Show & Sell

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

Some favorite offenders (out of many potential candidates): A November 13 report by Channel 9's Mark Koebrich about a firm helping folks file for their own divorces that was so empty and unquestioning that even weekend anchor Ward Lucas seemed put off by it; an endless November 14 report by Channel 7's Paul Reinertsen about a guy who just happened to buy a house his grandfather once lived in; and a November 14 Paul Day piece on Channel 4 about man-made earthquakes in Denver during the Sixties that was prompted by the airing of a sweeps-month movie, Aftershock, just before the newscast. But even this beaut couldn't compare with an extra-dumb Channel 4 feature on November 13 in which Dr. Dave Hnida argued that beer and pizza aren't terrible for your health if they're consumed in moderation. "The moderation part is what I have a problem with," said weekend anchor Larry Blunt during the thirty seconds of allegedly wacky banter that followed about a prop pizza slice soaking through a napkin on the anchor desk. More beer!

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Chat Rooms
Despite widespread criticism of "happy talk" newscasts, blabber remains endemic in Denver TV news, particularly during transitions from news to weather, from commercial breaks to sports, from sports to commercial breaks and just prior to a show's conclusion. All four stations spent around a minute each night on such vapid dish as Channel 4's Aimee Sporer needling fellow anchor Bill Stuart about his reputedly unaccomplished golf game -- and that doesn't count the unnecessary back-and-forths between anchors and reporters on location or in the studio. These exchanges tended to reiterate previously reported portions of stories, not provide new information; they're there to help identify these talking heads as interested, informed-yet-down-to-earth figures who can relate to you, the home viewer -- whether or not you want them to.

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.

Rain or Shine
The weather report is the most practical part of a newscast; people watch it so that they'll know how many layers they should wear the next day or how early they should start for the airport. But rather than present weather predictions in a succinct fashion, as they did in the alleged "updates" that often popped up near the end of newscasts, Denver TV stations dragged them out to an extraordinary degree, using flamboyant graphics and gewgaws, including computer animation zipping to and fro like circling electrons -- for a single purpose: to keep your ass in your chair.

Channel 9's November 8 weather report, hosted by Mike Nelson, included:

1. A view from Sky 9 (a helicopter) of the day's sunset.

2. A time-lapse shot of the mountains that would have shown clouds zooming past had not the sky been almost entirely clear that day.

3. Footage of snow in the Sierra Nevadas, since there was none in Denver.

4. A high-temperature graphic in which the numbers, in yellow, hopped one by one onto the screen.

5. A satellite view of the western U.S. that rapidly panned back from Denver, represented by a star.

6. "Future Cast," a swirling computer representation of what would likely happen later that evening.

7. A shot of Nelson walking into the "9 Back Yard" outside the station's studio.

8. A time-lapse shot of Vail overlaid with a "Statistics" graphic.

9. A "Currently at DIA" graphic over a city-streets visual that dissolved into a report of temperatures in other Colorado cities.

10. Nelson in front of a state map framed in brick, with greenery growing beneath and around it. As he waved his arms, clouds with moving raindrops and glowing suns magically appeared on the map, representing changes expected over the next several days.

11. Video of a jet trail over which flashed animated forecasts for "Tonight," "Tomorrow" and "Planning," all with the 9 News logo prominent.

This head-spinning display took over three minutes, or about 12 percent of that night's newscast excluding commercials, yet the key data -- what we think it's going to be like tomorrow -- was dispensed with in around ten seconds.

Commercially Speaking
Surveys suggest that late newscast viewers are fairly affluent, which explains the preponderance of advertisements for cars and online services. But such straightforward spots were often joined by ones that pumped the newscasts themselves. Channel 4 repeatedly hyped sweeps programming like Dr. Dave Hnida's "What to Take for Your Ache" (about the pain relievers doctors use for themselves) and Larry Blunt's "Invasion of Privacy" (concerning banks that sell customers' information), and created a special commercial for Fidelity Investment as a reward for sponsoring "American Dream," a Dan Rather-hosted segment recycled from the CBS Evening News. Channel 7, meanwhile, produced several editions of "7 Mark in Time," which blurred the line between news and advertising in a way that's both ingenious and disconcerting. Inspired by a gimmick popularized by Dateline, "Mark in Time" found anchor Mitch Jelniker mentioning a couple of events that took place earlier this century and then invited viewers to guess the correct year; he returned with the answer only after several commercials aired. In other words, the segment exists primarily to keep people seated through a slew of ads, and if Jelniker's credibility as a newsman gets scuffed in the process, who cares? In a fight between integrity and revenues, revenues win every time.

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