Evaluating the May Sweeps

Extreme Fighting, Spies Among Us, Bacteria Breakout, Jail Babes, Charity Thieves, Terror Fighters, Behind the Scenes (at every hit show on NBC), and other tales from Bay Area TV news

commentary by John McManus

 

Even the weakest-willed dieter fasts between snacks. The real test of a diet, or virtue, requires the presence of temptation.

 

Temptation peaks for local TV newsrooms four times a year, during “sweeps” months. That’s when stations set their advertising rates. The temptation?  To sacrifice journalism for more sensational fare designed to pump up audience ratings.

 

Grade the News took advantage of the May “sweeps” to see which, if any, Bay Area stations doffed their press hats in favor of the carnival barker’s straw pork pie.

 

We sampled the 10’ O’Clock News on Channel 2 and the 11 p.m. newscasts on Channels 4, 5 and 7. After commercials, newscasts only have 22 minutes each half-hour to address the information needs of 7 million Bay Area residents living in scores of cities covering more than a thousand square miles. We wanted to know how those precious minutes were spent.

 

Compelling journalism attracts audience. So one might have expected reports that drilled deeper into the Bay Area’s most pressing problems than daily deadlines allow. Investigative reporting, backgrounders. Obvious topics included scores of issues associated with the power crisis, or traffic gridlock, or urban sprawl, or environmental issues, or the sharp decline in technology industries, or the enormous loss of wealth in stock, or… you get the picture. 

 

But most of the “special reports” focused elsewhere:

 

We saw sweat-beaded close-ups of men locked in a cage beating and kicking each other senseless. Explored the “love loophole” (which turned out to be a pre-nuptual agreement; our guide was a woman who didn’t use one). Learned from the fictional Dr. Mark Greene of E.R. that the shows’ actors “aren’t really doctors!” Attended one Survivor party after another, (probably not coincidentally) on the station owned by Survivor’s owner. Uncovered Bay Area residents getting “free power” (but who were actually paying for electricity as part of their rent). Caught up with Eddie D. in Tampa. (He still isn’t in charge of the 49ers.) Interviewed “jail babes.” Gaped at nasty sores on two women’s calves, apparently inflicted by a bacteria-infested pedicure bath in Watsonville. And were astonished to hear of “a dramatic new way” one could get a face lift “without going under the knife” (only to find they cut with a laser rather than a scalpel). (Checking out the story with an experienced cosmetic surgeon also revealed that the procedure was far from new.)

 

Call it gimmick journalism.

 

In a more serious vein, we saw a San Francisco park’s fountain used as a urinal…and worse. The story apparently provoked city officials enough to saw through the legs of nearby park benches and remove them, presumably to drive away the homeless.

 

We also toured Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge from which the Bush Administration would like to extract gas and oil. We learned why some Europeans consider us barbarians for putting people like Tim McVeigh to death. And how life has abruptly changed for former dot.com millionaires. How bad the situation is in real emergency rooms in the Bay Area. How DNA testing may free some innocent prisoners. What happens when a career mom takes time off for child care. And something about older drivers risking their lives and others. 

 

We can’t assign grades because the sampling method was random, but not in a scientific sense (letting chance alone determine selection). All four of the Bay Area’s biggest stations strained to put on “special reports” with sexy titles. All were—understandably¾ pushing to maximize audience.

 

Channel 2 appeared to take the high road most of the time. Their specials were flashy, but usually newsworthy in the sense that both topics and reporting were consequential; you could learn something. Channel 7 fell in the middle.  Channels 4 and 5 both pushed ethical boundaries. Every station had at least one strong special or series.

 

In terms of attracting viewers, Channel 4 was the biggest winner. KRON exploited the popularity of no fewer than four popular NBC programs to pump its ratings. NBC helped out by making its sets and stars available and even having them promote the local TV interviews, recording a series of “teases” for stations around the country. It’s a double promo¾boosts the local station plus the network.

 

Tying in the audience

 

If you watched “Behind the Scenes” of “West Wing,” or “E.R.” or “Providence”, or “Entertainment Tonight” (which is itself a behind-the-scenes show) you experienced an audience manipulation months in the planning. It’s called a “flow story” or a “tie-in,” because it attempts to lure viewers of a popular dramatic program to the 11 p.m. news on the same night. The “local” newscast’s story about the program¾the bait¾is heavily teased during the show itself.

 

Meanwhile Channel 5 news was trying to cash in on the popularity of CBS’ Survivor II.

 

On the final night of Survivor II, KPIX sent a reporter to Los Angeles for the cast party and another reporter to San Jose where a bar was hosting a fan party.  By length¾but perhaps not by content¾it was by far the most important story of the day in the Bay Area¾at least through Channel 5’s lens. Earlier, the party stories were teased during Survivor II to tie-in the audience.

 

Channel 5 also prepared a story about Marilyn Monroe and aired it after showing the CBS dramatic series Blonde, based on the actress’ tragic life. Rather than maintaining the neutrality ethical journalism demands, Anchor Hank Plante shamelessly plugged both shows “right here on Channel 5.” “It’s going to be a big night!” he promised of the finale of Survivor II. He did not mention the conflict of interest. CBS owns Channel 5.

 

Is it ethical?

 

News ethicists consider tie-ins manipulative and therefore troubling. Some reject them outright as likely to increase already substantial public cynicism about the integrity of news. Others consider flow stories acceptable, but only if the story could stand on its own as locally consequential news, and its importance is not diminished by holding it until a similarly-themed dramatic presentation airs. When these two conditions are met, the public benefit of attracting a greater audience to the news offsets the manipulation.

 

We could find no ethicist willing to defend flow stories with little local news value. Bob Steele, ethics chairman of the Poynter Institute in Florida, has characterized such stories as “taking resources and committing them to a story that is not as important as other issues in the Bay Area.” 

 

Absolutely cynically-driven?

 

Some former news directors have complained bitterly of being required to run these stories. Harry Fuller, who used to direct the newsrooms at KGO and later KPIX, said, “The whole thing is an absolutely cynically-driven effort to get higher ratings during the sweeps so they can charge more for commercials. That’s all it’s about. It’s a sport of manipulating audiences that’s been around for 15 years. It becomes more pathetic as time goes on, because everybody knows what it is.” Al Goldstein, former news director at Channel 4 concurred: “The preponderance of these stories you wouldn’t do otherwise. They’re really not news stories.”

 

A current KRON news staffer said the newsroom was unhappy with running so many flow stories. “We shouldn’t be doing this without a clear [news] agenda other than increasing audience flow and revenues.” The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added: “It takes years to build a reputation. In one ratings period you can tarnish that reputation.”

 

Henry for the defense

 

Henry Tennebaum, KRON’s engaging arts reporter, covered all four flow stories in May.  He offers a defense in the accompanying article. In brief, he concedes the obvious¾that the timing of such stories is intended to promote the newscast and the network entertainment program. He further acknowledges a conflict of interest between boosting ratings and giving the public the most important stories of the day.

 

But he finds neither troubling.

 

Intelligent viewers, he argues, will accept and overlook the commercial structure of flow stories while judging them on their merit. The reporter’s task is “to take what may sound like a puff piece and turn it into an interesting, intelligent, even insightful story.”

 

As for the conflict of interest? Mr. Tenenbaum contends that most news decisions involve a conflict between stories that journalists feel the public ought to see and those they feel the largest number want to see. The NBC shows have attracted a substantial audience; they are shows people want to know more about. Further, “news value” is “very much in the eye of the beholder.”

 

Another view

 

Craig Marrs, vice president and station manager at KRON, also defended the flow stories on the basis of the popularity of the NBC programs. Borrowing from federal law requiring that television serve the public interest, necessity and convenience, Mr. Marrs argued that “convenience and interest has to be taken into account just as much as necessity.” Taking KRON’s viewers behind the scenes of these popular shows served the public interest. And that interest peaks with the season’s final episodes.

 

He also said West Wing and E.R. are important sociological and cultural phenomena, both accepted criteria of newsworthiness.

 

Dan Rosenheim, news director at Channel 5, refused to answer questions about his station’s performance.

 

My take

 

I deeply appreciate the thoughtful comments of Mr. Tennenbaum and Mr. Marrs. Both offer plausible defenses of a common practice in local television news. Further, drawing additional viewers to news broadens its social impact¾the good it can do by creating an informed citizenry. Bigger audiences also generate greater revenue, some of which may make it back to the newsroom.

 

But at least three serious questions remain:

 

1. If serving the public interest means interesting as much of the public as possible, then how does news differ from entertainment¾which already fills the airwaves most of the broadcast day?  Sometimes the most important news isn’t sexy. Sometimes it angers audiences because it punctures popular myths.

 

2. If adding viewers requires “behind the scenes” stories about fictional entertainment, are these viewers really interested in news? Will they stick with the newscast in the future or are they pulled in momentarily to fool advertisers about the actual size of the reservoir of eyeballs they are purchasing?

 

3. Were the flow stories really newsworthy? Henry Tennenbaum and Doug Murphy (who reported on the Survivor II cast party for Channel 5) have proved themselves capable journalists. But they never had a chance. The conditions set up for them were more promotional than informational. Actors are good at following scripts, particularly when they are made available by the networks for promotional purposes and the reporters are only allowed a few moments of their time (before they meet with the next local news crew). Most of their quotes were hackneyed. Neither sociological nor cultural influences of the programs were explored.

 

Perhaps it was a slip, but I think Mr. Murphy had it right at the top of the newscast. As he ended his tease of the cast party story and segued back to anchor Hank Plante, he said “but the real news begins now.”

 

News is a different business than selling cars or computers. You can get your hands on those products and test them. But news is by definition what you don’t yet know. And it usually happens beyond your view and earshot. You have little choice but to trust the journalist. You shouldn’t have to be worrying about whether they chose this story to inform you or to sell your attention to a third party. Because that suspicion may be stoked by the precise timing and heavy promotion of these stories, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics warns that, “journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”