A Defense of “Behind the Scenes At West Wing” and Other Audience Flow Stories

by Henry Tennenbaum, KRON-TV

GTN: Do you think stories such as "Behind the Scenes at West Wing" and "Inside ER" represent a conflict of interest ... The conflict, of course, would be between boosting ratings and profits on the one hand and giving the public the top local stories of the day on the other?
 
HENRY: As you've defined "conflict of interest," the answer to your question is a resounding YES, there are conflicting interests .... just like most other news decisions. Not to parse your question too finely, but in television news (and probably in all news media) story selection is, by definition a "conflict of interest."  Which stories will viewers/readers/listeners care about? Which are "the top stories " (I've been waiting years for a definitive explanation of that concept). Any news program/newspaper is a blend of so-called "top" stories and other items that emphasize audience interest over urgency. This isn't sophistry, really! Is sports a "conflict if interest," since most material serves little purpose but to satisfy the audience? How about "Dear Abby?" The stock listings?
 
So I don't believe "conflict of interest" is an issue as you've defined it (i.e. choosing between ratings and profits by replacing "top" stories with less worthy material).  I think "self-serving" would be a more apt description. As of this writing, "self serving" is a virtue, not a sin in our current economic system.
 
GTN: How do you justify such stories? What's their news value and why is it so peculiar to a specific night?
 
HENRY: Actually, it is a total coincidence.   Kidding.
 
The scheduling issue is obviously promotion-oriented. We happen to have the convergence of several factors which encourage such "flow" stories:

¾Networks, at considerable inconvenience, provide access to actors and production sets because they believe such news stories will promote their shows' ratings. This is like any company or agency which provides behind-the-scenes access and interviews because it believes the resulting story will be in its own best interest. And we're not doing these stories just because we're NBC affiliates, either. All the networks gladly invite (read "beg for") such coverage from non-affiliated TV operations like "Entertainment Tonight" and "E!"

¾Certain shows like "West Wing" and "ER" have attracted loyal, intelligent viewers that really do seem to want information about the programs and actors. As you know, the key to advertising is "targeting," the ability to have the right audience hear the right message. It's why one so rarely hears ads for The San Francisco Opera on Live105 radio.  But if there's a Limp Bizkit concert coming up, it's all over their airwaves. Viewers of such shows as "West Wing" represent an irresistible target audience. They care about the show, and we can provide some unique coverage. It's an obvious benefit to find an audience that is already watching and tell them about a story about which they already care. 

This confluence of subject, audience and access is easiest to achieve on our own station. But, believe me, if we had a good behind-the-scenes story about "Survivor" and KPIX would let us buy an ad on their news, I'll bet we would!

As for the "news value" of such stories, that's very much in the eye of the beholder. Was our interview with Martin Sheen less worthy than our recent chat with Itzhak Perlman, who was also promoting his performance ("TV News Panders To Perlman Fans!!!")? This is an issue that we feature reporters struggle with on a daily ... make that hourly... basis. Especially with producers and assignment editors. And spouses ("You covered ...what?!).  In this case, you've asked about two groundbreaking programs that really do deserve news coverage (at least Time and Newsweek have thought so over the years). 
 
So I'm asking for a leap here: Acknowledge that these stories might actually be worth covering (they're influential cultural components) and accept the ugly reality that promotion will be used to promote TV news ratings. All of which leads to your most difficult question:
 
GTN: Do you have any concern that such stories make you and KRON look manipulative to intelligent viewers?
 
HENRY: Actually, it's not the intelligent ones I worry about. I think they intuitively understand all this stuff. I trust that they will judge us by the key component - the story.
 
And that's my job. To take what may sound like a puff piece and turn it into an interesting, intelligent, even insightful story. It's why I dread these assignments - because they're TOUGH. Harder than most people realize. Eking out soundbites from talked-out stars. Finding insights that viewers haven't already heard. Capturing spontaneity in a rigidly controlled environment (sounds like covering politics, huh?).  Like any reporter, I don't always succeed in overcoming the obstacles. But I do my best to fulfill the viewer expectations that our promotion may raise.
 
So, no. It's not the intelligent viewers I worry about. It's the less perceptive watchers who can turn to the spouse and say "See, another piece of crummy TV" before they've seen MY crummy piece of TV.  Because I believe that a good story should speak for itself.
 
Sorry for the length. That's what happens when you let a TV reporter go longer than two minutes.