Gimme Ten

Top TV news stories often scrape bottom.

Channel 7 has long boasted that its 10 p.m. newscasts start with ten minutes of "non-stop news" -- a term that's at least half accurate.

The June 22 program certainly zipped along, moving from one example of mayhem to another. Shots of two homes under construction in Elbert County that had been decimated by a modest tornado were followed by a report about a bolt of lighting killing a motorcyclist the previous day; a peek inside a busted Westminster chop shop; an item concerning a suspected "serial robber" who allegedly held up a liquor store with a screwdriver; and an update on the Mato Vega fire. Then, and only then, did anchors Anne Trujillo and Lane Lyon get around to telling viewers about a call for a special session on immigration from Democratic legislators (something that's never happened before in Colorado history) and Marc Holtzman's decision to drop out of the race for governor after the state Supreme Court refused to order that his name be placed on the ballot. These last two offerings were arguably the day's most important, since they dealt with the biggest issues and were likely to affect more people in the long run. So why were they pushed so far down Channel 7's roster? Apparently because they didn't involve burning, bleeding or blowing up.

This addiction to bedlam is hardly exclusive to Channel 7. Indeed, an analysis of recent newscasts conducted by yours truly suggests that while Denver broadcasters aren't quite as gore-happy as those in some other major markets, the difference is one of degree. Far too often, local stations give more prominent coverage to subjects based on their exploitability rather than their legitimate news value. The vast majority of stories aired are of the ambulance-chasing variety, with precious few examples of legitimate investigative reporting. As a result, typical news segments are gratuitous and superficial, leaving viewers less informed than they should be.

These conclusions were reached after eyeballing the first ten minutes of each late newscast aired by channels 2, 4, 7, 9 and 31 from June 19 to 23, under the hypothesis that those opening segments would reveal as much about the stations as the front pages of Denver's dailies do about the newspapers as a whole ("Up Front," May 25). As the summaries below demonstrate, the stations have some individual characteristics, but they share a great deal -- including a common disdain for Holtzman, who on June 22 wound up in the fifth slot on Channel 4, the tenth on Channel 2, the eleventh on Channel 31 and the twelfth on Channel 9. Sorry, Marc. You lose again.

Channel 2: Anchors Asha Blake and Ernie Bjorkman are an upbeat team, and that's fortunate, since their newscasts were loaded with death and destruction. Take the June 21 episode, when each of the first eight segments dealt with fires or crimes. And when these elements were lacking, the station sometimes ginned them up anyway. Most outlets used humor when reporting about filmmakers whose action scene was broken up by cops, but Channel 2 ran it second on its June 19 program with a banner reading "Controversial Video." In truth, the only thing controversial about the account was how much airtime it wasted.

Channel 4: Unlike its competitors, which tend to only air enterprise pieces during ratings months like May, Channel 4 spotlighted some self-generated material this week -- notably, a pair of Brian Maass exposés and a package that caught some Denver parks violating watering restrictions. Nothing groundbreaking, but the effort was appreciated. Additionally, Channel 4 squeezed a significant amount of national news between coverage of two grabby hit-and-run cases every station found irresistible (no wonder, since the victims were a child and a man in a wheelchair), and kicked off the June 23 newscast with a smoking-ban story whose central puffers didn't die horrible deaths. Although they probably will someday.

Channel 7: Quick-hitters were the rule at Channel 7, and the more catastrophic, the better. Take the June 21 show, which screened non sequiturs about a roof collapse in North Carolina and a jet-fuel fire in Palm Springs for no reason other than their stop-and-stare appeal. On a nightly basis, the station blitzed through more stories than its competitors during the same span, generating sound and fury that frequently signified nothing. As a bonus, a June 23 graphic identified late producer Aaron Spelling as "Aaron Spellie." Apparently, folks there have trouble spelling "Spelling."

Channel 9: Every so often, Channel 9 went beyond the obvious. For instance, the June 23 show began with a report about the possible sale of Elitch's -- a bloodshed-free story that nevertheless would be of interest to most Denverites. But even though the presence of pros such as Adele Arakawa was reassuring, the newscasts maintained an unnecessarily high body count from day to day. Of the first twelve stories aired on June 22, only the last two were free of crime, war, accidental death or natural disaster. What an oversight.

Channel 31: The initial ten minutes of Channel 31's June 20 broadcast was suffused with enough turmoil to make Baghdad seem like paradise by comparison. Featured subjects? A deadly apartment fire. Two wildfires. A memorial for a murdered couple. Two people shot. A child kidnapped. A stabbing death. A teen shot in the neck. Two trucks stolen. A sniper scare. Charges in a weekend crash. An injured man identified. A drowned man located. A murderer sentenced. A man accused of pushing his granddaughter too close to an elk herd. A teen guilty of branding other kids with a coat hanger. And, for good measure, a group of parents fighting to keep North High School open and a weather-report preview.

This sort of lineup was the rule, not the exception, at Channel 31 and elsewhere during the survey period, and that's disheartening. Of course, sensational or violent stories must be covered when warranted. Still, they don't deserve attention simply because they fit into this category. Driving to a crash site and turning on a camera may produce non-stop news, but it doesn't qualify as good TV journalism.

Maintaining their Bias: Launched last year, Bias took MediaNews Group and E.W. Scripps, which own the Post and the Rocky Mountain News, respectively, out of their comfort zones -- and the strain is starting to show.

The operation, split fifty-fifty between Media-News and Scripps, promised a range of products gathered under the Bias banner, including a magazine, a highly interactive website and a text-messaging component intended to create flashmobs that would descend on sponsored parties. The idea was to attract members of the youthful demographic who increasingly dismiss traditional newspapers, and some of the early signs were positive; a handful of events were well-attended, for example. But momentum slowed, and in recent months, rumors began to circulate that Bias wasn't long for the world. This grapevine gossip was seemingly supported by inactivity at the project's website, which wasn't updated between mid-May and mid-June.

When contacted about these mumblings, Denver Newspaper Agency spokesman Jim Nolan said Bias is still a going concern, albeit one that is undergoing an Internet revamp -- and indeed, the project's new site, accessible at www.biasdenver.com, popped up shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, danger signs remain. For one thing, the new site is infinitely stodgier than its self-consciously hip predecessor, and it no longer lists the number of Bias members, which had topped out at approximately 7,000. For another, the Bias magazine appears to be on life support. The July 1-15 edition is a mere sixteen pages long (half the length of the first issue, published on June 3, 2005) and contains a grand total of one advertisement not directly tied to a sponsored event. On top of that, the dailies have resorted to pushing this new-school enterprise with decidedly old-school marketing. Prior to a June 24 "pre-game party" tied into a lacrosse match co-starring the Denver Outlaws, the Rocky ran a print ad in its sports section, complete with a clip-and-save coupon for discounted admission -- a technique that's been around nearly as long as the printing press.

Then again, a print ad is something the dailies understand. That's their bias -- not their Bias.

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