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.
What You See Is What You Get
The anatomy of a newscast.
What You See Is What You Get
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.
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.
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.
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.
That technology makes possible the latest fad in graphics, shared by all four of Denver's stations: logos flying into the screen against a backdrop of anthemic musical themes. Channel 2's opening and the transitions modeled on it (described in the story on page 30) certainly fit that bill; they look like something out of a Fifties 3-D movie. Channel 7's open goes for an artsier feel, with multiple dissolves of local landmarks (DIA, mountains, city at night) underpinning a mammoth 7 that hovers ominously over everything. Channel 4 features two separate introductions -- one with a big 4 that winds up at the center of a spinning CBS eye, and a second with oversized glamour shots of Bill Stuart, Aimee Sporer, weatherman Larry Green and sportscaster Marc Soicher, that arrives about a third of the way into the show.
But the most intricate graphics belong to front-runner Channel 9. Its open comes at the viewer in a wave of red and blue stripes accompanied by the NBC logo, which is used subliminally over and over again; photos of newsmakers or visuals of written statements appear on a blue background with a subtly stylized peacock lurking in the lower right-hand corner, silently injecting itself into the watcher's cranium. (Better loyalty through science.) Channel 9 also offers an abundance of background graphics that flash and flicker: a squib that keeps the time, temperature and, most important, the station's logo in sight at all times, and elegantly curved factoid boxes -- the ones that hover over anchors' shoulders as they speak to the camera -- that are far more pleasing than the sharp-edged and blandly geometrical shapes used by other stations. The eye candy has nothing to do with the news, but it sure is sweet.
The Gifts That Keep on Giving
Some philanthropists like to keep their charitable activities quiet -- but that's not the way it works in Denver television. Here, good works are no good unless they give something in return. Airtime, for example. Although many TV types involved with charities no doubt have noble motives, the happy side effect for station execs is the ability to generate favorable publicity. And if promoting and reporting on such manufactured events lessens the amount of time that can be given to actual news, well, it's all for a good cause: Ratings.
Channel 9 sets the standard for self-congratulation; every show during the week under analysis included at least one plug for an upcoming station-sponsored happening. As part of "Digital Divide," a co-promote with the Denver Post, 9 sponsored free Internet training each Monday in November -- a month not chosen at random. Also on the agenda were items about "Buddy Check 9," the station's program promoting monthly breast exams (and making conspicuous use of its female on-air talent's up-front talents); the upcoming "9News Leader of the Year" contest; and, most prominently, "9 Cares, Colorado Shares," a food-and-clothing drive that took place on November 20, after a blanket of promotional spots and on-air solicitations. Not to be outdone, Channel 7 relentlessly plugged "Operation Warmup," a November coat drive that took place on November 13, and Channel 4 let people know about its program to help underprivileged families pay their utility bills this winter; a "Share the Spirit" campaign done in conjunction with the Boy Scouts; and the Adoption Exchange, promoted in a public-service announcement that paired Bill Stuart with Wendy's founder Dave Thomas.
Of all the local stations, only Channel 2 largely stayed off the charity-go-round -- maybe because it was so busy lining up advertisers to pay for its other attractions.
Let's Make a Deal
On Denver newscasts, the advertisements don't end when each block of commercials fades to black. Stations also sell sponsorships for portions of programs, giving companies five- to ten-second graphic lead-ins to segments ("This portion of News 4 is sponsored by...") in addition to placement of their spot in the opening slot of the next group of ads. Channel 2 may be the most ardent deal-maker, but the other stations played much the same game, with Channel 4 capping its November 14 "Colorado Millennium 2000" report with valentines to photographer John Fielder (including info about where to buy his latest book) and "Millennium" sponsors such as Public Service Company of Colorado, and all but endorsing participants in its "Companies 4 Colorado" promotion. The implication was that anyone who doesn't patronize these businesses is being unfaithful to the state. Similar subterfuge was at the heart of the relationships between two stations, Channel 9 and Channel 4, and, respectively, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. Both outlets presented nightly items about what would appear in these newspapers the next morning, but because the stories were merely hinted at, not reported in any tangible way, the segments were essentially commercials masquerading as news. Predictably, the graphics for these regular features were spiffy; unfortunately, they didn't include the word "Advertisement" flashing across the bottom of the screen.
Got the Puff, Daddy?
On Channel 2, soft news -- local or national lifestyle stories, oddball items intended merely to produce a smile -- was given slightly more room than the harder local stuff. That ranking was reversed at the other stations, but each devoted plenty of time to ultra-squishy feature material: 15 percent at Channel 4, 13 percent at Channel 7 and 9 percent at Channel 9.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Denverites love their sports, and knowing that, local programmers stuff their news programs with a jaw-dropping amount of the stuff. Only about 8 percent of the average Channel 2 newscast was devoted to gamesmanship, but its competitors more than made up for this modest performance, with channels 4 and 7 clocking in at 17 percent and Channel 9 at about 20 percent. Most of that time was filled with highlights from the NFL, NBA and NHL, with other sports news mostly winding up on the cutting-room floor. Channel 2 didn't report on a single women's event during the entire week; the closest Channel 7 came was when sportscaster Tom Green casually mentioned that the girls' volleyball team at Smoky Hill High School had won a championship -- after showing footage of the Smoky Hill boys' soccer squad doing likewise. Channel 9 was nearly as weak in this regard, screening highlights of just one contest, an LPGA tournament, and while the station's Carol Maloney, one of the rare female sportscasters in the region (see the Message, November 11) was given a moment or two in the spotlight on November 12, she reported exclusively on boys' high school football. Marcia Neville, Maloney's prep-sports counterpart at Channel 4, did a little better, actually squeezing some girls' volleyball highlights into her segment on November 13. Thanks to her efforts, men's sports coverage outpaced women's sports coverage by about 300 to 1.
By this week in November, the Broncos' playoff chances were as good as dead, but all four stations still included extensive coverage on the team each and every day -- and on November 14, when the Broncos fell to the Seattle Seahawks, the newscasts responded with an orgy of highlights, lowlights and bellyaching. Channel 2 resisted leading that day's broadcast with the team, but its decision was probably dictated by the show's 9 p.m. start time; the game wasn't over by then. Channels 7 and 9 weren't nearly so shy. Channel 7 opened up with two minutes on the game, and during the sports segment, it offered nearly eight minutes more. Channel 9 dedicated four minutes at the outset and four minutes later in the newscast -- and for those Broncos boosters whose sadomasochistic urges still hadn't been sated, weekend sportscaster Tony Zarrella promised much more to come on Broncos Tonight immediately following the news. Channel 4 really took the ball and ran with it, though: After several news stories, the Broncos got their due for over four and a half minutes, and then the normal sports segment was distended to make room for "Super Sports," a special Sunday segment hosted by weekend anchor Vic Lombardi that came complete with its own deafening music theme, explosive graphics and list of sponsors. That led to two more Bronco rehashes that added up to nearly seven additional minutes -- the appetizer for an extended sports roundup that pushed the newscast to a full hour in length.
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Proof that Pope John Paul II had fathered several children by a Denver woman wouldn't have received as much coverage as the Broncos did on November 14 -- unless the woman were Janet Elway.
The Cute Out
With so much news and so little time, why devote the last minute or so of every show to an adorable, cuddly item? Because newscasts fail unless a sizable number of viewers tune in tomorrow, and TV execs think people are more likely to do so if, no matter how bad the news of the day is, viewers leave feeling good. And so Channel 9 ended its November 8 broadcast with footage of San Francisco rodeo clowns dodging a bull as they rode a seesaw, Channel 7 wrapped up on November 12 with shots of Bronco Terrell Davis filming a milk commercial, and Channel 2 concluded its November 14 program with nearly a full minute of videotape showing geese floating in the water at Sloan Lake. Channel 4 ended not one, not two, but three of the seven newscasts between November 8 and 14 with looks at killer whales and brought its November 13 program to a close with a New York City "stain-a-thon" that was a one-minute commercial for Tide detergent, the media event's sponsor.
Actually, this last report was an appropriate way to close a Denver newscast. Based on our analysis, these programs are as much about selling -- detergent, network sitcoms, the newscasts themselves -- as telling.
Back to you, Denver.