Rant and Rave

TV's (non)News

A Guest Rant by Doug Mayer


A few weeks ago, our esteemed Car Talk producer, Dougie Berman, wrote a little Rant and Rave about the teenage meteorologists on the evening news. It seems that their job, as defined by their program directors, is to instill in us enough fear of the next potential weather disaster so that we'll stay up through the commercials on the late news.

It matters not if the disaster has a snowball's chance of ever getting to us. What matters is that we be led to believe it is imminent, thus ensuring our dedicated viewing for at least a few days.

Well, I'm here to report that there's a heck of a lot more wrong with TV news than just the weather weenie we get to watch every night at 6:00 and 11:00.

The problem is, there's no news on the news. The last time there was anything newsworthy on the tube was when Wally Cronkite had dark hair and Dan Rather had yet to hear the words, "What's the frequency, Kenneth?"

What caused this? Simple. The same thing that drives just about everything else in this great country of ours--the bottom line. In the 1980s, the market value of TV stations blasted into the stratosphere and then just kept on going.

What did all the suits do? The general managers, program directors and all the little vice presidents did what every good little corporate weenie does: protect that huge investment. And how did they do that? They hired consultants. And what did the consultants do? Well, what every good little consultant does: focus groups and more focus groups. And market research. Lots and lots of market research.

Which leads us to where we are today. Pick any one of the top 220 TV markets and what will you find? Three (four if you count Rupert) networks, all with identical local news. And what does the "news" consist of? It's not news at all. It's stuff that's supposed to--according to those marketing consultant gurus--captivate and enthrall the audience. Drive-by shootings. Sicko domestic violence stories. Convicted child molesters. If you had been cryogenically frozen 20 years ago, and just woke up and turned on the 11:00 news, you'd think we were all living on the set of "Total Recall." Why do news directors focus on this trash? Two reasons: 1) It's easy. Send out a couple of neophyte journalism grads with a video camera and they'll bring back usable junk; and B) The bottom-of-the-gene-pool viewers love it. Any troglodyte pair of eyes and ears is good enough for the news director. As long as the numbers are good, who care's who's watching?

Unless you've been on the Mir space station for the last 20 years you probably realize we live in a pretty violent society. (Not quite as violent as Fred and Ethel on the late news would have you believe, but, sure, some people do get hurt every day.) In fact, you know what? The FBI can predict, with pretty amazing accuracy, exactly how many people will be mowed down by assault weapons in Washington, DC, this month. Why, then, is it news when someone takes a bullet in a drive-by? You got me.

So, where is the real news? It's all around. It's any story that has a real impact on our lives, either tomorrow or five years from now. Here in New England, voters in Maine will be deciding a forestry referendum that has the potential to dramatically alter the way 90 percent of the land in Maine is used. (Okay, so it's all trees. But, hey, it is 90 percent of the land. Give me a break. I'm trying to make a point here.) Their decision will have an impact on and influence similar debates going on in every other state in New England. It's a huge story. And the first three stories on the news last night? A murder, another murder, and an arraignment. Good job, Newschannel 13. Call it a wrap.

I have a suggestion. TV program directors should stick all their little satellite dishes and mobile "news"-gathering R2D2 trucks into their Eyewitness News garages. Take all the tech geeks who used to run around with cordless mikes and cameras, send them to a night journalism class, and teach them how to report real news.

There is a notable exception to all this, namely, Jim Lehrer. Or Robin McNeil. Whoever the guy is who's still left doing the news on PBS. He gives lots of real news, every night, and in enough depth so you get something more than a topic sentence, a sound bite and a few GI Joe action photos.

So, then, you ask, "What's the problem with Jim?" I'll tell you. Too many self-indulgent, inside-the-beltway talking heads. Give it a rest, Jimbo. Fifteen minutes devoted to a discussion of the Section 5 provisions in the revised appendix of NAFTA isn't news. That's policy wonk stuff, and that's why we shipped all those guys to DC to begin with. So we wouldn't have them in our living room.

Okay, I've whined enough and I feel a little bit better now.

And, of course, I have a solution to propose. I've noticed that "The Simpsons" is on one of the 10-watt UHF stations at the same time as the local news. Maybe that's the case in your town, too. I'd like to propose the following: There's a good chance that some number of Nielsen families are actually visitors to this Web site. How about if all of you kick back with a beer and watch Marge, Homer, Bart, Lisa and Crusty the Clown for the next year or so? It's a nice way to kill a half-hour at the end of the day. Ratings for Homer and company will soar, as you stay away from the local news in droves.

And maybe, just maybe, all the suits will be forced to give up on the troglodytes and learn what their job is supposed to be all about.

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