Protest Watch

Denver TV Stations Put Ad Revenue Ahead of Riot Coverage Last Night

The title of an N.W.A. song made an unexpected appearance in Denver riot coverage on KTVD/My20 on May 31.
The title of an N.W.A. song made an unexpected appearance in Denver riot coverage on KTVD/My20 on May 31. Photo by Michael Roberts
After the fourth night of violence in downtown Denver following the in-police-custody death of Minneapolis's George Floyd, residents of the Mile High City may be wondering what could possibly end the destruction over the nights to come.

Here's one possibility: a major reduction in coverage by local Denver television stations of the sort displayed on May 31. For the first time since the protests started here on Thursday, May 28, the four major local TV news outlets — CBS4, Denver7, 9News and Fox31 — all aired regularly scheduled programming rather than interrupting the roster to run continuous coverage of the unrest.

Yes, it's true. As gaggles of mostly young white males swarmed the streets near the State Capitol, 9News viewers were treated to an episode of America's Got Talent. Congratulations, Simon Cowell!

Granted, 9News aired live riot coverage on its sister station, KTVD/My20, during the 9 p.m. hour (and accidentally spotlighted the "Fuck the Police" graffiti seen in the photo at the top of this post). But at that time, My20 typically broadcasts a news update anyway — and its ratings are tiny compared with those garnered by the mothership.

That's an important distinction from an advertising-revenue perspective. When violence erupted in downtown Denver on May 27, local stations had no choice but to go live, since the event was exceedingly newsworthy. And following suit on Friday and Saturday, when TV watching is typically at its lowest, wasn't a big deal.

But Sundays, which tend to score the largest viewership numbers of the week, are something else entirely. On that evening, networks typically air their most popular programming and price the commercials scattered throughout them accordingly. Hence, airing yet another collage of images depicting dumpster fires and pepper-balling would have been mighty expensive — which explains why the aforementioned stations all waited until their 10 p.m. newscasts to update viewers at home on the scene downtown. Until then, those who wanted to know the latest were limited to online coverage.

At first blush, the decision to make information about an important incident less accessible to many viewers for what are almost certainly fiscal reasons seems like a crime against journalism. But in this case, the choice may have an overall positive effect.

The move resulted in less attention for the burn-baby-burn contingent — and attention is precisely what its members have been seeking ever since they began undermining peaceful protests during the day with moronic fuckery as nighttime beckoned. If anything can make them stop, it may be evidence that TV stations are no longer willing to give them unlimited close-ups for doing the same stupid shit over and over again.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts