|Making News: Two Local TV Stations|
|San Diego Reader|
(San Diego Reader September 14, 2000)
Today at the East County Community Health Services clinic in El Cajon, Supervisor Dianne Jacob is holding a “newser,” an announcement directed at the media. Because Scripps East Hospital in El Cajon has recently closed, Jacob wants people to know Grossmont is the nearest hospital for emergencies. But she also wants people to use an emergency room only when it’s necessary. On this issue the public needs educating, a job some feel is not the bailiwick of elected officials. Not to worry. For Jacob and Jacob’s media-relations officer, the solution is a no-brainer: Stage a media event. Facing the cameras will be a line-up of doctors, patients, and emergency medical technicians, standing behind Jacob and supporting her speech at the portable amplified podium with a seal whose motto reads, “The noblest motive is the public good.”
Jacob hopes her newser will spread the word about not using the emergency room for non-emergency problems. Six hundred thousand uninsured people live in the county, about 20 percent of the population. Of those who use the emergency room, 60 percent don’t require urgent care. It’s not their fault. People without health insurance or a primary care physician tend to seek immediate relief for influenza or a bloody nose. How better for Jacob to get this message out than to call on television.
And so, in the form of two-person news crews, the local stations oblige: KGTV/Channel 10; KUSI/Channel 51; KFMB/Channel 8; KNSD/Channel 39; XETV/Channel 6; KSWB/Channel 69; and KBNT/Channel 19 (Spanish language Univision). These seven stations broadcast 113 hours of news every week in San Diego, the 25th largest media market in America. I’m riding to the newser with KGTV photographer Richard Klein and weekend anchor/reporter Lee Ann Kim. Having been assigned this story at the morning editorial meeting, Kim and Klein began calling emergency rooms to interview the staff but were told, in so many words, to stay away. They learned that doctor-patient confidentiality forbids shooting peoples’ faces in an ER, and that doctors are too busy on Mondays (this is a Monday) to talk to reporters about the “overuse” of their facility. So the pair decided to find a new angle or, better, to make something out of the newser. What’s more, their boss, news director Mike Stutz, expects them to use their storytelling talents. Driving to the press conference, Kim reminds me that most “media events” are spelled B-O-R-I-N-G! Sure, there’s a valid medical message to cover, but administrators are the snooziest talking heads of all. “The message,” Klein says, “gets lost when you show a crowd of people. The viewer will just change the channel.” The shorts-wearing, gangly photographer, looking not unlike a high school tennis coach, wants to craft the piece differently, so it doesn’t end up as a 30-second voice-over—an anchor reading over the videotape—the standard mind-lolling, flash-obvious method of daily TV news presentation.
Kim, a Korean-American woman whose black hair sculpts her face in feathery flips, tells me she’s learned to be wary of county and city bigwigs who call for cameras. They stage such events to get the media to publicize not something informative or definitive but a plan, a task force, a commitment to study the problem further because the assembled are so very concerned. The reporter has seen it before, especially with Susan Golding’s office. When we arrive, the six other channels are erecting cameras on tripods; reporters are writing on hand-cupped notepads. Sure enough, it’s just as Kim feared: Jacob says she’ll be announcing a “joint effort” to “establish guidelines” for emergency rooms, so today we will introduce to you the media—and, thus, you at home—the people who will work together (at a later date) to establish those guidelines. Kim whispers in my ear, “It’s bullshit.”
In the clinic’s waiting room, Kim says she’ll start talking with people and then “pop in the question, ‘By the way, have you ever gone to an emergency room in a non-emergency situation?’” She starts mingling; Klein shoots a row of waiting patients. Just then Margaret Radford, a recognized anchor/reporter from Channel 8, comes in. Says a seated woman, “Margaret, we’ve watched you for a thousand years,” laughter, laughter; “It’s almost like we know you,” a stiff-legged man rises to greet her. Klein tells me later that the more well-known the anchor/reporter is the worse it often is to get honest, unstaged coverage. “They start acting like they’re on TV, more careful with their words, intentionally angle themselves to the camera,” he says. People are in awe of anchors, so much so that they’ll often say what they think the anchor would like them to say.
Kim has found a diabetic man who’s periodically used ER’s for problems related to diabetes that are not life-threatening. He can’t afford insurance. There’s a festering boil on his arm that he calls “cancer,” which he says he can’t afford to get checked. (His best, albeit unused, sound bite is, “It’s a shame that it costs so much to be sick.”) Though Kim interviews him at length and Klein tapes them, he’s had scant use of the ER. Up pops a girl named Amy. The 16-year-old has lost one entire fingernail (the other nine are a Gothic purple) and says she was told to come here by people at the ER. “It’s all pussy and feels really, really bad.” This is it! Kim and Klein ask if they can go in-depth with Amy and her mother. They say yes. The mother admits on camera that the ER wanted $300 just to look at the fingernail; she also complains of another ER bill totaling more than $900. That one she’s paying $50 a month because “what else can I do?”
Klein hustles outside to “spray” the newser, that is, get footage of the line-up without sound. Back inside he follows Amy down the corridor with nurse Betty, shoots her consultation, plus the all-important Band-Aid on the wound, and the final bill-paying moment, a twenty and a ten, $30. Throughout Klein keeps the camera on so he can “be in the story as much as possible. It gives an immediacy that for TV is really good.” A 20-year, 10 News veteran, Klein loves filming the real. But it’s hard to capture. Covering people, he says, “You never, never, never, want to touch someone” because that may evoke a manufactured feeling—your niceness may make them act differently. About news gathering, he says, there’s “always a line—you have to draw it and never cross it.” That line is between capturing the expressive emotions of people and currying just enough of the subject’s favor to insure a hoped-for intimacy you know viewers want to see. (How well we know the ploys of Barbara Walters as she gets her subjects to weep.)
A few shooters Klein has known re-film an entrance or exit because of bad lighting or bad framing. Such “staging” is considered wrong by nearly every shooter. Kim and Klein recall the worst example they’ve heard. Following an earthquake in Las Vegas, a pair of cameramen got into a van and had some friends outside shake it, so as they could simulate the quake from inside. Theater got them fired. “And they’ll never find a job in this business again, ” Kim says. It’s time for the standup.
A standup is a reporter’s sentence-long statement to the camera, usually with explicit hand gestures and artful facial nods. Reporters address the camera when they need to impart a fact, an idea, or some other content they have not gotten from an interviewee. The best standup should be part of a scene, avoiding the trite shot of a person-with-microphone in front of a building. Kim writes her sentence, rehearses it twice, says she’s ready. Just then Klein leaves to follow Amy into nurse Betty’s room, so Kim has time to run through what she imagines will be the story’s segments: video, sound bites, where to place the standup. A man in the waiting room with a badly deformed knee has been watching and listening and decides to chip in his two cents. He says he came to the clinic today without an appointment because he just started a new job at Wal-Mart and the benefits haven’t kicked in yet. He says, “But I’m no good for your story because I knew not to go to the emergency room for my problem.” He’s been paying attention, while Kim and Klein have been creating the news, making it (which is different from making it up) right in front of their “co-editors” in an El Cajon clinic. Kim and I discuss the importance of television reporting as a public forum. Television allows us to see ourselves as we are and to participate in the creation of ourselves as we’re covered. Once the so-called “audience” lets the medium into their actual lives, the distinction between image and reality blurs.
When this happens, Kim says, her job is much easier, much more fulfilling. Generally people feel they have a say on TV because not only are the news crews out in the world covering people all the time but also, for good and ill, the stations try to appeal to everyone, especially the dispossessed and the uninsured, those who recognize Margaret Radford and feel they know her. Klein returns and Kim says her line in a stop-watched 10 seconds: “Like Amy many patients who use community-care clinics had no idea they were available, even though there are 60 clinics like this one throughout the county.” Sound-bite, standup, as if she hadn’t rehearsed it and, in fact, that’s what it looks like later when it airs. Behind Kim’s standup I notice three older women, waiting their turn to see nurse Betty, who’ve watched the news gathering, getting the facts, shaping the story. Though their expressions aren’t on the video, they shine in my memory with looks enthralled. Neither quizzical nor distrusting. They are like cousins at a wedding seated some distance from the front, who may not know everyone but know they belong.
Walking back to the news van after spending two hours videotaping scenes for a 90-second package (a longer, more narrative piece), Klein says he recognizes that these days many people do distrust the media, especially those in corporations and government, “who won’t talk to us because they think we’re out to get them. Like 60 Minutes.” But this story reminds him of how trusting the “everyday public” can be. “In some ways people think [if] the camera’s here, I’m probably going to get better service. I’m going to the front of the line because the camera’s here.” And yet rounding up a story is seldom this smooth. Klein describes filming a piece about the high cost of prescription drugs for seniors. Rushing to meet a 5:00 p.m. deadline, he was well into the afternoon before he found an 82-year-old woman who would talk to the reporter and who would line up (as the tape records) her daily regimen of medication, then shake out pills from a bottle while commenting on their expense and their necessity for her survival. The tough part, Klein says, was not persuading her, not “buttering her up. But it was nearly 2 o’clock and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this shot!’” Klein says he’s edited stories up to five minutes before air, then boom! it’s in the can, it’s on, it’s history, and it’s on to the next day.
Near 5:00 p.m., I’m home, ready to scan the other stations to see what they’ve made of Jacob’s newser. I wonder whether Kim and Klein’s story was run-of-the-mill or original. (I confess to not watching much local news, my reasons probably no different from yours.) Was the story they did the story? Have they changed what happened so much so that Dianne Jacob’s purpose has been re-cast? Perhaps radically changed, even falsified? And from Channel 10’s point of view, will Kim and Klein’s package hold the viewers’ attention? I am aware that reporters often expand and personalize their stories, if they have the time. But usually they don’t; not with everyday deadlines. In fact, according to research done at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, 90 percent of what is deemed “the news” comes from a few sources—the police scanner, a network feed, an Internet source, or a scripted media event like Jacob’s address to the cameras. (The other 10 percent—a woefully small percentage—is generated by reporters’ ideas in the newsroom.) Jacob and other government leaders know the media has an obligation to come when they call. I recall her staying to answer reporters’ questions, believing her presentation of the message would be theirs. Does she care if television reporters alter that message? Certainly, she wants accurate reporting and (I’d presume) her official mug on the box. But to do her version of the story is no more complex than Round Table hiring young boys and girls to deliver pizzas. The other stations do nothing but cover the newser as a voice-over. Jacob is seen (sometimes heard) delivering the message. They did it her way.
It’s likely no one but me is comparing Kim and Klein’s piece to those from other telecasts. But cross-checking who’s done what raises a more intriguing question: Did anyone watching the other stations get Jacob’s message? Which is, it’s time to set up a committee to formulate emergency room guidelines. Would viewers have remembered that? In contrast, did viewers recognize the importance of not using an emergency room for minor ills because Kim and Klein personalized the story around Amy’s fingernail? (In this sense, Jacob, despite her announcement, received what she should have asked the media for.) The other channels may have worked on other reports, choosing (rightly, wrongly) not to develop this newser. News, as we shall see, abounds with choices. But KGTV’s exception on this one day among thousands of on-air news days proves a rule: Television may be the quickest means of presenting facts, images, and (is it possible?) ideas to the public, but all that speed is meaningless if a) no one is watching and b) the presentation of the story is so unremarkable that even if anyone watches, he or she won’t “get it.”
Would that more crews had Kim and Klein’s gumption in the face of a newser. Perhaps more people would watch. But, the fact is, an awful lot of people don’t watch. And, for the last decade, more and more regular TV viewers have quit watching the news. In San Diego and across America. Local newspeople usually don’t cry wolf, but the loss of viewers is now a crisis in the business. The magnitude of the loss is such that old stations are undergoing make-overs while new stations are ramping up the Hi-Tech and “growing a market” for new viewers. TV executives and their consultants have generated reams of inquiry to determine why viewers are leaving, let alone what stations can do about it. First, the numbers. According to Nielsen Media Research and the Pew Research Center’s year 2000 biennial survey, national and local broadcast news in the last eight years have been steadily losing their audiences. In 1993, 60 percent of regular TV viewers watched the national news; today it’s down by half to 30 percent. In 1993, nearly 80 percent of TV viewers watched local news; today’s it’s 56 percent.
Why are people tuning out? News on the Internet has been a major drain, growing from nothing to more than 20 percent of the entire news audience in less than a decade. The rise of cable news stations has meant more competition for national and local audiences. The perception that “crime and mayhem” are the steady diet of newscasts everywhere turn people off: Even though most studies show that crime stories have eased to about 22 percent of total coverage, producers lead with what bleeds or employ the “are we safe?” motif so often that a story’s urgency supersedes its importance. During the 1990s news stations faced tough competition from tabloid TV. Instead of shining on the paparazzi, local stations boarded the Update Express, rode with O.J., JonBenet, Andrew Cunanan, and Princess Di to even lower ratings. As advertisers bailed and stations quit hiring, many reporters had to do two instead of one day-of-air stories, which limits the gathering or “sourcing” of other points of view for their pieces.
“Enterprising” the news—investigative, proactive, idea-based journalism—began drying up further from its already desiccated state. Stations grew to rely on the prearranged event: a trial, a newser, a feed from Wall Street; in essence, news controlled by the covered not those doing the coverage. Viewers often detest (as Kim and Klein know) this chummy alliance between officialdom and the media and, as a result, turn off political reporting, even when they (the viewers) need to know about an issue. Taking its cues from Baywatch, local news has become just another weapon of mass distraction. But unlike Baywatch, the news itself is losing out even as it jiggles. Schizy viewers keep leaving because, they say, there are too many car chases or there is too much to ogle. Yes, they disapprove of themselves for tuning in. But pangs of self-disgust are brief. Audiences, instead of analyzing why they are so easily led, scorn stations for pandering. In San Diego, viewers have fired the news and found other things to do with their time, no tough task in this climate.
Local stations are responding to a dwindling audience by making news something more—more personal, more flashy, more confrontational, more infotaining—certainly not something less, that is, quieter, reflective, thoughtful. With a new century, there’s no going back, pre-tabloid, pre-Internet, pre-Dr. Laura, to an anchor looking down and reading a script. These days, if news is not made to hold viewers, then stations don’t have a news problem, they have a “not-watched” problem. No matter how deeply researched, how expertly filmed, mere reporting (a.k.a. talking to the camera) conveys little. It’s endured briefly—the brain lapses in nanoseconds—and the viewer clicks elsewhere or off.
Making News Local
Imagine you’re the hot shot reporter who’s gotten onto the set of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather for an exclusive, behind-the-scenes profile. You’re a nervous Nelly, wandering the base camp of Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Walter Cronkite, and Mike Wallace. Supernova Dan Rather, in the house at $7 million a year, draws your radar like Oprah. He’s delivered the goods since before Kennedy was killed. Rather’s piquant saws rouse your interest, like his criticism of the news networks who’ve “gone from watchdogs to lap dogs.” After stolen moments with Dan, you are jostled about by the pin-striped bosses of image and legality—corporate vice-presidents, entertainment lawyers, in-house media consultants, mostly dodging your questions about ratings and proprietary focus-group info, secrets welded shut. Roaming the hallways you spot members of the palace guard, their voices flashing in your ear—the reveille delivery of Diana Gonzalez, the sand-papery gruff of Bob Schieffer. Are they reporters? Are they celebrities? Proteges of the mighty producer Lowell Bergman (remember The Insider?) are slotting into the “beat sheet” a congressional debate over partial-birth abortions, a billion-dollar cable merger, some stale White House muck, a story on the one-dozen deaths each year caused by faulty automatic garage-door openers that have turned garages into “fearsome death traps,” a little Middle East rioting—all capped off with a piece of resurrected nostalgia by Charles Kuralt, touring the South.
Though the ability to “go live” at any moment hangs in the air, the coverage is grave and inflexible and, apparently, not just reported but believed. There’s no anchor-reporter chit-chat; those at the top are better than that. The community the newscast reflects is—your gawk-a-thon clarifies—the nation, the world, sun, moon, and stars. What’s local has zero presence on the Big News. Indeed the local is merely an affiliate, from the Latin, “to adopt.” Though it’s anchored in New York, the reach and grasp of the Big News is totalitarian. Nothing you write will bring it out of that plentitude and close to home. “And that’s the way it is,” soothed the most trusted man in America.
Now imagine a similar but smaller layout of producers and reporters, of cables and cameras, sales managers and writers at any of San Diego’s seven local stations. The emphasis is reversed. Here, a few anchors have high salaries but their moneyed power and reporter’s clout hardly rule. They are not the “story” of local news, despite the love-hate mail about Kimberly Hunt’s hair. Although TV viewers are often devoted to their anchors, anchors are expendable. When ratings fall, they get the pink slips largely because their on-air-ness grows stale from over-exposure. The narrowcasting on Washington politics favored by the big networks is absent from local news; local coverage ranges from tough analysis of Tijuana drug-trafficking to the fluffy Hua Mei update. Unless the producers enslave a station to the national network feed, there’s usually a lack of corporate heaviness and, consequently, more independence in a local’s identity. New things are tried more often at the hometown station.
As for reporters, they are “on” more, an advantage if they’re good: They have the time and the autonomy to enterprise what gets on and, as in the case of Gene Cubbison at Channel 39, often to the cheers of viewers. Sure, reporters get famous at the networks because the cameras capture them confronting newsmakers; but that’s the game reporters must play. At local stations reporters have the opportunity to care about something other than how successful they appear cornering political leaders. Where such iconic familiarity of anchors and reporters at the national level—owl-faced Larry King, “SCUD stud” Arthur Kent—keeps content fixed on personality, technology—helicopters, satellite trucks, day-of-air graphics—is driving the presentation of local news. Local stations know that viewer abandonment of the news is greater at the networks than at home so, naturally, they avoid looking too much like Dan Rather and Co.
The most important difference, however, between the Big News and the local news is this: A community has the potential to connect to its local news station, as partner, subject, critic, and boss, in ways network news can’t allow. By developing this connection, defined and implemented differently at different stations, station executives hope the great news bailout will end. To understand how stations connect with their audience, I hung out for several weeks each at the stalwart KGTV/Channel 10 and the upstart XETV/Channel 6, also called Fox 6 News. Why these two? Though the former first broadcast in 1953 and the latter on December 27, 1999, both are re-creating or creating themselves with media-consultant and network-savvy philosophies that are among the most current in the business. (Which is not to suggest such philosophies are ethical or successful.) KGTV is on 6 ½ hours a day beginning at 5:00 a.m.; in addition, KGTV’s Channel 15 is a 24-hour cable channel on which the station simulcasts or repeats the most recent broadcast from Channel 10. (Channel 15 can also broadcast live or breaking news while Channel 10 stays with its regular programming.) XETV, the Fox affiliate, has a half-hour newscast at 10:00 p.m., and has added a three-hour morning show and a half-hour of news at noon. In the hunt for viewers, these stations are trying to distinguish themselves from each other and the rest of the locals by staid and radical means of reclaiming old viewers or growing new ones. But savvy news travelers will tell you it takes years to establish a “presence” or to renew one’s following in the local TV business. As one station manager recently said, “To get viewers to change their news habits, you’ve basically got to blow them off their chairs.”
From Crisis to Branding
The most surprising reason for the nearly decade-long drop in news audiences came from Don Wells, Channel 10’s creative services director since 1995. Wells, with 20 years in television, has won a Peabody award and several Emmys for editorial cartooning, animation, and writing. This summer he told me that the crisis in local news became clear to him in November 1998 when most members of his focus groups declared that local TV news was “all the same”: Newscasts were so formulaic and indistinguishable that no one cared to watch one instead of another. Many reported no desire to watch any news program. What astonished Wells as much as the uniformity of local news was the viewers’ perception that San Diego had no core authority. For most people the city was out of control: sky-high housing prices; worsening traffic jams; questionable schools; dissolving neighborhoods. San Diego seemed ungovernable. A majority of those surveyed wished, as Wells says, there was “some entity” that understood the “big picture” about San Diego’s growth and was “shepherding it along.” Finally, his focus groups identified Channel 10 as having the “most resources” in the area (which is not true: “Right Here, Right Now” Channel 8 spends more money) and as being “more involved” in the community than any other station (which probably is true considering the tenure of troubleshooter Marti Emerald).
With the help of Lee Hanna, a media consultant who was general manager at CBS News and a news director at NBC, Wells and Channel 10 began searching for a new way. The 70-year-old Hanna, speaking from his home in the Berkshires, said that though his role in “fixing” KGTV was “minor,” he nonetheless believed their newscast, like hundreds he’s seen, typified Trivial Pursuit, in essence, chasing down news, not developing it with enterprise and thought. His gambit was to first ask the KGTV newspeople for their opinion of their coverage. Directors and producers believed that if they shot enough fires and accidents they’d be successful; otherwise, news would be dull, they’d lose market share and fail. They also believed their coverage was different from other channels.
Hanna disagreed; his outsider’s view has taught him that stations are not different from one another: “What you [the news director] think is special and unique is in your mind.” He said that instead of relying on the day book (or ratings tabulations) and the channel’s outmoded perception of itself, the station should chart a direction of its own. To help identify that path, he presented KGTV not the normal “media-consultant” game of tapping viewers’ likes and dislikes but anomalous research that asked viewers what they wanted. From his inquiry he found San Diegans were interested in crime but not in the station showing more or less of it. Rather, they wanted stories about law enforcement, gun control, community policing, the safety of older people—issues that affect but don’t exploit the fear of a boomer audience. Hanna warned that pursuing the young audience, the 18-to-25-year-olds, was useless: “They don’t read, they don’t listen, and they don’t watch.” Instead, KGTV should target another audience, then “develop a strategy, execute it, and stick with it.”
On Hanna’s shoulders, Wells began realizing his mission. He first understood that more of the same was not the way to change local news. “That’s a crazy solution,” he scoffs. “We need to go to more live shots, more car chases? We need a camera to get even closer? That was the easy [and wrong] response.” Wells cites one viewer who called: “What did that stabbing have to do with my life? If that stabbing somehow reflects my community, then you need to explain why that is.” Furthermore, Channel 10 decided, no doubt for financial reasons, to target the largest segment of “heavy television watchers.” They are “more heavily female, more heavily ethnic, middle-class people who are raising families and working.” He calls such measurement less demographic, more psychographic.
As Wells and I talk in his office, I note that his gaze is attracted across the room to a bank of four silent TVS tuned to the “competition.” He seems drawn to them much like one might view a benign landscape out the window; TV is another part of the planet on which we live. I ask him to describe his job now. “I’m in charge today of the message that the station communicates to the public,” he says. And that “message” they are “communicating” is KGTV’s self-styled brand of [they call] “Leadership.” The station has decided to “lead” their highly female-ethnic-middle-class audience of working families, try not to be “all things to all people,” another failing strategy of sameness. Many San Diegans are aware of Channel 10’s mix of community-mindedness and self-publicity: Marti Emerald and the Troubleshooter Unit; the Unit 10 Investigation; the weekly Leadership Award; Carol LeBeau’s “Staying Healthy”; the Annual 10 Leadership Day at Qualcomm Stadium; its four Emmys won, including best day newscast, last June. Wells believes such “relentless” self-promotion is necessary: The humdrum all stations generate requires a hammer to peen viewers’ loyalty and attention. His metaphor (supplied by a focus group member) compares San Diego TV watchers to turtles: To get him to stick his head out, “You have to really whack him. If it’s not anything interesting, his head goes back in his shell.”
Crucial to making a “relationship” with viewers is that anchors must fully participate in the marketing campaign. Wells says anchors like “Carol, Kim, Loren, and James Quiñones” do things that “are not even sponsored by the station. It’s [their] local touching that makes a difference,” which entails on-air personalities going out to “let people feel that they are part of the community.” Typical is coverage of a sand-castle building contest: Live shots, usually of the weatherman, with standups occurring in front of looky-loos, allowing the masses to be on TV, whooping and waving. Some cynics might say Channel 10 is leading the masses to TV.
Apropos of anchors’ “local touching,” I say it sounds as though the station were reaching out in order first to make money and second to make community. Are we confusing a public relations’ tool here with the pursuit of a noble cause?
“The truth of the matter is,” Wells says, “in this building there are both sets of people. There are people who say ‘this is going to get us more viewers and if it was something else, we’d do that too.’ There are those people. In fact that’s what got us into trouble before because, my opinion is, you have to do what is really right and then the other success will come. Otherwise you’ll keep shifting gears to try and find the right formula to get the ratings to go up. This year try this, then you’ll try that. To me, as much as the business model is important, you don’t have long-term success by chasing the dollar. For me what will work is, to have that conversation with the audience and do what the community feels is going to serve them because that’s what’s going to make you valuable. The cynic can still say,” he goes on, “that you’re doing this because it’s good for you. What’s the answer to that? I should do something that’s bad for me?”
So far Wells says “Leadership” has been “successful.” Though the overall shares of people watching local TV news continues to fall, Wells notes that during the May sweeps period, a time in which the station “refrained” from most sensationalism, the shares at Channel 10 increased. Channel 10 is, as of July, the number one station at 5:00 p.m.—taking over from Channel 8—and 10 remains a close second to Channel 39 at 11 p.m. The reason Channel 10 remains second at 11:00 p.m. is the NBC lead-ins—“Law & Order” and “ER.” The NBC audience is higher than ABC’s, flowing into the newscasts, so for Channel 10, Wells says, it’s “always going to be harder. We have to be the appointment-viewing news station that people want.” Unless ABC comes up with more popular lead-in programming.
At XETV/Channel 6, the Fox affiliate, “thinking the same” as the Fox network is the bait to lure in news viewers. Jill Brow-Weller, the director of marketing and research at XETV, helps Fox 6 News understand its lead-in audience, those who watch prime-time Fox shows like “The X-Files,” which end at 10:00 p.m. XETV’s audience has a median age of 33, and its target group, 18 to 49, is younger than KGTV’s. The median ages of the other prime-time lead-in viewers are in the 40s whereas KFMB’s is in the 50s, Brow-Weller says. XETV set out to “establish a new news audience,” one that is more male, active, interested in sports, “hard-to-catch consumers, mid-to-upper incomes, definitely achievers, and white-collar workers.” To lure them in, Fox 6 News appropriates the network’s motto “Fox Attitude,” which for Brow-Weller describes those who are “hip, cool, just-arrived, not completely established yet. The dot.com-launchers. And I hate to use the word ‘yuppie.’”
Brow-Weller, speaking in age categories, says because the audience is active, “the 18 to 49” tend to turn the TV off instead of turning to the news, a big difference from “the 25 to 54 or the 35 to 64,” who are liable to go to KGTV at 11 p.m. From in-house studies of people’s response to their 10:00 p.m. news, Brow-Weller says one finding is that viewers were “beginning to resent sensationalism” in news coverage. They wanted news “to be worth their while because they weren’t going to be sitting around watching garbage,” she says. “Garbage is something that doesn’t matter to them, information that is fluffy and non-essential.” All this relates to San Diego life, which Brow-Weller calls “an early-to-bed, early-to-rise market. We’re professional, we’re upscale, we’re educated.” At 10:00 p.m. KUSI/Channel 51 remains the leader by better than two-to-one over Fox 6 News and KSWB/Channel 69. Why is KUSI’s lead so hard to crack? Brow-Weller says it’s been on at 10 for ten years, it took KUSI a long time to build loyal news watchers, and the station has a high “turn-on” factor: People who weren’t prime-time viewers wanted to watch a newscast at 10:00 p.m. She says Fox 6’s ratings are growing and they’re getting a slight bump on “tune-ins,” those who may be watching something else and then tune-in to Fox 6 News for (who knows) something that KUSI can’t fulfill.
Chuck Dunning, 21 years at XETV/Channel 6 and now its general sales manager, tells me XETV’s leap into the news business came in part from the Fox network itself. Rupert Murdoch, he says, believed all Fox affiliates should “do news.” The Fox network doesn’t see itself “in the CBS-, ABC-, NBC-genre of 6 p.m. national newscasts. But they [the network] want all local stations to [have a] local newscast coming out of prime time. For two reasons. One is fairly self-serving in that the more affiliates they have doing news, the more opportunities they have for local crews to be on scene to feed the Fox News Channel. The second thing is, in today’s market—San Diego homes now get 80-plus channels, many over a 100—if you’re not in your local arena, you’re really nothing more than a service that can be duplicated on satellite or on cable. So they’re very anxious for their own brand protection and for our relevance that there be local programming that says San Diego
Dunning identifies three things Fox 6 uses to “personify” its brand—“pace, content, and style.” Fox’s younger audience, he says, has grown up with home computers and MTV: “They’re looking for something a little faster.” As to their early success, in the total news audience in San Diego and in their “primary target—adults 18 to 49—we beat Channel 8 News and tied Channel 10. And we beat the [KSWB] Warner Brothers news.” Only KNSD and KUSI are ahead of them. “To be number three out of six, less than a year on the air, is much further than we thought we’d be
Branding is key to mapping where to go in the local news business. But Fox’s branding is nothing like that which KGTV initiated. There, the brand was generated in-house and seems to have freed itself from obsequiousness to ABC. The irony needs stressing. KGTV, the older, some say, more conservative San Diego station, appears to have redesigned itself with more independence than the new kid, Fox 6 News. Fox 6 has piggy-backed its self-image on the network, which Dunning’s jargonistic term, “to Foxify,” captures. And yet Fox 6’s buddying up to the network may be more honest than the starry-eyed notion of “community” at KGTV. Be careful of suppositions. Is it better to associate oneself with “community”? Is it worse to bed-fellow with a network’s “attitude”? These are different tactics toward “success,” another pitch that drips with relativity. More important, they are tactics of self-regard that we take purely as self-regard.
Crackle and Hum at Fox 6 News
Getting viewers to watch begins and ends with those people who decide what the news of the day will be. Most stations share a similar news-gathering format: assignment desk managers monitor the police scanner, the fire frequency band, helicopter, radio, and relay tower signals, and a host of Internet sites and network feeds. At morning or afternoon editorial meetings (some heavy- broadcast stations hold several a day), the beat sheet is presented by an assignment manager, discussed, and parceled out to the reporter-photographer crews, depending on how many are available that day. At Channel 10, the decisions are arrived at with input from veteran reporters and photojournalists as well as news director Stutz, executive producer Lee Swanson, and managing editor J.W. August, all Emmy award-winning deans of the hard-news school—who, what, where, when, and why, in that order. With the upstarts at Fox 6 News it’s more dictatorial—an assignment manager and a producer choose (one writer has called it an “extraction process”) those stories for whose coverage Fox 6 wants to be recognized.
Senior news producer Irene Mahoney and assignment manager Paul Levikov are the pair responsible for Fox 6 News. Mahoney, a plus-sized energetic woman in a world of female pixie reporters and anchors, is mixing several hard news stories, covered with short reports, and a few packages. Today, a Monday, she’s going with “Diet Wars,” a minute-and-a-half package about high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets, a current fad. While the reporter is out, interviewing a nutritionist, Mahoney is convincing herself that this story is perfect for Monday night. With it she can snag “Ally McBeal” viewers, those in their late 20s to late 30s the station targets. Mondays, she says, is “a high female audience who are always concerned with diets. We’ll tease it during the day.” Health coverage is important; it’s the main source of viewer feedback. People are still fascinated by Viagra, she says, so tonight there’s also a quickie on a Viagra competitor that has failed clinical trials.
Most half-hour newscasts feature a non-stop nine-to-twelve-minute “A” block during which many stories are no longer than 30, 20, or 15 seconds; some “hard-news” nights the total might be 25 voice-overs. Will that many news stories attract a large number of viewers? I ask. “There might be [a road] accident,” Mahoney says, “and you went by it and you turn on the news because you’re wondering ‘What happened?’” Fox’s goal, she says, is “complete news coverage” of San Diego, quantity and accuracy. Miranda, her assistant, wants more entertainment in the newscast; Mahoney wants hard news because she hates passing on celebrity gossip. She is driven by news that’s new, “not JonBenet Ramsey every day. Now the parents are taking a lie detector test, now they aren’t taking a lie detector test. When it gets to tabloid, I draw the line. If they make an arrest, that’s news. If you want tabloid stuff, go to the tabloids, Extra and all that.” Those programs are actually a good development, so say many local news producers, because they give viewers what they want—in-depth coverage of movie stars and murder cases. Local news is freed then to cover local news.
Mahoney sets the stories’ order by moving from heavier to lighter, so “you’re not going from ten people died in a plane crash to ‘Hey, John [the weatherman], we’re gonna have a nice day tomorrow, huh?’” Sports or weather is usually teased, so one anchor can “toss” it to another anchor and reply, as though they were already in the midst of a conversation when we tuned in. “I look at ratings,” Mahoney says, “but the bottom line is, you can’t make up news.” She believes in broadcasting what people are interested in, which she says can be told in “bits of 20,” or 20 seconds. On occasion, a reporter and a photojournalist might have more “emotional sound bites” and ask for 30, but that’s the top. Unless it’s a package.
I notice an airline story they’re running, entitled “Aging Wiring,” which reports that said wiring “may have caused” recent plane wrecks, among them TWA 800. In four of the five sentences in the report, the words “may have caused” are repeated. Does it contribute to the atmosphere of fear about flying by pressing on something that you haven’t backed up with evidence?
“It probably does,” Mahoney says. “We see stuff everyday that comes down the wire—this plane made an emergency landing there—and I think, do I report every single one? No. You’d have mass panic. There’s not much you can do about that.”
As for “breaking the mold,” Fox 6 News continues to produce stories that other networks won’t touch. One on “penile enlargement” and male sexual dysfunction was met with criticism from critics who felt it inappropriate for television and scattered applause from men who, often ashamed, wanted more information. “We touched on a subject that many thought was taboo,” Mahoney says. “But we were amazed at the e-mails,” which asked for names of doctors who did the procedure. “It’s funny because we got all this flak. People would say, ‘Fox News, oh yeah, they did that penile enlargement story.’ It was pretty shocking to see that on the news, but, bottom-line, we helped people.” Mahoney recalls no one directly chastising the station for airing the report. Again, she says, “you learned something from the piece and you were entertained while you learned.”
A few days later I’m with Paul Levikov, a San Diego native who’s worked for 17 years at four local TV stations. This big, grey-haired, sallow-eyed news-junkie is enamored of Fox 6’s “creative approach,” happy at last to be at a station that wants the untried. Levikov is a shouter, not unlike a Mr. Microphone, I suspect from years spent yelling orders from his post. “Since 6 a.m.,” he tells me, “I’ve been watching TV news, reading the newspaper, and then on the way in, listening to radio news. Getting informed, making sure I know about everything that’s on the wire.” This morning Levikov hasn’t heard anything he didn’t already know because the morning report, he says, is nine times out of ten a rehash of yesterday’s news. He recalls hearing about the post-midnight death of two CalTrans workers, hit by a drunk driver. “It was hours old by the time I heard about it,” he says. He sent a crew but the crime scene was cleared away when the photographer arrived. After conferring with Mahoney (usually from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. on the phone), Levikov decides what they’ll cover; he then dispatches reporters and shooters. He compares his job to an air traffic controller. “I’m getting it coming and going. At the same time.”
This morning’s consultation with Mahoney is constantly interrupted by crackpots, news crews, tipsters, and media-relations officers wanting their story covered. The pace is gunfire quick. A line rings, badadut-badadut: Someone wants a job but she’s never worked in TV before. Badadut-badadut: It’s the news director, Albert Pando, returned from vacation, on his way in: “Is it you? Hold on. Goodbye.” Badadut-badadut: “Fox 6 News.” It’s a man who drove here from Texas and whose wife has kidnaped his daughter, a domestic squabble now on the road; he tells the caller, “I can’t help you,” and hangs up. Police scanners drone numbers and comments. Levikov knows the codes. More important, he knows the “intonation. If it’s routine, there’s a constant din of noise. Then something gets exciting and you can hear it in their voice. Usually the dispatchers are always calm—” Badadut-badadut. “Dispatches, yeah. Truck this, engine this, rescue this,” this being the vehicle’s i.d. “If you know it’s engine 14, you know it’s North Park.” Badadut-badadut. “Alert 4 means it’s too late, the plane’s already crashed so you better get somebody going right now.” The station doesn’t show police chases, not because it’s fakey-breaky news, but because they don’t have a helicopter. Badadut-badadut: “Fox 6 News.”
One of the stories today is San Diego’s heat wave, and Levikov is deciding who will report it and how. Before grabbing a crew, he reads a faxed press release from a resort in Borrego Springs, listing several “good reasons” why Fox 6 News should get their air-conditioned butts out to the desert. “If You’re Headed to the Desert to Cover the Record Heat, Consider Casa del Zorro Desert Resort as Your Source.” “Hottest Place in the County, Highs for the Day Projected at 110 Degrees.” “Visuals: Guests Who Travel To Be This Hot Cooling Off in Swimming Pools.”
Heat wave is story. Story must be covered. Levikov knows what he doesn’t want. He calls over a reporter and a shooter and lectures them with silver tongue. “I don’t want to go to fucking Home Depot and see people buying fans. I don’t want to go to Santee and get people tarring roofs. We don’t want to go to the beach and get people escaping the heat. Gotta come up with something. We don’t want to go stand in front of a thermometer at a bank saying, ‘It’s 100 degrees, isn’t it hot.’ We don’t want to go to a doctor who tells us, ‘Drink lots of water.’ We don’t want to fry an egg on the sidewalk. We don’t want to see a picture of a dog with his tongue hanging out. We gotta do something different.” As Levikov barks “don’t”s, the crew looks quizzical. Think differently is the currency. Personalize it is the station’s rap. Levikov continues: “All that shit has been done a 100 times before. What’s going to make us think?”
Exiting with the photographer, the diminutive female reporter asks me, “Got any ideas?” (Yes, I do, I think, but I’m covering your reporting). Later that night, the pair has profiled a winery and the effects of heat on the ripening grapes. An eager vinter tells them, “The plant shuts down, goes dormant, when it reaches 100.” Cajoled into creativity, reporter and shooter bring back a winning turn, away from the obvious. It’s not hard to guess what the other stations were doing with “it’s hotter than blazes.” Observing Levikov’s whip crack, I recall that most reporters think “inside the box,” do what’s safe and secure, until someone with his benevolent venom demands originality.
Reporter Darren Lyn is the kind of sparkplug Levikov admires. The boyish looking 31-year-old, whose Chinese ancestry and dark face (his great-grandparents immigrated to Jamaica) goes well on diversity-minded local TV, makes news stories into adventures. Not every story, but as many as he can. I’ve seen several of his playful pieces: for the “Diet Wars” story, Lyn’s image was blown up and shrunk during his standup; for the Microsoft break-up, Lyn began his standup beside a TV monitor, then vanished, then re-appeared on the monitor. A piece on rising gas prices was shot with the “lip-stick” cam and had Lyn looking down at the viewer who seemed to be inside a gas tank; a story on identity theft featured Lyn talking from the photo spot on his driver’s license.
In June and July Lyn enterprised a piece on testing the DNA of prisoners in San Diego County jails, which he’d first read about in the Union-Tribune. Lyn interviewed Deputy District Attorney George “Woody” Clarke who with his staff is looking at the cases of 560 inmates to determine which ones his office will test. Lyn’s story is a not about the test results (those will be ready later in the year) but about the technology’s promise to set a prisoner or two free. Lyn developed the piece by “thinking visually. I didn’t know what Woody was going to tell me, but I already knew I wanted DNA strands moving in the report.” He asked the graphics department to superimpose those strands on the screen during the Clarke interview, float them in the air, then swoosh them off the screen. Lyn’s photographer that day shot the interview with the space already in mind.
Lyn then enlisted an editor to help him find five seconds of menacing music to splice in at prime junctures. Finally the graphics department had been collecting video to illustrate the two-minute story: a (literal) smoking gun; swirling police lights and blasting sirens; footage of a crime scene; footage of a crime lab with a forensic doctor ripping open an evidence bag and cotton-swabbing blood off a pair of jeans; a jail cell door that slides along a runnel then clangs shut (the only cell door like this left in the county—one not electronically controlled—is in the Encinitas police station), and a still shot of that same jail cell in which Lyn will, through the “magic of television,” break out. Lyn’s idea is to begin his standup inside the cell; then he’ll be snatched up by a swirling strand of double helix, transported and deposited in front of the bars. The reporter/criminal sprung free via graphic interface.
Lyn is standing on the lip of a chroma wall, a 20-foot-high lime green raked platform placed in the corner of the studio. The solid color acts as an invisible backdrop: Only his body will be filmed and it can then be digitally transferred onto the videotape of the jail cell. With sharp suit and tie, Lyn looks a bit like a nattily dressed Venus on the half shell. Under bright lights, he recites his standup four times with the aid of the TelePrompTer; each time is perfect. Back in the newsroom, he reviews video and describes for me what the story will look like. He’s got 20 times the video he needs, he warns (mostly to himself). The digital playback machine whirrs in pain as he twists the fast-forward-fast-backward knob: “If we get too specific about the kinds of [DNA] tests, we can lose the audience.” He says viewers want it simple but snappy. What snaps is visuals, NAT (natural) sounds, music, sound bites, fast camera cuts.
Lyn defends himself when I ask if he’s editorializing about the news by producing it with what I term “technical overlay.” He says he won’t lose the thread of the story just because he dramatizes it visually; visuals can be punched up or muted so that a subject on camera will remain in the foreground. “If I’m a viewer at home and I hear there’s a DNA story, I think ‘That’s boring as hell.’” How, he asks, can we keep viewers interested in news that we think they need to know? “If you played all the same stories side by side with our competition, you’d look at my piece or anybody’s [at Fox] and go ‘Wow.’ My goal is, when they see this piece they’ll realize San Diego County is one of the first in the country to do this [testing]. I also want them to say ‘Wow, did you see that DNA thing going around? That was amazing.’ They’ll be compelled to keep watching.”
Chief photojournalist Mark Jacobs at Fox 6 News warns reporters when imagining a story to steer clear of the first thing that comes to mind. “Think of the opposite,” he says, “and do that.” Everyone I spoke with at Fox lionized Jacobs for his originality with daily news and for his own photo-journalistic pieces that are free from reporter comment and standups. He tells me what will set their station apart from the others is simple: Getting the reporter “to think of something creative or flashy, something that’s going to hold the viewer’s attention to the story. And the rest of the package has to be just as interesting, artsy, entertaining, flashy. You don’t want to scare [viewers] away, so there’s got to be a point to drive the story.” Jacobs stresses the confluence of—and difference between—“visualizing” and “personalizing” a story: Find an outraged, impassioned, sound-bite-able victim, who’ll talk, and use the camera rhythmically, accentuate or contrast what the person is saying.
Lyn likes riding with Jacobs’ advice; he says the other stations would do this DNA story more conservatively, “sit the guy [Woody Clarke] in front of a library of books, interview him, get a couple slides of DNA, go to the crime lab, get a couple shots, then click-click-click, stand up in front of the building . . . no, I don’t want to do that.”
Why is doing it a new way so important? I ask.
Lyn replies that everyone at Fox has had to do the “live shot in front of the empty dark building.” At every station he’s worked, this has been the philosophy—do live journalism in lieu of adding visual and audible nuance. He believes the live shot will always be part of broadcast news, but the reporter’s talking head shouldn’t dominate. “So many of us have been trained to do it this one way. No. Al [Pando] distinctly told us, ‘You have the power to think and do anything you want. Keep your journalistic integrity. We have no restrictions here. Free your minds and do it differently.’ When do you have a boss that tells you, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ This isn’t a job where I’m toiling to come in. This is a job where I call an hour-and-a-half before I come in and say, ‘What can I do today?’ To me, right now, this is a gift that we have here,” and he looks around at a quiet 5:00 p.m. newsroom, people away on breaks, soon to fine-tune tonight’s newscast over the next five hours. “I know the next station I go to, and I don’t care if it’s a great station up in San Francisco or L.A., the freedoms that we have here, I’ll never have that again. I know that.”
Supporting Mahoney and Levikov’s vision as well as Lyn’s success is a graphics department overseen by Michael Lafata. Lafata is the art director who with Blake Robertson and Philip L. Nenna make print and moving logos for the news show and special effects for the reporters. Lafata and crew invented the notorious “spinning cylinder” logo, made of turning, free-floating pieces of a cylinder. It’s called an OTS, or over-the-shoulder graphic. Some have said this image resembles a tropical fish tank or a Star Trek transporter. Robert Laurence of the Union-Tribune complained about its “very pretty, very distracting” nature. Focus groups said it looked a little too “Entertainment Tonight,” a bit too “Access Hollywood.” Young Lafata, a 1994 graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design, regards these criticisms as compliments. “They have high production values on Entertainment Tonight. NBC has a lot more moving graphics. I think we’re going with the trend.” He said the Fox News Network in Los Angeles “changed their graphic to look more like ours.” Lafata, Robertson, and Nenna got the last laugh—the trio won an Emmy in June for their swooshing cylinder. Their graphic had been on the air in 1999 (the year of evaluation) all of four days.
Al Pando is “graphic-savvy,” Lafata says. “His vision was [to create] a hard-hitting newscast with flashy, high-end, network-quality graphics at a local level. They give us a lot of autonomy. They let us do what we do best. I’ve seen it at other stations where they don’t. There’s too many generals who water down what you produce.”
What’s caused the graphics revolution in the news business? Lafata lists faster computers; more college-trained people on a wider variety of software programs; the Silicon Graphics machines; the falling cost of equipment. Fox 6 News carries in its reactor-like core a computer called the Flame and the Flint, also found at aeronautical companies, military flight demonstrations, movie theaters projecting special effects, and post-production houses doing high-end commercials.
All this technology is woven together in the broadcast control room where any observer or technician feels time’s pain at the telecast bell. The 10:00 p.m. newscast is the slowest-fastest half-hour on television because it’s live, with no tape delay. Though shit seldom happens (as in the screen going blank or someone fainting or sneezing on the set), there’s an ever-present fear that it will. The live half-hour compresses the news-gathering and news-producing twelve-hour day with jack-in-the-box tension and lets it go one creepy turn at a time. The room is imprisoned in countdowns. Three digital clocks with big red numbers click the seconds down or off on the vast monitor wall in front of three directors, each seated at massive control panels. On the wall are three stacks of a dozen TV monitors each, some 36, and it looks as though they’re all on! The biggest monitors are the three in the center stack: wannabe TV / preview / program; then five more to the left: 1 cam 1 / 2 cam 2 / 3 cam 3 / cam 4 jib / cam 5 newsroom. These eight screens are frozen, with videotape cued up to play or finished playing. Or else the screens show the anchors waiting during commercials or getting ready to speak. Only the program monitor carries the live newscast. Taken together, time on these monitors is an amalgam of time past, time present, time future—that is, newscast time.
The job of newscast director is traded between Dan Switzen, who helped launch MSNBC, and Adam Benalt, who began his career at CNN in Atlanta. The newscast director “traffics” the half hour, keeps the order moving via audible commands to other techies and producers. Switzen says the job is “like a symphony conductor or a football quarterback who must read defenses” anew for every play. But it’s Benalt who, the day after I got lost trying to follow a live telecast, describes for me the flow chart. The curly-haired Benalt has a warp-speed mind, his sentence mastery reminiscent of Marcel Proust.
Benalt calls the newscast director’s means of communication “multiple-sensory input and multiple-processing output. We have to multi-task what we’re doing. As soon as that red light hits, we’re on at 9:59:50 every night, and you don’t stop for half an hour. If something breaks or something goes down, we have to be calm and in control enough to keep the train running while fixing the problem at the same time we’re looking at what’s coming up ahead, three steps next. There’s six people talking in your ear. The tape operator is telling you you’re missing three clips that are coming up, the video person is talking to you about lighting things that he needs, the audio person is saying that a track is mono instead of stereo, the floor director is asking you how long the package is—and they’re all talking in your ear and you have to be able to give them all their answers while still telling the technical director the next three effects he has to set up, making sure the still store has got the right image on it, making sure [you’re listening] to the news producer who’s telling you where we’re going next, maybe there’s a breaking news story coming, or we’re floating a story or dropping a story, and the sports guy is saying ‘Can we get music on the next thing coming up?’ and the chiron graphics guy is asking if someone’s name is spelled correctly, and you still have to keep talking while they’re telling you all this stuff, listening to what they’re saying, and while all that’s going on, there’s still a show on the air, you have to watch your script, listen for the anchor to say the out-cue of that script, so you can roll the next tape and move on to the next package. It’s a large coordination job.”
The big markets, Benalt continues, like CNN in Atlanta or stations like WSVN in Miami, the Fox affiliate, started moving things at this new clip, putting a non-visual-thinking station like KUSI, despite its solid ratings, up against the tech-inferno of the future. “Graphics can really help tell the story,” he says. “We have exciting video and sound bites, but sometimes graphics can lend a flavor that just telling the story and watching the video can’t.” Benalt believes faster technology and viewer engagement are compatible. “We’re trying to serve the public interest,” he says, “be first on the scene, get the information to the consumer as quickly as possible. There’s something about a live newscast. There’s more energy involved. You know you’re on the air. It crackles and hums. It’s got a feeling to it that you don’t get from something pre-taped. I know I notice it. I think the common viewer, even if they don’t know what they’re seeing or why it’s different, they know there’s the possibility that anything can happen. The whole thing becomes a bubbling ball of energy and I think that transfers to the end-viewer. They realize they can sit back and relax, watch the program as opposed to sitting forward in the chair and waiting for something to happen.” The goal then—as ironical as it is arduous—is to translate the chaos and energy of live TV, the quickness of the graphics, the rush of news changing every 5, 10, 30 seconds, into that which “relaxes” the end-viewer.
We Go Live
The latest means of enticing viewers into the news fold is to “go live” and return to the live scene over several newscasts. This is the province of 10 News’s “continuing coverage,” made possible by its 6 ½ hours of news each day. The on-going breaking story, covered live and regularly updated, seems to hold viewers as much as the production quality of a day-of-air or enterprised story. The classic breaking story is the police chase and stand-off, of which San Diegans watched a jim-dandy in July 1999 when Janet Lucero tied up both sides of Highway 78 for six hours. Veteran Hal Clement shared his feelings with me of having to anchor a nonstop, six-hour broadcast about the little woman in the little blue Honda. “You have six pieces of information, say, and people are tuning in and out so you try in different ways to re-impart those six pieces of information, and hope a seventh one comes along. People sometimes get angry and say, ‘Why do you stay on this? Why don’t you show it when it’s over?’ Because we have the ability to bring it to you as it happens and that’s really what we can do. The newspaper can write about it the next day, the magazine can write about it the next month, but radio and TV can do it right then. An awful lot of people wanted to know what was going on.
If it’s live, then presumably the story can’t be interfered with. Live is, supposedly, like a heart monitor, producing “just the facts.” But going live is as much made as any other kind of reporting, any other type of newscast. In fact, quite often the facts change and the story morphs away from what the newsroom thought it was. Journalism on the run, without the filter of reflection, is loaded with circumlocutions and second guesses, a curious mix of a waiting reality and an updated one. Which is to say, limbo. Viewers may not notice, though, content to sit through the crackle and hum of a breaking story.
KGTV/Channel 10 reporter Sally Sherry gets to work this June day at 4:30 a.m. and is told by the night-side assignment manager a woman from Chula Vista has been shot. Sherry is a competent 29-year-old blonde, yet another small-boned women so beloved of the female image-makers at TV news stations (men come in all shapes and sizes). She’s already logged five years doing live reports. With her in the Channel 10 “live” truck is operations engineer Bruce Andres; they’ll soon be joined by veteran photojournalist Leon Varsano. The three converge at a VONS store parking lot, 505 Telegraph Canyon Road. In the pre-dawn hour, they see crime tape enclosing an area with what appears to be scattered beer cans, violently thrown liquid. Evidence technicians are taking photographs. One detective directs their vision to blood on the ground: They’re told a woman, who may have been at a rap concert that night, has been shot and she’s been transported to Sharp Chula Vista Hospital. This is what they report live at 5:00 a.m. For the next live shot, the crew hurries to the hospital. In the parking lot, they find the red Mustang, secured by police tape; the crimson blood on its side shows up clearly in Andres’ floodlights. Sherry also discovers the woman, 18, from Sun City in Riverside County, has been moved again, this time to Mercy Hospital’s trauma center where she’s been declared brain dead. They learn that a friend from Lake Elsinore drove her to Sharp in the red Mustang, and that’s it. This information goes on live at 6:00 and at 6:30.
Ginny Creighton, the day-side assignment manager, the hardest-working person on the desk and a Channel 10 mainstay for 20 years, begins an editorial meeting at 8:30 a.m. I straggle in with reporters, producers, shooters, and news director, Mike Stutz. Soon there’s fifteen people standing and sitting in the hospital-colored room while Creighton continues through the beat sheet. Quickly the facts known from the shooting and the brain-dead girl bounce through the room like rubber balls. The scanner picked up the shooting at maybe 1:30 a.m. and at 2:00 a stringer took video of the crime scene. Yes, blood on the ground, beer cans in a parking lot—looks like a scene after a rap concert. What concert? The one at Coors Amphitheater. Who played? Snoop Dogg. What’s the connection? It’s got to be gang-related. Have we really got something to pitch here? This was breaking news, folks, but we weren’t there to break it. Seems there’s no control of the drinking at rap concerts. Someone ought to cut off beer sales as they do at the Padres’ and Chargers’ games. If you ran a DUI checkpoint coming out of that Coors parking lot, you’d nail one out of every three cars. But isn’t that what comes with Coors funding the venue? We don’t have anyone out there babysitting the scene, do we? The crime scene? It’s in a VONS parking lot, right?
The talk turns from the shooting and its connection to the venue, to two dozen other stories, ideas, follow-ups, then veers like an Olympic bobsled back to the murder and the rampant intoxication. Connected, right? That’s all we have to go on. Why is it these rap crowds are so uncontrollable? Who was it that banned them? The Del Mar Fair had rap concerts but they’ve attracted the worst element, so they said, “No more.” Are we making racial characterizations here? Hell, no. Who wants this one? Lee Ann Kim, one of two reporters on staff today, says, “Me.” I follow her to her desk, and she’s rifling her Rolodex for someone-anyone to connect beer sales and a rap concert audience and the shooting.
While Kim keeps phoning, I decide to trail Sherry and Varano to the Chula Vista police department. There she’ll interview the public information officer live at 11 a.m., for the midday news. But first she’ll ask him if he knows anything new. She says she doesn’t need to script out questions for the live shot, but she review her notes so she “gets it” in her head. The officer is the stone-faced Lieutenant Don Hunter, a police detective who also talks to the media. Hunter says the woman would have graduated from high school today; the family—who rushed down from Riverside—believed she was going to grad night last night. The police have a man in custody who Hunter says is only semi-cooperative: He keeps changing his story. They discover that he was the one who drove her to the hospital. This man has also been arrested on an unrelated felony traffic warrant. I ask Sherry if there’s still a connection to the rap concert at Coors. She says she’s not trying to make one. Maybe someone at the station is. This is a straight factual news story, she says. She glad that the facts she has now will make the story more personal. Earlier, before Sherry left, she wrote the 11 a.m. anchors (Bill Griffith and Lisa Lake) a “toss” that segues to her update. Since the anchors don’t know what’s happening and Sherry does, she writes her own intro and, so to speak, follows herself.
Meanwhile Varano is setting up the shot. He’s on the grass, in the shade of a scrawny Jacaranda tree beside the parking lot, the camera trained on a flame tree with Christmas colors that nicely frames the Police Department sign. Bruce Andres is placing a monitor on the ground so Sherry can watch for the moment when the anchors toss it to her. Above the van, a mast motors up forty feet; a thick orange cable twines the mast, connecting the roof of the $100,000 mobile-control van to a microwave dish on top. You never park near power lines, Andres says. But someone at KABC in Los Angeles did last May, when the dish touched an overhead line with 34,500 volts and turned the van where former Channel 10 anchor and reporter Adrienne Alpert was seated into an electrical socket. Alpert’s burns were so bad that she has had seven major surgeries. Part of one leg and part of one arm have been amputated.
Andres describes his audio and video capabilities. Most curious is the camera they put next to the dish on the mast-top to “look over fences,” for breaking news. Since he’s been doing live shots at KGTV for 15 years, going live is what he calls the real “tense” part of the business. “You have to fight your way through police lines, park your truck as close to where the police will let you park, that’s safe to park.” With new stations Fox and KSWB jockeying for position at a breaking story alongside four other stations, Andres has seen an acceleration in using live technology. “Luckily we’re all kind of friendly still in this town,” he says. “I suspect that that will change. The competition for positioning—bottom-line, it’s cutthroat. Everyone wants the ratings.”
Sherry, off the cell phone, says they’re ditching the VONS parking lot video as part of her report because nothing happened at VONS. It’s unrelated—no gang-related killing, no connection to the open-spigot beer sales at a rap concert at Coors Amphitheater. Now she’s learned that the girl was shot in a game of Russian roulette and was brought in by a man who has confessed to playing it with her. The live shot is on and Sherry, squinting in the sun, is saying much has changed in this case. She turns to Detective Hunter who repeats the new facts: The shooting probably took place at a residence in Chula Vista, the home of the man being held. In the toss back to the studio, anchor Bill Griffith ad-libs, “This contradicts the earlier information we received from them that it was somewhat related to a party, a post-concert party at a rap concert.” Sherry replies, “That’s right. They initially had reports from people that they might have attended a rap concert at the Coors Amphitheater but they [the police] found out just actually within the last hour that that was not—” tongue-tied in the swirl of changing information she quick-shifts to a new sentence: “There were definite inconsistencies in stories and as things progressed there’s no connection to the concert and they were actually at a house.” The fact is now established; the man told police in the beginning that after he and the woman came out of VONS, “shots rang out and she was shot in the VONS parking lot.” Hunter tells Sherry, off the air, that he might return with a new story before they go live again at 11:30.
Could it be that the man was trying to blame the killing on a gang of drinkers who so happened to have been carousing in the VONS parking lot, after a rap concert? Hey, the man said, those drunks shot her and I drove her to the hospital. The stray bullet theory. About this, no one but me speculates, at least audibly, especially while they’re asking questions and reporting facts and then the facts keep changing. There’s little time to speculate because the KFMB News 8 truck, with its satellite dish, pulls into the parking lot at 11:25. Andres says, “They saw our story.” Sure enough, Channel 8 reporter John Culea tells me he suspects somebody on their assignment desk caught KGTV’s coverage. When Sherry finishes her 11:30 live talk with Hunter (no new details have come to light), does a further interview on tape with him, and Varano and Andres dismantle camera, tripod, cables, and monitors, the Channel 10 crew like knight-errants present the site to the Channel 8 crew who accept it gladly. Culea and Varano, who worked together for 20 years at Channel 10, hug and then Culea is scratching his head, with that bewildered look, Would somebody tell me what the facts are in this case, please? while Detective Hunter is putting on a tie-clip mike and discreetly hiding a transmitter box on his belt by himself, seeing as he’s done it so many times before.
Back at the station, the link between Coors Amphitheater and the shooting in a VONS parking lot fell flat; Lee Ann Kim is at the Del Mar Fair, reporting on fast-talking vendors who sell those use-once-and-forget-about-’em Ginsu knives and cans of Turtle Car Wax. I’m amazed: These vendors and a long fluffy piece of kids petting animals leads the newscast at 5:00 p.m., not the expected “if it bleeds, it leads” story of the Russian roulette murder—a story which keeps changing even after Sherry and Varsano and Andres go home.
The whole time we were out I thought Sherry and Varano and Andres were reporting the news: “As it happens” is the cliche. It was teamwork, a competent reporter and a good shooter and a skillful engineer who propelled the case from unknown incident to authoritative story. But the propulsion, the rush to assemblage, troubles me. I wonder how the pace and performance of live coverage, while the story is transforming from one apparency to another, play to an audience and with the truth. In journalistic terms, such relentless emphasis on the now may lose as much as it gains. Going live gains immediacy and the intimacy of quickly unfolding events, but it also panders to stereotypes, as in gang-related trouble after a Snoop Doggy Dog concert. Going live obliges reporters to keep updating the facts, but it makes speculation—in essence, the reporters’ reporting of incomplete details—the point of the coverage. (As we’re reminded every four years, reporters spend their time at Republican and Democratic conventions entertaining all sorts of possibilities that never materialize.) Going live grasps the hard-nosed realism of life and death (which no doubt gains viewers), but it loses to urgency and drama the other side of violence and pain, their consequences for families and communities.
O.K., so going live may be the more honest, the more postmodern form: We learn (again) that life is not “just the facts” but a series of half-truths and multiple perspectives. But if this is an accurate view of our condition, what are we to do with it? What importance should we attach to the message of news as it happens? Why does it matter, stealing Marshall McLuhan’s dictum, that aggregating a story before our eyes is the story? Even if we understand how news is made, how does that knowledge helps us understand ourselves and our world? Or am I missing the point? Does going live, like reporting a war, possess value precisely because it reflects a “mediated” reality where anything can happen? Could it be that we want to live in the realm of total technological connectivity—the relentlessly opportunistic now—and have elected television the vehicle that will get us there?
On a hot morning in June I meet Marti Emerald to discuss her latest investigative sting. Emerald, of course, is Channel 10’s famously brazen Troubleshooter, who’s been confronting auto dealers and trailer park managers on camera after they’ve over-charged our citizens, usually the elderly, for shoddy work or a worthless product. Marti Emerald, goes the promo, “Stands Up For You.” Having parked her equally brazen black Mercedes in front of Starbucks at Balboa and Genesee, she walks a gauntlet between outdoor coffee drinkers, an unscripted concrete-carpet entrance. A voice rings out: “Hey, it’s Marti Emerald.” And another: “Marti, you’re the greatest. We love everything you do.” Note the we. Note the everything.
Today Emerald is planning a confrontation with a “roofer” who has bilked a couple of single, elderly women out of their savings. The man targets these women homeowners who’ve had roofs installed in the last six months. The man tries to sell them a viscous substance he claims is a necessary final coat. Yes, he’s with the company who originally did the roof and, what’s more, he can put it on right now. The man is friendly, seems trustworthy, and doesn’t let go. One or two women have fallen for the scheme, despite the price—$4000. The man actually does the work (it washes off in the rain, Emerald tells me), then he insists on accompanying the woman to the bank. On one occasion he pleaded (and got) an extra $1000 because, he broke down, his sister had just that week been diagnosed with cancer.
I discover that the woman we are visiting got the man’s phone number, realizing it might be shady, then called the Troubleshooter. Emerald, Detective Paul Holman from the Elder Abuse Unit of the D.A.’s office, and the roofer who did the original work converge at the woman’s home to plan the crook’s capture. But they soon discover the scammer left a phony number. Emerald says he probably got scared, having read suspicion in this woman’s reluctance at the door. If they don’t bite the first time, he won’t return.
The red-haired, relaxed Emerald says that though the public loves her style of catching the crooks in the act, her focus these days is less on the “bad guys” and more on “alternative dispute resolution.” The Troubleshooter mainly intervenes “between businesses and consumers. A big part of what we do is process consumer complaints and do conciliation work, route people toward mediation, and help to resolve problems. We get about 1500 inquires a month—letters, faxes, e-mails. E-mail has just exploded.” Emerald has worked at Channel 10 for 15 years and continues to report and write consumer-oriented stories: She has led KGTV’s coverage of this summer’s electricity-rate debacle. Her main interest, though, is helping to build community troubleshooter centers, staffed by volunteers at satellite offices of the San Diego Mediation Center, where citizens can get something done about their problems. She reminds everyone that only 20 cases can get on the air during any month.
Emerald admits, laughing openly, that she’s “created a monster,” with the Troubleshooter. It’s grown far beyond what she envisioned to include a photojournalist, a producer, and two interns. “It’s a unique forum. It’s not like talk radio where people can satisfy themselves with a complaint. We get the complaint, we go to the source, we find out what the facts are, and we resolve the complaint. And in the process we educate the rest of the public about various issues, so they don’t get stuck or burned. It’s advocacy. I know I work on television—and so often we’re accused of doing what we do for ratings—but I sort of landed where I want to be. Management has been very supportive of letting us do what we do. They are yet to kill a story. They help to protect the integrity of the process by running interference with advertisers because sometimes we piss off advertisers. There’s always one or two”—the obvious example is car salespeople—“who think we’re badgering them or their industry.”
Second in command to Emerald is field producer Valerie Staples, who sets up interviews, researches stories, and writes some of what Emerald delivers. She works behind the scenes as a decoy, for instance, pretending her car needs repairing. With 21 years in production, she’s been with the Troubleshooter Unit for two years, having worked in Fresno and at KUSI. Staples shares Emerald’s surprise (and exhaustion) with the huge number of e-mails they are now receiving, some “60 or 70 a night,” follow-ups and new complaints. “We are on the forefront of the latest scam or the newest face on the oldest scam, as they mutate and change—what the predators are doing now.” She says people are shocked to hear their service is free. “We help educate and empower viewers. We report aggressively on predators out there. It’s always amazing to me. I think I’ve heard it all and then there’s some elderly person whose life’s savings has been taken.”
In June Emerald, Staples, and Jeff Barrett (who died in a car accident last October) won a regional Emmy for Specialty Reporting. Their 1999 report exposed a San Diego attorney who had stolen his disabled client’s trust fund and was still practicing law. The Troubleshooter staff received a “simple, compelling letter” from the disabled woman’s parents, who complained that they needed the stolen money for ongoing medical operations. These same parents had gone to the bar first, then to the D.A.’s office, and got nothing. The Troubleshooter staff took the case. Emerald first surprised the lawyer at his office, then in a later interview got him to admit on camera that he’s spent the woman’s money. “What did you spend the money on?” Emerald asked. “We spent it on business expenses,” the lawyer responded. “On what?” Emerald quizzed, “Paper clips?” Staples says getting the money back “was a real labor of love for us.” The state bar came through with a check for $50,000, the amount stolen and spent by the attorney: Emerald presented it to the parents of the woman on camera. Today, the same attorney, having served a short stint in jail, has been bound over for trial again on four felony counts of forgery brought by a retired San Diego Charger player. And he still hasn’t been disbarred!
Staples defends their use of confrontation with a camera. “We use it as much as we can,” Staples says, speaking at her KGTV office desk beside a 15-inch horizontal file of complaints she is investigating. “[Confrontation] is what people want to see Marti do. They want to see Marti—for them—walk up, knock on the door, and say ‘Where is Mrs. Smith’s money?’ She does what they can’t do.” Staples says they don’t always prefer confrontation; they often will tone the “hit” down, use it as a last resort. This can mean giving the person they’re questioning a chance to answer before the camera rolls. Many stories, though, are complex and undramatic: There’s more to explain than confront. For instance, the bank representative who says on camera that the bank does put a hold on $75 whenever debit-card users buy gasoline, which ties up the account to the tune of $75, so that the money is unavailable until the gas charge clears, which may take an hour or the entire weekend—to which Staples says, “Huh?” Such stories she calls “paper crimes,” and they are very hard to make “into good television.”
What an interesting question, I say. What makes good television.
“A content agenda,” Staples replies. “We don’t run every single car chase through San Diego. Good television is [spending] our resources to help people and warn people. We’re not out there doing sensational, easy TV stories.”
“Such as during [the] ratings [period] having an anchor/reporter do a series on high colonics.” She is referring to a report (criticized by many in the media but not necessarily by viewers) produced at Fox 6 News in which the weatherman described his treatment for an intestinal disorder, accompanied by graphics of a—not his—colon and rectum on the screen. Another element of “good television,” Staples says, is not just being a “friend to the consumer” as in “what’s the best toaster you could buy.” Such reporting, common on most channels, reflects the “news you can use” tactic that stations believe viewers watch. Not always, says Staples. There has to be a visual, individual story, she says, no matter what’s being investigated. “You can talk about someone ripping off old people but if you have Sally Smith telling this God-awful story of how she was ripped off, people will relate to it immediately.”
Staples says people usually want to warn other people how they got ripped off. But to convince them to come on television is difficult. “They’ve been victimized, been embarrassed; they’re angry. Getting someone to express the harm and personify the problem is very hard. Sometimes we work on a story for a long time and the person will say, ‘I can’t have my family know that I made this mistake.’” She says they tell stories without re-creation, only real people and real situations. As far as their relationship with the police goes, it’s one of “mutual respect-slash-distrust.” She says the police occasionally call for copies of the Troubleshooter files. “The joke in the newsroom is, we’re not detectives but we play them on TV. [The police] may think we’re amateurs, but they are amazed” with what the reporters’ aggressive investigation has accomplished.
Fox’s most provocative new “news” segment, San Diego’s Most Wanted, runs on Saturday evenings. The program follows the popular Fox show America’s Most Wanted. An offspring to the network program, San Diego’s Most Wanted publicizes an unsolved crime or an elusive fugitive by re-enacting and videotaping the crime usually in black-and-white film and showing it in letterbox format. The production value recasts the “look” from the typical news style of complementary colors and galloping graphics and a crime scene with a body already covered. News is seldom about the crime itself (and most stations will not show any murder or suicide, whether live or on tape). Colorless re-enactments have the semblance of “reality” on a low budget or, at least, the kind of “reality” that we think of as un-filled-in.
Deputy Sheriff Pete Carrillo oversees San Diego’s Most Wanted. Though paid by the Sheriff’s department, Carrillo works for the non-profit Crime Stoppers, which has since 1984 been producing 30- and 60-second Public Service Announcement videos about unsolved crimes. Video production has blossomed in recent years parallel to more local news coverage. In planning the new series, Carrillo says Crime Stoppers first contacted Channel 8; the station wanted an exclusive. The Crime Stoppers’ board, however, wanted the broadest coverage possible. No deal. Next they approached Fox 6 news director Al Pando, recognizing the value of America’s Most Wanted as a lead-in. The deputy sheriff sings Pando’s praises: “He opened up his door and said, ‘What do you need?’ We wanted a photojournalist to shoot the videos and he agreed. He said, ‘You can have two minutes of the news every Saturday night.’” Carrillo calls his agreement with Fox, “unprecedented” because of Fox’s generosity to “distribute copies of the tape to other TV stations in town, and the other stations are running them.” Carrillo has “to put it mildly, been inundated with calls from victims, families, detectives, requesting their cases to be profiled. It’s a positive yet overwhelming thing for me and my partner.” Since the debut of San Diego’s Most Wanted in February, Crime Stoppers has garnered national attention for re-enacting the Stephanie Crowe murder case. After another show, two fugitives they profiled “turned themselves in as a result of seeing themselves” on TV. “This program [on Fox] has breathed new life” into Crime Stoppers, Carrillo says.
In mid–June Fox 6 uplinks with a live morning show from Court TV to discuss a brutal San Diego murder. Two boys, Jonathan Sellers and Charlie Keever, were molested and killed 7 years ago in an Otay Mesa riverbed. Still unsolved, and still the boys’ shaken yet relentless mothers, Milena Sellers and Maria Keever, seek venues to proclaim their search for the killer. Today on the studio set with Carrillo is another chance at publicity.
In the control booth I watch the surreal display of how live television moves from the comic to the somber. The mothers endure technicians crawling over them with mike chords, telling them which camera to look into then changing their minds and shifting to another camera, asking the women if they’re O.K. (who say they are, then sigh volubly), joking with Carrillo who says gee, he almost feels like a big-time anchor, and everyone keeps it light because they await the end of Court TV’s first 10:00 to 10:20 segment about (get this) a stripper (got to be 55) who’s complaining to a bemused anchor about a judge who, because of her overt nudity (they flash a few clips of pasties flying), shut her Cable Access program down.
A large black woman in a bright purple suit, Milena Sellers solemnly reviews the facts, then Maria Keever, short and hand-wringing, in limited English, says, “It is like a nightmare. I don’t rest every day. Just from the finding of who killed my son. I wish this program would help. If anybody knows anything about it, to please call Crime Stoppers.” The program, presided over by Jane Wallace, is part provocation, part plea. Looking first to provoke, she asks Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular TV at Syracuse University who is on the screen from another location, whether these newscast dramatizations sensationalize the crime. Yes, he’s worried that television might, to boost ratings, be producing such dramas only to court the public’s attention. During the Wallace-Thompson exchange, the murder re-enactment keeps running. (It will during the 20-minute segment run a half-a-dozen times or more.) I see Milena Sellers in the studio when she’s off camera, looking down and downcast: There’s a studio monitor running the same program she is on. She can’t watch it she tells Wallace: “I live it every day.” But she does want others to know what they’ve suffered. Any discussion of the case helps.
Carrillo speaks of how important it is for these re-enactments to follow the loyal viewership of Fox’s America’s Most Wanted. “As far as I’ve heard, the ratings have been great. We’re keeping the audience, and that’s a win-win for Crime Stoppers and Fox.” (A remark which the techies in the control room cheer.) Thompson criticizes the “win-win,” but Carrillo defends it. He says higher ratings means “more eyes. The more people who see this re-enactment, the more people who talk about it, the more potential that someone will call. I’m not concerned about the money a station makes, but I’m concerned about helping these moms find closure.” The mothers repeat the importance of publicity, costs be damned. In 1997 they helped pay for a billboard with their sons’ faces on it a half-mile from where their boys’ bodies were found. Through Crime Stoppers there’s a reward of $10,000. From here out, the dialogue is memorably reactive.
Jane Wallace: “Bob Thompson, do you worry that this could go a step further? This is done relatively low key. In today’s media marketplace, the more entertaining, the more eyes you get on this? Do you worry about selling crime-as-entertainment to an extreme?”
Thompson: “I do. You come up with an idea and it’s done for a noble purpose. The film is using melodramatic techniques that make us a little uncomfortable, the Clapton song in the background. But you know Sesame Street used Madison Avenue commercial techniques to get [kids] to learn how to read and the alphabet. So far this is being done for a good and noble cause. I look at this, though, and if I think like a television executive, all kinds of not-so-noble things come in to my mind.”
Wallace: “I’m concerned about watching two actors die in what looks like a news format. I must say I find it hard to watch.”
Thompson: “You’re right. This is designed almost like we’d see a Stephen King film designed. You can’t quite see the face, the music, and all the rest of it. We’re walking a very fine line here, and it doesn’t mean we should quit doing these kinds of things. But we’ve got to be very, very careful how it is we do it and where the line between journalism, entertainment, and law enforcement blur and come together and how we are unable to negotiate the calculus of that.”
Carrillo: “I want to make a comment about television in general. I think people are de-sensitized to crime. You read it in the paper, you see it on the news. We want to forget about it real easily. My purpose in helping to produce this with the Fox people here is, I wanted to take the viewer to that day, to what happened, to make them feel the pain, the fright, just how horrible it was. I think we accomplished that. Because we get de-sensitized. When something happens like this, we see a quick burp on the news and two days later something else happens and we forget. It’s not done to over-dramatize. What we did this for was to take people there to feel [it]—you know, we lose feeling for people. This is real.”
Wallace: “You’re right. I understand that.”
I ask Paul Levikov, who’s been watching this program with me, about blurring the line between crime and entertainment. He says the re-enactment is not “very entertaining. It is emotional. It does provoke emotion. I’ve been doing this so long that I feel hardened for most things. When I saw that [video]—and now I’ve got a three-and-a-half-year-old kid—I got all choked up. It’s takes a lot to choke me up. It’s heart-wrenching. I agree with Pete. Whatever it takes to get these guys is worth it. We don’t do it because we’re trying to make money off it. We do it as a public service. The bottom line is, we’re here to inform the public. I can go home and look at myself in the mirror every night and think hopefully I’ve done a service to our viewers and not just entertained them. There’s that element [of drama or entertainment] to it, but that’s not what it’s really about.”
Carrillo believes the most powerful way to get an audience to recall the crime and its victims is for the victims themselves to be remembered by their families. In a re-enactment of an Escondido homicide, aired in July, Carrillo cites an interview with a mother in Spanish as “very emotional; you don’t have to understand the language” to be touched by her pain. “It’s not just another fake crime on TV,” he says. As far as profiling fugitives and re-enacting crimes, Carrillo would “love to see it run as a half-hour show, maybe once a month.” Using television to extend the arm of the law is inevitable: “For many years, media and law enforcement have been at odds. ‘Get that camera out of my face.’ ‘What can we expose that the police shouldn’t be doing.’ But now with Crime Stoppers, we’re working together. That’s why I have to commend Fox for sharing the tapes with other stations, which is unheard of.” He’s right; journalists and stations seldom share information. They fight over it like puppies on a teat.
An Endless Loop
A final example of innovation—its excitement spent now like a bullet—came on July 2 when Fox 6 News covered the election that made Vincente Fox the president-elect of Mexico. Though technically uneven, the hour telecast was original, daring, and (at least for this media critic) intensely viewable. Truncating sports and weather, the station put the entire staff on the beat—a live report from Tijuana; a live hook-up with a veteran journalist at XETV’s parent company Televisa in Mexico City; several background stories on previous elections and the dominance of the PRI; and, the best part, a panel of three experts on Mexican politics, business, and border issues. The trio sparked some flinty debate, had three appearances in the hour, and sparred without any Koppelesque intrusion from the anchors. True, the occasional queries of Estha Trouw and Lynda Martin seemed peripheral, over-relying on a list of “good questions” to ask the panel. But it was just as well to let these guys go on and (surprise!) respond to e-mail questions posted on the screen. Mixing a political rhubarb with an online audience for the better part of an hour was brilliant, unimaginable from the celebrity-reporter demands of a Sam Donaldson or a Cokie Roberts. Just as the Internet is letting us engage with one another in cyberspace, so too should local news activate us into TV-land. Viewers recognize how crucial Mexico is to San Diego’s future, as much if not more than reporters do. With all this in mind, I was—as they say—glued to the set for the entirety.
But before the praise gets too syrupy, a warning. Unless the local station is brand new or has little to lose, such stimulating discussion of the news will be rare. For one, the single surge of a momentous election is light years from the harder, on-going coverage of daily political life, at which most locals are unpracticed. For another, news and the thinking that controls it, ultimately, is wary of innovation. There’s just too much “product” to protect, too many sponsors to please. TV wants regularity; it wants familiarity; it wants recognizable anchors; it wants steady Eddies, the Mike Dukakises of the world, as its viewers and participants. It wants in Neil Postman’s immortal phrase to “deliver audiences to advertisers.” TV’s growth is insidious: It wants to be on all the time. It is on all the time. It’s not enough to have a good half-hour or hour newscast. It wants to tell the news three, four, five hours a day; in essence, time not to investigate more but to update its updates and sell more ads. And talk about schizy. Its most notorious value is that TV must under-regard itself; its head can never swell, its normality can never wane. For if it did, it would lose its audience entirely.
Television believes its sameness is its difference, and this blithe paradox may be the medium’s fatal flaw. Bill McKibben writes in his The Age of Missing Information, a meditation on the ubiquity and the ridiculousness of television, that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting “once commissioned a study to discover why people weren’t flocking to its ‘innovative’ programming. It found people preferred commercial TV precisely because on the networks they were ‘more likely to see familiar actors and episodes of programs they had viewed previously.’” McKibben notes, “We use television as we use tranquilizers—to even things out, to blot out unpleasantness, to dilute confusion, distress, unhappiness, loneliness. The reason that television can be counted on to work this way . . . is its predictability.”
And yet I want to believe local news has a frontier. An intelligent hour covering Vicente Fox’s victory would make it seem so. Television can surprise us when people go against the grain, make good choices and stick to them, use their machines’ “multiple-sensory input and multiple-processing output” in the service of those choices. But because TV is on all the time, because there’s too many “choices” of what to watch, because there’s so much money to be made selling self and product on the tube, the power to change itself and the power to inure us to those changes occur at identical rates of speed. In the end, sameness nullifies innovation: The more TV changes, the more its changes are aped by others and quickly become old hat. With news the least innovated format of television programming, no wonder viewers are jumping ship. To lure them back, stations must manufacture a personality or ramp-up the technological razzle-dazzle. But viewers, to have fresh opinions of the news business and, perhaps, watch TV more critically than they do, must watch TV a lot less, disenthrall themselves of its occasional brilliance and its habituating sameness. I doubt, though, that the future of local news lies in getting people to watch it less so they can appreciate its newness when it does change.