell
If the best way to write a smash hit sitcom is to write it about nothing, what is the best way to write the evening news? If you are wondering how Seinfeld compares to the 6 o’clock news broadcast, then you haven’t watched the news lately.
NBC cleverly delayed the showing of the Seinfeld series finale so that it would fall on the final Thursday of Sweeps-a month-long TV ratings period that determines, in part, how much TV stations can charge for advertising. Television news bows to these same pressures. Nightly news broadcasts need to sell advertising much as any other show- and thus the mandate to attract viewers. But how far do these pressures take our evening news? What follows is an examination of the three 6 o’clock broadcasts, WLEX, WKYT, and WTVQ, for the week of May 11 through May 15. While each of the stations delivers early evening news in differing formats (WLEX from 6:00 to 7:00, WKYT from 5:00 to 6:30, and WTVQ at 5:00 and then again at 6:00), the stations flex their newsmaking muscles at 6:00. This piece analyzes, times, dissects, and compares these broadcasts to find out what it is we’re buying, and (much like that other institution, Kentucky Fried Chicken) just what exactly they put in there.
THE SECRET FORMULA:
Television news follows a well-developed script, not only from the teleprompter, but also in the time allotment and arrangement of “news.” The opening salvo lasts from 6 to 9 minutes and generally updates the viewer on what has happened recently that is violent. The opening segment is not exclusively crime or trauma-oriented news, but contains shorter stories that one might call headline news: any crimes, political developments, and medical breakthroughs that make the cut. The news is suspended for a commercial run of about 2 to 3 minutes. The next segment is fragmented from station to station but the middle-to-end section, with commercials in-between, relays the weather and sports. A last commercial break is taken, and the news returns for a light-hearted feature or human-interest story. Within this brew of stories and news is interspersed flotsam of banter, faux acting and self-promotion.
1 PART VIOLENCE:
Media watchdogs, parents’ groups and unsuccessful politicians have been concerned with the general rise in violence available on television, particularly for young children to watch. Their concerns have often been met with a simple retort: “Well, it’s no worse than what they might see on the evening news.” Being “the evening news” provides a blanket under which a high proportion of brutality and war/crime violence has been an acceptable part of “being informed.” But what are we being informed of? And what happens when we are informed of too much?
The apparently Real Stories of the Highway Patrol and other similar taped law enforcement shows have spawned an entire segment of amateur newsmaking. Any person with a video camera and a modicum of commonsense is eligible to be a news correspondent, if they can find worthwhile violence or trauma. This street journalism has been lifted out of When Animals Attack 21: Still Gnawing and placed in the reputable context of nightly news-the home video tornado has become a springtime staple. However, these attempts at readymade mayhem can backfire on the unsuspecting television news station.
A television news team in California aired a live feed from a freeway standoff, interrupting an afternoon cartoon-a man in a car held his dog and a bridge hostage with a shotgun; police had the area surrounded and were negotiating. The situation quickly turned from a voyeuristic action-adventure reel however, when the man set his truck on fire, burning himself and his dog. The station still had not cut away when the man turned the gun on himself, and in a grisly conclusion, shot himself in the head.
Now the station (apparently an NBC affiliate, as both the CBS and ABC stations inform you on their website that they cut away in time) would find no cover from the missiles and missives of an outraged viewing public-calls and letter poured into media outlets, decrying the station’s actions and the general permissiveness of violence in America. National news outlets, television and radio, carried the story, presumably with a “better them than us” attitude. Strikingly, it was the consequences of violence that were so provoking; violence is perfectly acceptable and consumable until it is shown that shooting someone has real and unspeakable results.
Thankfully, Lexington’s closest brush with on-air tragedy was more farce than catastrophe-during the basketball national championship celebration, news teams were predictably sent to cover the “madness.” One fracas erupted in the crowd during a live shot, and was narrated by a news anchor shouting: “Where are the police?! Can no one stop this?! Why would they ruin a moment like this?! Where are the police?!” The horror, the horror. One can only imagine the sports anchor and weather reporter exchanging bets.
Despite Lexington’s conservative news market, and contrary to the public image (see sidebar), violence is the bread and circus of the evening news report. Even a mild or serious story can have a violent slant added to it: a May 11th broadcast on WKYT (27) began the news with a story on a parents’ movement protesting earlier start times for school. The most prominent image was of a sensational pamphlet with the headline “Don’t let your kids go bump in the dark,” with an illustration of car headlights bearing down on a child. In WKYT’s defense, this pamphlet was the creation of the parents’ group. However, the next story concerned a recent rash of bank robberies, and showed- you guessed it-actual security camera footage. The story was run and handled differently on each of the three stations, bringing to light different approaches to the creation of your nightly news.
Channel 18, WLEX, gave the story the least amount of coverage, placing it within a wealth of crime stories drawn from around the state and country. The story ran for 25 seconds and included the same security footage shown on all three stations. Vague identifications of the suspects were given, and viewers with any information were asked to call the FBI (with a number given).
WKYT-27 used the story after its lead-off, connecting the story to a series of bank robberies in Lexington the week before the show aired. Again, we are given the fragmented security footage showing the two gunmen. A soundbyte was included from an FBI agent investigating the case. The story, with the Lexington tie-in, took 55 seconds.
Channel 36, however, saw potential in the story, so much so that they promoted it to the ranks of a “Big Story.” After some reassurance from the anchors that this was indeed a “Big Story,” (complete with a “Big Story” graphic), we are taken live to the scene at the Richmond East Guaranty Bank. That is, live to the scene of a crime that had been committed several hours ago. We are shown an extended version of the security camera footage, which the reporter on the scene narrates, complete with a timeline. The FBI agent is interspersed with the security footage, commenting on the investigation. As this could hardly beat the other stations’ coverage of the event, we are given an eyewitness account to round out our perspective on the event. We are told how Scott Hicks, a local worker, went into the bank that morning only to be accosted by gunmen. He is shown on the security footage, getting down on the ground like a million other bank hostages we have seen on television. Lastly, Hicks surveys the emotional landscape of the morning: “[A teller in the bank] was hysterical when they left, when they finally got out, crying, scared, and I just fired up a cigarette.” Indeed. The second reporter on the scene added his own summary of the situation as the endline: “I asked Mr. Hicks if he would be returning to the bank and he said he will but only to the drive-through.” The story ran for 3 minutes and 28 seconds.
1 PART WEATHER AND SPORTS
The Lexington television news viewer is no stranger to sports hype and worship. Sports news has lost some of its fever pitch by May: sports news is no longer the regular lead-off story. Now the sports reporter is left to interview the Cat-turned-car-salesman, and the barnstorming teams, hoping for a tidbit about a possible recruit who happened to have a Kentucky basketball trading card when he was a kid, and has a friend who wears a lot of blue and…
The sports and weather reports are often the second and third-longest story on the broadcast (although again, in March, the sports story is routinely the longest story, running approximately 4 minutes at a time). The sports and weather reporters often take the broadcast’s pratfalls, accepting goofy challenges and insults in stride. On the Tuesday WLEX broadcast, Stuart Shepherd is shown seated in front of Channel-18 staffers, who are singing the chorus “Gonna be a Heatwave” and dancing limply, obviously embarrassed. His glib response: “what they said.” Most of the weather reports are overtly gimmicky-they’re not trying to hide anything here. Of the evening broadcasts, Tom Sater (Channel-27) and Brad James (Channel 36) did stick to the weather forecasting instead of a watered-down standup routine.
A LITTLE WATERING DOWN…
An alarming percentage of the news broadcast is journalistic footsie-anchors advising the viewer to “keep watching” for stories that are coming up later in the show or in a later broadcast. The coy anchor intones “coming up at 11, as though no time would elapse between the viewing of one riveting newscast to the next. An average broadcast will have 9 separate breaks for banter, or “coming” attractions” filler, accounting for 13 percent of the total broadcast. WLEX won the talk-off with 14 percent of the broadcast smoothed over with chat. Perhaps it would be forgivable were it spontaneous, but every news team chats about the weather before the weather person delivers the forecast.
When the news team isn’t promoting an upcoming segment, they’re promoting a tie-in product or service. Channel-27 provides a minute to minute-and-a-half stock report midway through the news broadcast- a legitimate segment of news. However, the viewer is ever-reminded that “the WKYT stock report is brought to you by Kentucky Bank.” As well, Channel 27 provides a health series- the anchor reminds the viewer that a “Healthy for Life” booklet is available at Central Baptist Hospital. WTVQ promotes area town forums for discussion of Lexington community issues. But the viewer is advised that these forums are possible through the magnanimous aid of Channel 36 being “On Your Side.” WLEX dominates the tie-in market with “True Blue Fan” paraphernalia-so much so that the broadcasts blur the line between Pep Club and news reporting during the basketball season.
A LIBERAL DOLLOP OF SCHMALTZ…
“Nothing tugs at the ol’ heart strings like animals in distress,” Barbara Bailey introduces us to the final story on the Monday broadcast of WKYT. The story takes two minutes, not counting the “coming up” teasers shilling the story during the broadcast. In these two minutes, we learn that some baby ducks were caught in a storm drain outside a local restaurant, separated from the mother duck. A worker at the restaurant would not allow the ducks to die on his shift, so he chiseled up the drain gate, and climbed down in after the ducks in a dramatic rescue. We are given an ostensibly live shot of the operation-the viewer is left to wonder whether the animals were put back in the drain for effect, or someone called the news station in a lather about ducks.
The final segment of the 6 o’clock news consists of human interest/cute animal stories, presumably to balance out the violence in the nightly newscast. The viewer is left on a “lighter” note-a young, smiling child is waiting for the right family to adopt her, fuzzy ducks are lifted out of a storm drain. However, these serve only to level the emotional tone rather than balance it- the anchors move from serious condemnation of a bank robbery to the slapstick of the weathercast, frowning in one shot, and grinning for the very next camera cutaway.
Schmaltz creeps into the first segment of the newscast as well, usually reserved for breaking news. The Monday broadcast of WLEX featured a 1 minute 30 second segment in its opening nine minutes that could rival Seinfeld in the nothing-but-fluffy-air department. With the byline “Unusual Spring” we are introduced to a local contractor who has had to suspend work for a few days on account of rain. Just to be sure, the contractor tells us “yeah, it has rained a lot this spring,” but not to worry, the fellas have been able to come in and work on Saturday some to make up for lost wages and time. The contractor concludes by observing that It has been an unusual spring. But I guess every year itís like this.” NEWS FLASH: rain in spring, man bites dog!
Schmaltz can even slip into the violent sections of the broadcast. Moments before the “Unusual Spring” story, Tom Kenny informs the viewer that a little boy is missing in New York, only a few days after his mother was murdered. “One can only hope that Little Jimmy is found safe,” Kenny implores to a stony, silent heaven.
So how do the stations compare overall? WKYT and WTVQ have very similar news distributions, with 35percent (Channel 27) and 34 percent (Channel 36) of the available broadcast devoted to legitimate news. “Legitimate news” generally covered anything that affected most any viewer of the nightly broadcast-breaking political and community news, as well as medical breakthroughs (health news vacillated between “legitimate” and “fluffy,” so it had a separate category). Each of the stations covered at least one worthwhile topic thoughtfully during the week (kudos to WKYT for the “Relay for Life” coverage)-so the resources are certainly there. Crime and violence, while often handled poorly, did not dominate the news so much as feared.
“Buyer beware” becomes buyer be aware when watching the local evening news. If the catchphrases are true, Channel 27 is the “most watched newscast in Central Kentucky”-it was also, statistically, the most balanced broadcast. The television news content is predicated on a (sometimes false) sense of “what the viewer wants to see,” but maybe news execs aren’t giving the viewers enough credit. A far frightening prospect is that they’re giving us too much. Remember, we only suffer Kruser as long as we continue to watch him.
Research assistance provided by Kira Munson.