Show & Sell

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

Channel 9's Phil Keating would never have settled for such a weak visual. His reports are seldom more informative than those of his rivals -- they're frequently less so -- but he conceals any lack of substance with theatrical flourishes that are ridiculously, and entertainingly, over the top. Take the November 8 lead-off story about Jim Gluck, a onetime local who allegedly sent a Jeffco judge threats to poison the community: Keating wandered around a rustic dive where Gluck once lived amid panning lights and creepy camera angles straight out of The Blair Witch Project. This piece showed why Keating has become Channel 9's go-to guy -- and, tellingly, it had practically nothing to do with news.

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Sweeping Up
During sweeps months, TV stations heavily promote special projects intended to attract the maximum number of moth-like viewers to their glowing screens. But the production of major investigative reports (the news equivalent of the TV mini-series) began to wane after some notorious abuses, most notably former 4 reporter Wendy Bergen's attempt to shed light on the horrors of pitbull fighting by helping stage pitbull fights. Besides, conducting journalistic investigations can be costly -- and network numbers-crunchers have discovered that just as many people tune in to see goofy pop-culture bits as they do for news blockbusters that take months to prepare. More, probably. So today Denver's stations usually go for scaled-back one- or two-part investigative pieces, feature stories with slight news hooks or content-free reports that make Entertainment Tonight seem like Harvest of Shame.

Channel 7's entry in the investigative category was a November 10-11 two-parter by John Ferrugia about phone-card ripoffs. But while Ferrugia convincingly proved his point about the cards in question and even got Colorado's deputy attorney general, Garth Lucero, to promise to investigate, the report was larded with shot after shot of Ferrugia sitting in a nondescript, dimly lit room talking on the telephone to customer-service operators; the images looked like set-up scenes from a low-budget porn flick. Channel 4's Rick Sallinger, probably his station's finest reporter, had similar problems with his sweeps project about the location of sex offenders in the Denver area. The November 14 report consisted largely of closeups of metro maps with pushpins representing registered offenders. At one point, Sallinger explained that there were so many convicted perps in the Capitol Hill area that they couldn't find room for all of the pins, which should bring gentrification of the neighborhood to a screaming halt. Also on the sex-offender beat was Channel 9 business reporter Gregg Moss, whose featurey November 8 entry into the sweeps-stakes concerned online pervs and their dangers to children. While conducting an interview with a self-confessed violator (seen in dramatic silhouette), Moss, looking on the edge of nausea, practically curled into the fetal position on his chair. Bet he was glad to get back to reading wire copy about Microsoft.

Serious-minded pieces such as Channel 7 anchor Anne Trujillo's worthy November 12 report "Needless Needles?" about the arguments for and against vaccinating children, were heavily outnumbered by lowest-common-denominator spew capable of sickening anyone with even the slightest regard for intelligent journalism. Channel 7's Bill Clarke babbled for several seemingly endless minutes about Pokémon, Channel 4 wasted time on career coaches and vacation bargains, Channel 9's Mark Koebrich went on and on about the best buys in vacuum cleaners (insert your own joke here), and Channel 2 presented "Faces of New Hollywood," two-minute-plus commercials for programs like Felicity that just happen to air on Channel 2. But the station's most teeth-grinding moment came during the November 14 installment of the sweeps-inspired "Defining the '90s," during which anchor Wendy Brockman urged viewers to vote online for the motion pictures and TV shows that "made this decade so Nineties." In truth, Titanic, the viewers' choice film, actually helped make this decade more early 1900s. Obviously, the end of the millennium can't come soon enough.

We Are the World
Local newscasts that air in the mornings and afternoons can afford to ignore world and national news, because they're usually juxtaposed with network programs dedicated to the broader view. Traditionally, though, late-night newscasts across the country have saved space for big stories that stretch far outside the city limits. But in Denver, that space is getting smaller all the time. During the week in question, Channel 2 set aside 8 percent of its newscast for such reports, probably because it has so much more time to fill; Channels 4, 7 and 9 allotted 5 percent or less -- and were it not for an earthquake in Turkey and the crash of an EgyptAir jet (on which eight Coloradans perished), this percentage might have been much smaller. In general, if you wanted to know there was a world outside Colorado, you had to tune into the sports segments. Big fat surprise.

Getting Graphic
Denver newscasts dedicated between 6 percent (Channel 2) and 14 percent (Channel 7) of their time to what we've generically labeled flotsam -- self-promotional "stories," teases to reports scheduled later in the program (some of which were plugged as many as four times before they finally popped up), advertising tie-ins, and graphics, graphics and more graphics. What Denver has lost in real news, it's gained in computer animation.

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