OpEd Columns

The Ten Little Secrets of Local TV News (Indianapolis Star 8/12/03)

Dear Paula AnchorWoman, attractive, upbeat reader of our nightly local TV news: The charade is over. It's time for your viewers to let you and your happy face sidekicks in on a little secret.
We're not as stupid as you think.
While you smile and tell us about the dangers of eating peanuts on men with oversized prostates, let me give you a history lesson in local news.
After growing for forty years and then rotting for the next twenty years, local TV news coverage has fueled this fear stricken, head buried in the sod, society of ours for long enough. It's time for an overhaul.
Local news coverage was established for the good of the public as part of an FCC license to broadcast. It was not intended to be a sea of teasers, shameless self-promotion, and smarmy personalities… a pimp vehicle for ratings points.
Let me whisper a few other secrets into your earpiece.
1. Delivering a sentence with dramatic pauses and rollercoaster nuances does not make the story important. If that was the case, every story would be…."gripped with the tension…of the unknown.". Just read the script and quit auditioning for the next local production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
2. The word "live" is a TV term from the 1970s and has no meaning in today's televised world. Neither does "exclusive". We also don't care if you "brought it to us first." No one is interested in hearing "As we reported to you first last week". Quit bragging like an eight-year old boy.
3. No matter how many double dopplers, future tracks and weather guarantees, the meteorologist is only about fifty percent correct. And zero percent accountable. Those aren't weather labs. They are pre-fabricated weather models sent from a consulting company. Tom, you can stare at the Vegas-sized bank of oversized monitors all day long with your Storm Teammates, but it doesn't make you capable of predicting Mother Nature…This just in, skyview cameras don't show anything at night except street lights.
4. Speaking of accountability, the insistence of teasing a story with a question…Could tomatoes be bad for you? Do you know what's in your sink drain? Is your child safe playing in your front lawn?…is blatantly irresponsible and unnecessarily provokes fear in the viewer….at least until after the commercial when we find out that there's really nothing to fear. Stop asking me questions. I'm tired of screaming back at you.
5. My city is not as dangerous as you make it out to be. The insistence in putting a beat reporter on the steps of the courthouse gives the daily impression that my neighborhood is full of rapists, thieves, and arsonists. No one wants to see the same three-second slow motion footage of a low-life leaving the county courthouse every night. 99.95% of the people in my hometown of 300,000 are law abiding citizens. Quit magnifying the few maggots.
6. There is no such thing as an anniversary of a murder. Move on and throw the old footage away. We don't want to see it.
7. Every story in the world is not logically linked to another. These waves of child abductions, plagues of internet predators, and flocks of armed school children are no more than an ocean of local muck diggers desperately seeking some connection of every horrific event to their own hometowns.
8. Being live-on-location does not mean you have information to provide to the public. It means you have a satellite truck. Schools are closed at night. So are city halls and churches. What are you doing standing out in the dark? Hey Belinda Standup, get out of the cold and get into the studio.
9. Oh yeah, the newsroom isn't live either. The cat's out of the bag Paul, you're not answering impromptu probing questions from your anchor. You're just reading a teleprompter of prepared text…usually written at a third grade level.
10. It's time to fire the pricey news consultant who has turned your 30-minute show into a clone of the other 150 newscasts he services around the country. Inventor of the insipid three-day special investigative report every sweeps period, his idea of creativity is slapping a cheesy slogan on your newsteam. "Taking Action For You", "Together Making a Difference", "We're There For You"… Thanks, but no thanks. I think I'll go it alone.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell