THE TV – “A man was shot last night at the Bar None Cantina and Muffler Repair Shop after he shot two other men who shot….” The screen switches to blinking red lights from a scrum of patrol cars as the reporter stands in front of yellow police tape. A few minutes later: “A wreck on the expressway left three people in serious condition when an 18-wheeler crashed through…” More blinking red lights, this time from a fire truck and an ambulance, plus the ubiquitous yellow tape. “An apartment fire left twelve people homeless but Fluffy, the pet cat, survived as….”
There’s a local TV news adage: If it bleeds, it leads. Have you noticed that our local evening TV news reports consist of shootings, car wreck and apartment fires, with an occasional teacher-molests-student story thrown in? If there’s not a juicy tragedy in town, they’ll hunt one down. I swear, not long ago I saw a TV news program showing an apartment fire in San Antonio. I was in Houston. A program will lead with a shot of a truck plowing through a barrier and into a river. Then they will show it again, and again. It happened in St. Louis.
It used not to be this way. Serious TV journalists with a BJ in radio/TV dug up serious stories – OK, with a few bits such as: “It’s so hot you can fry an egg on this car hood.” What happened to them? As usual, I shall explain. It’s all about money and pride. When TV first came in, many stations were started or bought by the local newspaper publishers who earlier had started or bought radio stations thinking they were a cute toy that would never supplant newspapers. Actually, the radio stations didn’t take over from newspapers, but TV stations were a cheap addition to the local media empire.
But over the years, with new generations of owners taking over, we saw locally owned TV stations bought up by national corporations. Examples are right here in Texas where in Houston, the Chronicle owned KTRH radio and KTRK-TV. The Hobbys had The Houston Post, later KPRC radio and then KPRC-TV. These families were pillars of the community and had pride in their products. The new owners were out-of-town or out-of-state faceless corporations who care not a fig about local stories, local watchdogs and quality journalism. All they care about is local profits. Today, think of Texas’ TV stations as our end of a long vacuum cleaner hose sucking money from Texas to New York or wherever. At least we still have one Texas-owned TV network: the Belo/Dealey family, owners of the Dallas Morning News, also own a local radio station and WFAA-TV in Big D plus stations in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and…. This just in. Belo Corp. has been sold to Virginia-based Gannett Corp.
These new owners cut back on good reporters. When one gets too experienced and too expensive, he or she is let go to be replaced by some just-graduated kid, who thinks the mayor runs the school board and change of venue is a rock band. Circuit City tried this – replacing its experienced sales people with young, clueless clerks. The company went bankrupt.
A few years ago someone, a highly paid consultant, no doubt, came up with Happy Talk. That’s often a segue from one anchor to another: “Speaking of apartment house fires, it’s sure fiery outside, isn’t it, Mister Weatherman?” Or, a time killer at the end of the show when there are still 60 seconds to kill. “That’s sure a pretty tie, Charlie. Did your wife give it to you? “Thanks Mike. No my daughter. And she’s sure pretty, too.” Laughter all around. Can you imagine Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow acting that way?
The shallow and silly news on local TV stations stands in stark contrast to the major TV networks’ news programs. (I’ll let the laughter subside.)Let’s not run network news’ obit just yet. In the evening, an average of 22.1 million people watch one of the three major network news programs on ABC, CBS or NBC. Fox News came in fourth with 1,097,000 viewers. Almost three out of four U.S. adults (71 percent) watch local television news and 65 percent view network newscastsover the course of a month, according to Nielsen data from February 2013. While 38 percent of adults watch some cable news during the month, cable viewers spend far more time watching cable news than broadcast viewers watch local or network news. And Fox News greatly outstrips MSNBC and CNN in viewers. A small but very select audience watches PBS NewsHour. It’s a really good half hour of news. Then they have to pad it out for another 30 minutes (no commercials) with right-left, yes-no experts on the cabbage crop in Yemen.
Two points to make: Some local news reporters and anchors are excellent journalists — knowledgeable, witty, wise, and they have good hair. Also, this absentee owner problem covers most newspapers, too. So we ink-stained wretches can’t be too condescending. No, make that three points. Many people miss the 5:30 p.m. national news. Just look at our freeways at that time. So all they get is the 10 o’clock version. More car wrecks.
What’s on tonight’s local news shows? “A lost dog shows up after…. Is too much vinegar bad for you? World War Three is just minutes away…. But first….” At least once in every program we hear a breathless “Breaking news!” I read recently that a TV station manager in Indiana, I think, announced her station would stop that panic button. She probably lost her job. The one bright spot in Texas’ local TV news is Austin. Perhaps because it’s our capital city, those stations cover state judges, the legislature and various state agencies. This just in: Austin-based LIN Media, owner of three TV stations in Austin, has been sold to Media General in Richmond, Va.
Ashby changes channels at ashby2@comcast