During a recent performance at the Lion's Lair, vocalist/griot Gil Scott-Heron preceded his musical set with an extended riff about, among other things, a media scenario in which virtually everything has a price tag. "Now you hear, 'The weather is brought to you by...'" he said. Grinning, he added, "Motherfucker used to come all by itself."
Not anymore. Denver newscasts are packed to the gills with advertisements, whether they appear in commercial blocks or not. On the Channel 2 broadcasts analyzed in "Show and Sell" (November 25, 1999), for instance, closed captioning came courtesy of US West, the evening's most noteworthy sports highlight was dubbed the "Dodge Different Play of the Day," and a video snippet pointed out that anchors Ernie Bjorkman and Wendy Brockman presented nightly news updates on KOSI-FM, a station owned by Chicago's Tribune Broadcasting, which also holds the title to Channel 2. And that's not to mention cross-promotional deals between Channel 9 and the Denver Post and Channel 4 and the Rocky Mountain News that hype the next day's newspapers under the guise of providing a preview.
Now, however, even public service announcements are becoming billboards. And in one spot that recently aired in Denver, a news anchor personally got into the act.
The PSA-as-pitch phenomenon is a fairly new one. Once upon a time, stations attempting to meet FCC standards would simply play announcements provided to them by charities and other do-gooder organizations. But in recent years, canny local television execs have realized that by producing their own PSAs, they can fulfill such requirements while subtly plugging their own news talent -- hence a long-running series of Channel 9 announcements in which weather personality Kathy Sabine talks about reading, learning and staying in school.
At the same time, news operations have generally tried to maintain a distinction between appearances in PSAs and plain ol' commercials, in large part because journalists who try to use their hard-won credibility to pad their pocketbooks regularly catch heat for doing so. Nationally, David Brinkley was called on the carpet by media pundits for agreeing to plug Archer Daniels Midland, a frequent subsidizer of ABC's This Week With David Brinkley, his longtime Sunday-morning discussion show, approximately ten minutes after retiring; locally, veteran Channel 4 anchor Bob Palmer raised some eyebrows two years ago when he took advantage of his own retirement by becoming a spokesman for both United HealthCare, an enormous HMO, and U.S. Home Corporation, the builder of (yes, you guessed it) retirement homes. Sportscaster Tony Zarrella, who's been filling Ron Zappolo's chair at Channel 9 since Zappolo left to anchor Fox's forthcoming news program, didn't wait for his golden years to cash in; a couple of years back he hyped Keystone ski area.
Questions could also be raised about the eagerness with which a flock of local television types, including Channel 4's Brian Maass and Raj Chohan, agreed to appear in the CBS miniseries Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, author Lawrence Schiller's adaptation of his bestseller about the death of JonBenét Ramsey. Are they really reporters, or do they just play them on TV?
Considering this environment, it makes perfect sense that more and more local PSAs are being sponsored by corporations. But while the majority of such announcements feature a faceless announcer linking the names of the station and the company that paid to put its logo on the screen, a Channel 9 message seen frequently in February cut out the middleman: Weekend anchor and investigative specialist Ward Lucas urged drivers to buckle their seatbelts on behalf of "9News and Progressive" -- the latter being Progressive Insurance.
When asked if he felt at all uncomfortable having to mention Progressive, or if by doing so, he might cause some observers to feel he was offering an implied endorsement, Lucas declined comment, referring all queries on the subject to Roger Ogden, Channel 9's general manager. For his part, Ogden concedes that the PSA might have been handled better: "We typically try to separate those things," he says. "There was some discussion about it internally, and I think in the future we'll find a slightly different way to do it." But he stops far short of promising that future announcements will be free of corporate collaboration.
"These are initiatives that are either developed by the station or by people who do business with us who have a particular interest," Ogden allows. "There are a number of corporations interested in doing something good for the community, and I think the opportunity for them to pursue that, and get credit for pursuing it, is perfectly fine. And it's a trend that's not restricted to television. You're seeing it in newspapers, too."
Oh, I forgot to mention something: The information in this column about watching out for subtly disguised advertising campaigns has been brought to you as a public service by Cocoa Puffs, a wonderfully sugary product that gave me the energy to type the words you're reading right now. And now we return you to our regular programming.
The Channel 9 programming that grabbed the most attention last week was helicopter footage of a police chase that ended near the point where I-25 and I-225 meet with the capture of Steven Bilson, a man wanted on a couple of Jefferson County warrants (he's also been linked to a murder investigation in California). The chopper, piloted by Al Verley, shadowed a van driven by Bilson while onboard traffic reporter Tony LaMonica narrated the action, of which there was plenty: After the van blew a tire, Bilson took off across the freeway on foot before surrendering.
The station's decision to run this confrontation live contrasts sharply with the choices it made regarding a chase last year that ended with police apparently beating several men under arrest; at the time, Channel 9 news director Patty Dennis said she delayed broadcasting footage of the pursuit because "it was a volatile situation, with too many unknowns. Even though our reaction time is pretty good, I'm not sure if we could have reacted to a pedestrian being hurt. So we waited for a conclusion and aired it after that ("The Eyes in the Sky," September 2, 1999)."
What were the differences this time around -- besides the fact that unlike last year, when Channel 7's chopper was in the best position, Channel 9 had a great angle on things? Dennis mentions several keys: The chase was on the highway, not downtown (as was its predecessor); it occurred during the 4 p.m. local newscast, so no national programming had to be interrupted; and in the intervening months, LaMonica has gotten much more adept at using the camera, a device called a Wescam that's operated with a joystick.
More troubling was the appearance that LaMonica and Verley were being directed not by Channel 9 personnel, but by the police. Dennis admits that at one point she "was asking him to pull back when the police were asking him to stay tight on the car" -- and stay tight LaMonica did. Then, an instant after Bilson had been cuffed, LaMonica said on the air that the police wanted him to pan back to the van to see if there was anyone else inside. As it turned out, there was: Brandy Beverly, who was wanted in New Orleans. But by moving the camera away from Bilson when he did, LaMonica guaranteed that viewers would not be able to see if these particular officers were treating their suspect in a more reasonable way than did the cops involved in the previous matter.
Dennis balks at the suggestion that the boys and girls in blue were giving LaMonica explicit instructions, noting that he was merely monitoring their frequency, not speaking directly with dispatchers; there's two-way conversation capability between the helicopter and the studio, but not between the helicopter and police. As for the timing of his pan away from the suspect, she says, "The second suspect was newsworthy, and that the police were interested in that as much as we were was coincidental." She adds, "We understand that our role is to be the eyes of the public, not investigators for the police department."
That's good to know -- because sometimes it's hard to tell.
Just over a week after broadcast behemoth Clear Channel announced new owners for five of six former AMFM radio stations it needed to divest ("Clearing the Channels," March 9), the gossipmongering has intensified -- and the debunking has begun.
One popular scenario suggests that Alice, the hot-and-bothered format heard at the 105.9 FM signal just purchased by religious-radio specialist Salem Communications, will move to the 106.7 frequency currently home to hard-rocking KBPI, which would then shift to the 93.3 FM spot of alterna-rocker KTCL. But while KBPI program director Bob Richards doesn't give a cold shower to the possibility that Alice will wind up as part of Clear Channel, he says it won't displace his station in the process: "I can tell you with all kinds of certainty, that won't happen."
Richards, who's long been one of Denver's most pugnacious broadcasters, isn't slinking around like someone about to be banished to the lower end of the dial, and neither is his staff. On March 7, the day after news broke that the Peak, KBPI's primary adversary in the market, had been sold to Hispanic Broadcasting, numerous KBPI employees arrived at the Peak's offices dressed as a mariachi band (they also brought along chips and salsa). "I don't think they enjoyed it very much," Richards says about the folks at the Peak. "Our people only got to do one song before they were kicked out." (When asked about reports that KBPI is under investigation by the Denver District Attorney's Office regarding an unnamed KBPI disc jockey and several unpleasant stunts involving a live chicken, Richards was notably less, um, cocky; he declined comment.)
While Richards says that the impending disappearance of the Peak can only help KBPI, he denies that the station has been badly wounded by its rival. But he concedes that his station's morning program has been in turmoil of late; ratings trends for January show it mired in seventh place in its prime demographic, and its ostensible star, Craig Carton, recently quit to move to Philadelphia. As a result, the station has taken an unorthodox approach, having nighttime host Willie B. Hung work the morning shift as well as the 7-to-10-p.m. slot. (Willie used to do 10 p.m. to midnight, too, but those two hours are now being filled by Loveline, imported from sister station KBCO.) Richards denies that this is a stopgap: "Willie's into doing this from now on," he says. Hope he likes coffee more than sleep.
Meanwhile, rumor has it that classically oriented KVOD-AM, the only AMFM station whose sale has yet to be announced, is being pursued by Working Assets Broadcasting, owner of Boulder talker KWAB-AM. But Chuck Lontine, KWAB's head honcho, laughs that off: "If there was an opportunity to purchase an FM to complement KWAB, we would look at it. But to take a second-tier Denver AM when we have a top-tier AM in Boulder doesn't make any sense. And besides, our commitment and our whole marketing plan is designed specifically for Boulder, not Denver." As proof of KWAB's Boulder-centric view, Lontine cites his station's latest promotion, one of the most unusual ever. KWAB, you see, is dishing out $100,000 in $5,000 increments to charities chosen by visitors to the outlet's Web site, www.radioforchange.com, who phone in at designated times Tuesdays and Thursdays; thus far, beneficiaries have included the Friends of the Lafayette Public Library and the Boulder Valley Safe Schools Coalition. A contest that generates valuable publicity within the community, yet is entirely tax-deductible: How Boulder can you get?
Lontine's lack of interest in KVOD leaves open the question of where the station will wind up. The most logical theory is that Clear Channel will simply give it away, as it did in the case of KHOW2-AM, which is now Radio 1190, the wonderful station affiliated with the University of Colorado. Furthermore, say proponents of this hypothesis, the recipient of the property is likely to be a minority broadcaster. Why? Because this gift would score brownie points with the Federal Communications Commission, which has to approve the sales of more than a hundred stations before the Clear Channel-AMFM merger can be finalized. The FCC stated previously that it hoped Clear Channel would strongly consider giving opportunities to such businesses -- and it has in the case of the aforementioned Hispanic Broadcasting, a firm in which Clear Channel just happens to hold a 29 percent ownership stake.
As for KVOD listeners, they'll probably need to find somewhere else to celebrate Beethoven's birthday.
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Channel 7's on-air editorials ("7 Solutions," February 24) have made their first big score: Only weeks after asking Public Service to either guarantee that a leaking gas-storage facility near Arvada is safe or shut it down, Public Service announced that it will close the operation. As Channel 7 general manager/editorial frontwoman Cindy Velasquez says in a followup to the original message that airs this week, "Thank you for listening."
The Denver Post has been heard aplenty of late: Its March 12 preview of the final Columbine High shootings report was a top-of-the-broadcast item on many national news programs. But lost in this hoopla was a newspaper-war irony: Reporter Peggy Lowe's contribution to the opus made the Post's front page even though she's been writing for the Rocky Mountain News since March 1 -- a departure that only added to the brain drain that's afflicted the Post since the first of the year. Daily switching, however, is a two-way street, with business type Al Lewis and columnist Reggie Rivers recently leaping from the News to the Post. Can't tell the players without a program.
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