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Show & Sell

Local newscasts have plenty of style, but where’s the substance?

These days, more and more people are getting their news from television -- or at least they think they are. But while local TV newscasts cover the events of the day (a handful of them, anyway), they're also sophisticated selling machines. And their target, dear friends, is you.

That's just one of the conclusions drawn from the following, a content analysis of Denver television news. The idea was simple: We taped the late news programs of each major station in the market -- channels 2, 4, 7 and 9 -- for seven consecutive days, November 8-14, in an effort to determine precisely what they're serving up nightly. The week was chosen because it fell in the middle of November "sweeps," a ratings period that determines advertising rates the outlets can charge in the future. As a result, stations bring out the big guns this month -- meaning that what we saw, ostensibly, was the very best they have to offer.

That may be the most disturbing news of all.

Talking heads: Channel 7's Lynn Setzer, Channel 9's Adele Arakawa and Channel 4's Bill Stuart.
Talking heads: Channel 7's Lynn Setzer, Channel 9's Adele Arakawa and Channel 4's Bill Stuart.
Talking heads: Channel 7's Lynn Setzer, Channel 9's Adele Arakawa and Channel 4's Bill Stuart.
Talking heads: Channel 7's Lynn Setzer, Channel 9's Adele Arakawa and Channel 4's Bill Stuart.

Slicing the Pie
Once upon a time, television news was viewed as a loss leader -- a service to the community that wasn't expected to turn a profit. No more. Particularly on a local level, news programs today are cash machines fueled by star power. Anchors such as Channel 2's Ernie Bjorkman and Wendy Brockman, Channel 4's Bill Stuart and Aimee Sporer, Channel 7's Mitch Jelniker and Anne Trujillo and Channel 9's Ed Sardella and Adele Arakawa aren't so much hired as they are cast. Beyond whom people want to see, news directors must balance what they want to see -- and what advertisers are willing to pay for. The result? That's infotainment!

All four of Denver's late newscasts offer variations on this formula. These shows supposedly are intended to deliver local news -- hard news -- but even if you use the loosest conceivable definition of the term (one broad enough to encompass a heavily padded November 10 report by Channel 7's Lance Hernandez about the "controversy" over Harry Potter books, for example), the stations are soft on hard news. At Channel 2, a WB affiliate whose newscast starts at 9 p.m., hard local news filled only about 19 percent, or eleven minutes, of each one-hour program -- and that total included the "updates" of lead stories delivered during the second half hour, which were really just rehashes of the original pieces. Commercials, meanwhile, sucked up 31 percent, or around eighteen minutes, of 2's airtime.

As the graphics on pages 25, 26 and 28 show, the other Denver stations, whose newscasts start at 10 p.m. and last approximately 35 minutes, don't do much better. Channel 4, a CBS affiliate, also devoted around 19 percent, or not quite seven minutes, of its typical show to hard local news; Channel 7, an ABC station, got hard 21 percent of the time; and the champ, NBC-affiliate Channel 9, managed to devote a whopping 24 percent of its program to hard local news. On all three, the amount of time allotted to local news came in a sorry second to the amount of time devoted to advertisements. That's how the bread gets buttered in the big city.

A good rule of thumb for viewers interested only in local news: Watch the first ten minutes of a newscast and then tune out -- because odds are good that anything that follows will be about as hard as Bob Dole, pre-Viagra.

The Top Story
The old maxim "If it bleeds, it leads" still holds true in TV news, even if Denver is relatively restrained compared to markets such as Los Angeles and Miami. Still, it was no surprise that channels 4, 7 and 9 started their November 12 newscasts with reports about the sentencing of Mark Manes, who'd helped arm the Columbine killers; it was a perfect excuse to trot out those file photos of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold again. Sex is also a ratings favorite, which explains why 4, 7 and 9 kicked off their November 10 shows with the dismissal of the case against Raoul Wuthrich, the Swiss-American eleven-year-old whose alleged act of incest with his little sister became an international tabloid wet dream. (A couple of the stations ran photographs of Raoul that had been distorted to protect his identity -- but the shots were so absurdly fuzzy that it was hard to tell if they pictured a human or a protozoan.) Things got more interesting, however, and often more embarrassing, when there was no obvious lead story and stations were left to their own devices.

Channel 2 was the week's wild card, leading its program on the 10th with the rumors flying around billionaire Donald Sturm's collapsing deal to buy the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche and the Pepsi Center rather than stories about Raoul's tale; the station placed an airy report about the graduation of a wounded rookie cop in Lakewood over Manes on the 12th. Just as weird was 2's decision to give headline status on November 13 to a silly story about the unsuccessful search for a gunman in Arvada; the other stations wisely dealt with this nothing matter parenthetically. But 4, 7 and 9 made several loopy choices of their own. Channel 7 stumbled badly on November 11, when it showcased a piece on the brown cloud over Denver that essentially consisted of random folks saying the equivalent of "Sure is smoggy"; Channel 4 had several lead stories that were just as forced, including a November 14 package concerning a possible sighting of Jaryd Atadero, the three-year-old who disappeared in the Colorado woods in October, which strained credulity to the snapping point. But its screwiest front-of-the-broadcast effort was a November 8 notice about Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas's proposed ban on panhandlers. In the ignominious tradition of completely unnecessary live shots, reporter Brian Maass delivered his narrative from an intersection where panhandlers would likely be the next morning.

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