The 10 o’clock news

September 1, 2001 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

Ah, yes, the 10 o’clock news on our local television stations. Lots of bodies under bed sheets. If it bleeds, it leads. Nightly we view a staple of mayhem, murder and anguished next-of-kin, yellow police tape and rotating red lights. No wonder most Houstonians think violent crime is far worse than it actually is.

We like to blame the media for most of our self-inflicted problems, but in this case, our gripe is right – we are being misled and underserved, specifically by the local 10 o’clock news. For so many Houstonians, that is the only TV news we get because the evening networks’ news broadcasts, which are wonderful reports on international crime with more colorful bed sheets, go on the air in Houston at 5:30 p.m. when many of us are still at work or driving home. If you don’t believe me, look at any Houston freeway at that time. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

But what do we get at 10 p.m.? Mostly just local news, and it’s mostly bloody.

(Channel 39, the WB network’s 9 p.m. news, is an exception.) Crime, along with the occasional car wreck and silly fluff, are what our stations consider important. But note the lead item on your 10 o’clock news, and then see where it appears in the morning newspaper – if it appears at all – because the story is usually insignificant.

Meanwhile, the shenanigans at City Hall usually go untold because, “This just in – there has been a wreck, yes, a wreck on the West Loop.” For analyses, they go to the man-on-the-street interviews and quick polls, which are a waste of our time. ” – while 45 percent don’t know and 55 percent don’t care.”

In addition, some outside consultant came up with the idea of “happy talk” among the anchors.

“Is that a new tie?”
“Yes, my wife gave it to me.”
“Nice.”
“Thanks. We’ll be back with late word on the White House bombing, but first, is your oven cleaner a killer?”

For this sorry mess we cannot blame the anchors or reporters. They read what they are told to read, even though some actually are competent video journalists who could even cut it as newspaper reporters. We might like to blame the news directors whose journalistic experiences often are more along the lines of P.T. Barnum than Edward R. Murrow or blame the station managers who simply want to keep their jobs and know that career security is totally dependent on ratings.

This brings us to the real culprit – the lowest common denominator, which is much of Houston. And just who are these people? TV stations constantly check their viewers’ tastes. Few business enterprises try so hard to be attuned to their customers. What these viewers say they want are “in-depth, penetrating reports on significant events.”

Total hypocrisy and Bevo chips.

I’ll give you an example. In Chicago the CBS affiliate, WBBM-TV, decided it could improve its last-place ratings by switching from the usual cops-and-body-bags clips to a serious presentation of the news given by a lone anchor. The TV world watched to see what would happen, for this could be the wave of the future. Guess what? Ratings dropped 20 percent, and within nine months the station was back to “news lite.”

While it would be easy to say that the 10 o’clock news is all blood and fluff, that’s not true. Some stations are getting better. Sports and weather are well done. The consumers’ helpers do a lot of good, and just because you have never been screwed personally by a used car salesman or door-to-door aluminum siding scam artist, rest assured that the presence of these TV crusaders keeps a lot of snake oil salesmen relatively honest and the restaurants you frequent probably much cleaner. But can’t at least one station pander to serious news?

H.L. Mencken wrote, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” In Houston, it?s paying off mightily. “Meanwhile, in Channelview, the body of Snookums, a pet hampster -.”

“I really like that tie.” ih

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