Promoting sleaze at 11

Jun 18, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Local news here in Washington, and I suspect virtually everywhere else, has been playing a lot of bait-and-switch games lately. Also bait-and-bait and the ever-popular bait-and-wait. They keep telling us how much they “care” about us and how much they “care” about local news, but we viewers aren’t dumb. We know what they really care about: ratings and revenues.
They all win awards because there are so many awards to win. Standards for winning a local Emmy are magnanimously low, and if you can’t manage to win a local Emmy, there’s a UPI award and an AP award and an Utterly Meaningless Award and so on. Awards by the score. It’s hard not to win. It’s hard not to walk down the street and get hit by a falling award.
Anyway, bait-and-switch is a lot like bait-and-bait. The station gets hold of a great piece of video like, recently, a woman driving a car into a lake or a river and a TV news crew jumping in to save her and, to make it better, her ‘ittle Bittie Baby too. One local station showed this footage at virtually every break in prime time with a voice-over headline like, “Woman and baby saved by TV news crew! Film at Eleven!”
Of course, the film at eleven turned out to be maybe, at the most, 15 seconds longer than the teaser clip the station had been running all night. And then guess what. Turns out the lake into which the lady drove her car and into which we saw it sink umpty-ump times was in Brazil. Oh, did we forget to mention that in all those promos, folks? Oh yes, Brazil. You know, down there in South America.
They didn’t even know the lady’s name or the age of the child in the car or the identity of the TV news crew. They just showed the clip again, this time within the framework of the newscast rather than in the framework of a promo. But of course at this station, the news has become a promo for the news. It’s also the station that “puts local news first,” the promos all say, unless of course there’s better pictures from Brazil being downloaded by the satellite.
It’s now standard procedure-standard deceptive procedure, that is-to omit the site of a news event when it comes in handy for a promo. A building blows up, an airplane skids to a screechy stop on a wet runway, a little girl falls down a well. In the promos, that’s all they tell you. They don’t tell you the building was in Rangoon and the airplane in Pago-Pago and the little girl in Warsaw. Well of course we should be interested in news from other lands. But we only get it if it comes deceptively packaged and is exploitably hot footage.
Bait-and-wait has to do with promoting the same footage within the newscast. Local news is very hopeful-always looking ahead. Always looking a few minutes ahead. And so the endless array of seductive “coming-ups,” teasing you throughout the newscast and tricking you into staying tuned. Coming up-a truck full of hellacious chemicals tips over and floods a highway!!!
Oh gee, look at that: Pictures of a tipped-over truck and the cops and the firemen and everybody running around in a tizzy. We see it in the opening tease for the news, we see it just before each commercial. We see it and see it and see it and then they finally show it to us-huh?
Again, there’s not much more to it than what we’ve already been shown innumerable times. And it turns out the truck tipped over on a remote highway in Ruritania or something. But those news devils got us to wait, didn’t they? They got us to sit through the stupid-ass weather radar and the loudmouth, tiny-minded sportscaster.
Why do the sportscasters all have to shout and swagger and try to act macho and pugnacious? What kind of a dumb act is that? And why, at least in Washington, are all the weathermen-pardon me, the “meteorologists”-wimpy white guys who look like they should be out barbecuing something in the back yard?
For a major market, Washington has long had a reputation for rinky-dink local news. People come here from other major markets and can’t quite believe how quaint it is. Although it’s probably quainter in Philadelphia, where they still say “happy birthday” to kids and put their photos on the air during the morning newscasts. Well, OK, no harm done, a kind of sweet gesture actually, but awful small-towny.
Washington’s ABC affiliate managed a truly unique feat for years-squandering an “Oprah” lead-in for its early-evening news. Imagine! Oprah! They had Oprah and they still couldn’t win at 5 o’clock when their lumpy little newscast came loping along! The station seems more serious about its news now and not too long ago hired a very popular female anchor whom the CBS affiliate had stupidly discarded a few years ago.
The NBC station here is an O&O and seems to pour a lot of dough and a lot of promotion into its local news operation. They have a guy named George Michael who does the sports and has parlayed his popularity into big-time bucks. That is, even when George has the night off, the sports footage will carry, superimposed in the upper left-hand corner, a plug for the “George Michael Sports Machine,” which is the name of the sports operation at the station and the title of Michael’s Sunday-night sports round-up show which goes out on the network.
It’s hard to imagine anyone cashing in bigger on a local sports franchise than Michael does. And can this guy shout. Whoa boy. They could pin his mike to his left sock and you’d still be able to hear him, still have to grab the remote and turn the sound down. Are sports fans at home generally hard of hearing? Is that the problem? Is that why sports news has to be screamed at us?
Local news is the best friend network news has got. Every time the news divisions at ABC, CBS and NBC screw up or start looking crummy, all you have to do is compare them to the local news operation, even in markets as big as New York and Los Angeles. The anchors don’t give the news so much as toss it back and forth like a Frisbee.
Note to young people now graduating from high schools and colleges: You can go into journalism or you can go into TV news. But you really can’t do both. Coming up: My lunch. But first …