KILL your tv!

You’d think after 9/11 Sacramento newscasts would discard the sensational and get serious. But when Chandra returned to the airwaves, the newscasts were there in force.

Craig Prosser reports for KOVR Channel 13.

Craig Prosser reports for KOVR Channel 13.

Photo by Larry Dalton

When the Fox 40 10 o’clock news anchors—Jay Alan and Donna Cordova—took to the air on May 22, anyone could tell something big was up. Alan used a breathless delivery as he rushed into “live coast-to-coast coverage” of the top story of the night: Chandra Levy’s body had been found in a Washington, D.C., park.

Instantly, the anchor turned the broadcast to national Fox D.C. correspondent Grant Rampy, live from Rock Creek Park, where a man and his dog found Levy’s remains. In Washington it was 1 a.m., but Rampy was there, standing before what looked like an illuminated forest.

In his report, all the familiar images of the past year exploded forth. There was the Chandra picture that burned into our consciousness—with her head tilted and wearing an open smile. There was Gary Condit running from photographers. On this day too the congressman—“true to form,” Rampy said—was dodging cameras. And then there were the emotional scenes of the Levy parents breaking down in public juxtaposed with home video footage of a once happy family in better times.

On KOVR Channel 13, the local CBS affiliate, the coverage also started with a national reporter but had switched over to the station’s own Gloria Gomez live from the Levy’s front lawn in Modesto. That night, reporters from all four local broadcast stations would stand on the Levy’s front lawn and show, by and large, the same footage of flowers arriving at the front door and well-wishers holding impromptu press conferences after consoling the parents. By the end of the 10 o’clock broadcasts of Fox 40 and KOVR (which run an hour nightly), the stations had logged 14 minutes and 15 minutes of Levy coverage respectively, which is about half of the nightly news hole on both one-hour broadcasts (excluding commercials, weather and sports). If there were other interesting and important stories that night, the newscasts pushed them out of the way for Levy coverage. It was as if the Sacramento Bee ran its entire first section of the newspaper with all Levy stories.

Despite the competitors’ coverage that came before, KCRA Channel 3 and KXTV Channel 10 also covered the Levy story full-tilt at 11 p.m. Channel 3 offered little new information than the two earlier broadcasts but, like KOVR and KXTV, it ran a story on how forensics scientists will determine how Levy died. Only Fox 40 didn’t cover that base. And after over 11 minutes of Levy coverage—almost one half of Channel 3’s entire broadcast—anchor Dave Walker summed up all of the developments yet again. As if we hadn’t been paying attention.

Only Channel 10 used any kind of restraint. Instead of throwing the initial report to a reporter in Washington, D.C., anchor Cristina Mendonsa would go through the story herself over the footage of the day’s events. And taut reports from two reporters in Modesto—Debra Hoffman at the Levy home and Dana Howard on neighbor reaction at a vigil earlier in the day—enabled Channel 10 to bring its coverage in at seven minutes and 30 seconds.

The night on local news was a reminder of times that seem so distant now in the aftermath of 9/11. But when Chandra Levy was first reported missing a little over a year ago last month, all of the American press went into the kind of national convulsion cycle that seems to define our most sensationalistic stories.

As in the recent developments, first there were the cameras camped out at the Levy’s Modesto home and at the offices of Congressman Condit, who had been romantically linked with Levy. Then came the moral harpies who, on talk shows-turned-scream-fests, unleashed their venom on the embattled congressman. And finally, the media critics arrived to survey the scandal carnage and pronounce the nation, and its press, unhealthy for paying so much attention in the first place.

It was an easy, if not a fair, charge. Even the august New York Times went overboard. According to a computer search, the paper of record produced 85 stories that mentioned both Levy and Condit in the 117 days that started on May 17 (when it ran an Associated Press story) until September 11, when it was knocked out of the paper for bigger stuff. Here, in Sacramento, the story was also exhaustively covered, partly because Condit represents nearby Modesto, which is in the newscasts’ viewing area.

But in the aftermath of 9/11, the media critics gathered again to exclaim our scandal culture dead. Dan Kennedy, media critic for the Boston Phoenix, called it the “end of the decadence” in an essay a week after the tragedy. Kennedy wrote that the crisis would require a more serious media for a new world, meaning the media, “like the rest of us,” would have to change.

And sure enough, the Levy-Condit scandal was knocked off the television and the front page for a while. But if the re-emergence of the Levy story a month ago proves anything, it proves that the media—especially our local television news—hasn’t learned anything in the last year.

For the newscasts, the Chandra Levy story hit the perfect emotional chord from the beginning. There was the sex, the disappearance, the grieving family and the shady congressman. Certainly, the disappearance was worth a mention. But did it deserve to be the focus of entire daily news organizations when other pressing problems needed to be examined?

Even without the coverage of the latest in the Levy story, it’s easy to see that despite the events on September 11 and the calls for a better, more serious, press that followed, local newscasts have reverted to the same kind of sensational, non-serious news coverage that characterized the local TV news before 9/11.

After two weeks of watching just about every 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscast on every local station, it was easy to see that the local news shows still rely on a troubling, familiar formula. They do ethically challenged, fake news stories about their own network’s shows with tie-in promotional value; they rely on stories driven by celebrity, violence or sex; and finally, they sell commercial products, like movies and electronic devices, in stories. While the reasons for this are complex, the fact that all four local news stations are owned by large-scale media companies with multiple assets means that the stations aren’t as tied to serving the local community with quality news as they should be. Also, because the parent companies compete in so many markets, their product—the broadcasts we see every night—turns into McNews, formulaic reports generated by a franchisee that has only finite resources.

In the Sacramento region, the two acknowledged leaders in the local news ratings, if not in quality, are KCRA Channel 3 (an NBC affiliate) and KXTV Channel 10 (an ABC affiliate). While KCRA gets better ratings, it has an older audience thanks to its older anchors, the married team of Dave Walker and Lois Hart. It also has more resources than the other stations, including an extra channel (KQCA Channel 58), more reporters, a helicopter and a satellite truck. KCRA is owned by Hearst-Argyle, a New York-based corporation with assets all over the United States. All four local stations are owned by out-of-town media corporations.

Gannett-owned KXTV Channel 10 is second in the ratings. It has the slickest-looking set of the four newscasts and is known to do what one news director called “fuzzier” human-interest stories. Channel 10 doesn’t have the resources of Channel 3, but it does also have a helicopter and a satellite truck—two luxuries that can make covering spot news from long distances easier. KOVR Channel 13 is third in the ratings. It’s owned by Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group and features Sacramento news veteran Jennifer Whitney and Paul Joncich as anchors.

KOVR’s main rival is the fourth-rated KTXL Fox 40, which has so little resources that it only features newscasts at 5 a.m. and at 10 p.m. All the others have shows in the morning, around noon, at around 5 p.m. and at either 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. While Channel 3 and Channel 10 go head-to-head at 11 p.m., Fox 40 dukes it out with KOVR at 10 p.m. KOVR regularly beats Tribune-owned Fox 40, which pathetically bills itself “Northern California’s first prime time news,” which is technically true because it comes on minutes earlier than KOVR.

The dynamics of a local television newscast are likely familiar to anyone who’s ever watched way too much television—which is many of us. But if you watch every newscast every night, and see how each one handles the same stories, you begin to realize that the more highly rated ones run with a cold efficiency and predictability.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the newscasts are quality broadcast journalism—it just means if you watch them for a while, you know what’s coming. Usually, it’s sex and violence.

Thursday, May 16, was a good example. Two of the broadcasters, Channel 13 and Channel 10, led their broadcasts with live coverage from a scene where earlier there had been a nasty street racing accident. Even though it was dark, you could see the mangled car in the camera lights. Car wrecks have been a staple of tabloid-style television news for decades. Producers of shows live by the dictum that “If it bleeds, it leads,” meaning it will be what you see first. The phenomenon is what causes rubber-neckers to look at car wrecks. On Fox 40, they discarded the accident and instead led with a report on a Folsom doctor who admitted to sexually assaulting a patient. With reporter Jenny Click chasing the doctor at the courthouse and a camera following along, the doctor attempted to elude them by running inside a building. Ultimately they got their pictures. Sexual assault by a member of the medical profession is a serious problem, but what information about it was conveyed by chasing him into a building?

Only Channel 3 led with something other than sex or violence. It featured reporter Ron Jones live from outside a club in Sacramento called 815 L Street. In the report, several Asian-Americans alleged the bouncer discriminated against them when he wouldn’t let them into the club because Asians had supposedly been involved in fights there earlier. But Jones’ report was confusing because the club’s lawyer produced a videotape that showed the bouncer had let Asians into the club but also provided Jones an Asian witness who said anonymously that he got into the club only after talking with the manager and wouldn’t go back.

After Jones’ three-minute report, Channel 3 got heavy into the sleaze. First, it went to a 30-second report on the Folsom doctor, then Ethan Harp reported live from Modesto on a high-school band teacher there who was placed on leave for allegedly showing three kids porn and buying them beer, and finally there was a report on the Sacramento “Stripper Mom”—the woman whose child was kicked out of Christian school when the church found out she was a stripper. The 40-second report said she was considering getting out of the stripping business.

Channel 10 was no better. After Dave Marquis’ report from the street racing accident, the ABC affiliate did a 50-second report on an innocent woman who was killed during a police car chase and a 23-second story on an acquittal of a man accused of road rage. But then the station featured a two-minute Dana Howard report from Modesto on the teacher who supplied the porn and beer, followed by a brief report that a ROTC instructor found recently having sex with a minor in the back of his SUV would be sentenced soon, and then a 45-second story on the Folsom doctor.

No broadcast on this night would attempt an ambitious, non-reactive, in-depth story, except for Channel 3’s report on the club that allegedly discriminated against Asian-Americans. And that report was seriously flawed and without context.

But at least the two 11 p.m. broadcasts are only half an hour long. Ironically, the two stations with the least amount of resources, Fox 40 and KOVR, produce hour-long broadcasts Monday through Friday. And while the first half-hour of the newscasts can somewhat mirror the better broadcasts at 11 p.m., the last half-hour of these shows are so stuffed with short, surface-level national reports instead of local news that they are utterly unwatchable.

On May 16, KOVR started the second half-hour of their broadcast with a “special assignment” story on whether Sacramento’s Crime Scene Investigation unit is anything like the one we see on CBS’s hour drama C.S.I. With Ross Blackstone reporting, images of the television show interspersed with clips of real life investigators. In this way, local television stations can promote their network shows under the guise of a news story. No self-respecting news organization would allow a newsperson to promote their own company in a news story, but it has become common practice in local TV news. After four minutes of reporting (twice as long as a normal news story), Blackstone delivered the verdict: The units are different. One’s on TV. Shocker.

Then, after a break, the station whipped through the unimportant in rapid fire. Twenty-four seconds apiece about violent Spanish soccer fans and a runaway cow in Utah that attacked a bystander (when the cow hit the person, the station overdubbed the sound of a bull), then 50 seconds on a dog that barked when a baby stopped breathing, then another 50 seconds on why cat lovers like cats more than dogs (they’re more discriminating!). Television news consultants know that the average viewer loves animal stories almost as much as sex and violence. If that wasn’t enough, after another break there would be reports on John Wayne Bobbitt (you know, the guy whose wife sliced off his penis) being charged with domestic battery, a preview of Celebrity Boxing and a piece on the new Pepsi commercial that features Britney Spears and Mike Myers as Austin Powers. Of course, doing a news report on a commercial only acts as a commercial.

The prevalence of stories that have nothing to do with Sacramento in the second half of the hour-long broadcasts is enough to make you wonder why they even bother. There’s rarely anything of consequence, except weather and sports, and even then KOVR doesn’t have a sports report. But clearly the owners of the stations believe the ratings are worth the questionable content. And based on ratings, Sacramentans don’t seem to care that what they’re watching has little to do with their lives. In Sacramento, each rating point equals about 12,000 homes. And they figure each home has fewer than three viewers on average (2.7). So if a newscast has a 5 rating—that means about 162,000 people could be watching that show.

And indeed, during the May sweeps, the 20-day rating period from the end of April until May 22 that stations use to set advertising rates, KOVR pulled in a 5.2 rating (a 9 share) for its 10:30 to 10:45 portion of its broadcast, and a 4.6 rating (an 8 share) for its 10:45 to 11 p.m. portion, making it number three behind whatever NBC and ABC showed before local news. Fox 40, on the other hand, struggles to compete with the 10 p.m. broadcast that KCRA puts on Channel 58. It drew a 3.3 and 3.0 rating over the same time.

It’s likely that the ratings numbers are the only thing that the corporate heads see when evaluating whether a station is doing well in a market—not whether the station is producing news that informs a local audience. And while that’s a cold reality that always existed in advertising-based businesses, when a corporation is located out of town and the local station is one of its myriad of vast media holdings, it only exacerbates the coldness.

All four of the major stations in Sacramento are owned by public companies whose main business—like the News & Review’s—is advertising. And like all companies that depend on advertising for their revenue, in the last couple of years they’ve seen hard times. As the technology-driven economic boom faded in 2000, many companies scaled back how much money they would spend on advertising. And all of the local stations took a significant hit on 9/11, when for weeks networks and their affiliated news shows disregarded advertising money to stay on the air with around-the-clock coverage.

Of the four, only Hearst-Argyle and Gannett were profitable in their last quarters. Sinclair lost $41.6 million and the Tribune Company lost $108 million, though its loss can be attributed to its acquisition of Times Mirror.

But even the companies that are doing better could see a significant boost if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) loosens the rules on companies owning more than one station in a market. And that appears to be a certainty. If a company can tell advertisers that they reach more people in a market with a second station, an advertiser is likely to show its commercials on that company’s station—and pay a higher ad rate.

In April, a federal appeals court ordered the FCC to justify a rule barring media companies from owning more than one television station in many markets. Companies can own more than one station in a market if at least eight other independently owned stations exist (eight stations exist in Sacramento, which is one of the ways KCRA got around buying KQCA). It was Sinclair that challenged the eight-station rule, claiming it barred it from buying stations in some markets. The court agreed with Sinclair in that count, ruling that the FCC had not provided clear reasoning on why eight was the chosen number of stations that would constitute a competitive market.

So now the FCC will review the rules and will likely side with the broadcasting companies. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, has long been in favor of relaxing rules that hinder the giant broadcasting corporations—much to the chagrin of consumer advocates who say that further media consolidation will put the power of the press in only a few corporate hands, which would not only skew news toward favorable coverage of big business but would also further sever local stations’ ties to local communities. In Sacramento, the last locally owned independent broadcasting company to own a local station was Kelly Broadcasting, which sold KCRA to Hearst-Argyle in 1998.

The past year at Sinclair confirms consumer groups’ fears of what consolidation could do to local markets. The company has obliterated the idea that broadcast media should remain free of government propaganda. In the aftermath of 9/11, Sinclair stations, including here in Sacramento, ran pro-George Bush editorial statements read by station managers or Sinclair PR head Mark Hyman. At the company’s stations in Baltimore, news anchors and other on-air journalists read the statements, according to media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. It should have come as no surprise as to which way the editorials would skew—the last three years Sinclair and its employees (mostly executives) have donated almost $188,000 to the Republican Party and its candidates.

Sinclair seems to be at the center of talk of consolidation in the local market—the 19th largest in the country—according to one news director who didn’t want his name used. The news director says that there are many rumors that at least one local station will buy another, leaving three distinct broadcasts and less choice. As recently as April, Sinclair spokesman Hyman told the Los Angeles Times that the company was trying to acquire another station in “Sacramento and six other markets.” Last December, Broadcasting & Cable magazine reported that Hearst-Argyle and Gannett were in talks about combining television operations, with Gannett taking control.

But Sinclair seems to be the company most in a state of flux. Not only was it the corporation that challenged the FCC rule limiting ownership, Sinclair also has been actively shedding stations while signaling it might go on a buying binge soon. Last year, Sinclair hired investment bank Bear Stearns to study markets it may want to enter or exit, pending deregulation. Subsequently, the company killed local newscasts at its ABC affiliates in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the 44th largest market, and in St. Louis, the 22nd biggest market. Then in April, Sinclair filed a “universal shelf” registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission that would enable it to sell $350 million in securities. A universal shelf offering enables a company to raise cash, which comes in handy when anticipating a buying spree.

While the overly sensational seems to dominate the local newscasts, sometimes the good creeps in through the side door. When it does, it’s enough to make you regain your faith in television news. Lately, the station that seems to be keeping the faith is KTXV Channel 10, the ABC affiliate.

While KCRA Channel 3 is decidedly the leader in the ratings and has the most resources of any local broadcast (the station has 22 anchors and reporters, 2 sports reporters and 4 weather reporters), it too often leans to the sensational when choosing which stories come first in a broadcast and get the most time.

Take the evening of May 14, the day Governor Gray Davis announced alterations to his budget that would raise vehicle license taxes and sin taxes on cigarettes and liquor. Governor Davis also proposed cutting millions out of the human services budget that go directly to the people who need the services the most—the poor.

That evening, both Channel 3 and Channel 10 began their broadcasts live from North Sacramento, where a gunman was holed up in a house and allegedly firing on police. After its initial three-minute segment on the conflict, Channel 3 did a two-minute, 40-second report on the arrest of three suspects in connection with a Tracy murder; a 50-second report on a drunk driver who killed 5 people in Grass Valley; a one-minute, 40-second report on the aftermath of a Bay Area earthquake; and a two-minute and 10-second report on a man who shot a Baltimore priest who allegedly molested him.

Channel 10, on the other hand, switched from the breaking news in North Sacramento into the budget news. The station did an initial 50 seconds on the budget news, after which they showed a chart indicating how the vehicle license fee would affect drivers. Then reporter Dave Marquist took the story further (in a two-minute and 10-second segment) from a North Sacramento health clinic, where doctors decried the budget cuts in health services for the poor. News 10 co-anchor Dale Schornack then took 20 seconds to read a report from the U.S. Census that revealed that the number of California citizens living in poverty actually increased during the boom. Finally, co-anchor Cristina Mendonsa read a brief 30-second report based on a San Francisco Chronicle story that said contributions to Governor Davis from a pipefitters union seemed to coincide with Davis making policy that benefited the union. Only then did Channel 10 cut to the suspects in the Tracy murders. It was clear that if not for the North Sacramento gunman, the station would have led with the budget.

A week later, on the late news on May 21, Channel 10 showed it wasn’t done enterprising. While the other broadcasts led the news with a murder (Fox 40), convictions in the Elk Grove propane tank terrorism story (Channel 3) and a disjointed “cell phones may cause cancer” report (Channel 13), Channel 10 was jumping back on Davis’ budget cuts.

First, the show led with footage from a health-care rally in Sacramento that called on Davis to cut tax loopholes for corporations instead of cutting programs for the poor, and then Dana Howard did a revealing piece on the local homeless in which he followed around a single woman and a woman with two kids as they tried, and failed, to find a shelter for the night. The St. John’s shelter filled up early, leaving the two women and the kids “hoping for no-shows.” When that didn’t happen, the camera focused on the mom and two kids at a park bench, while Howard read: “She lingers in the last hour of daylight before the dark reality of homelessness sets in.”

After the report, Howard—live from the Sacramento streets—told the anchors that Sacramento County hoped to spend $1.5 million on a new year-round shelter, but now that won’t happen. Howard added that county officials said that because of the budget cuts they would also have to cut MediCAL benefits and the program that puts welfare moms to work. The entire report lasted 4 minutes and 15 seconds to lead the broadcast, and at the end of the show, anchor Mendonsa said that the station received many calls on the package. The station listed the numbers of two shelters that would accept donations.

Channel 10 editors and reporters did their jobs. They took a big story, like the budget, and figured out how the big story affects local people—in this case, the poor. Rather than reacting to an event by reading wire copy, they went out and found the local story, documented it in pictures and brought it home to Sacramentans who were watching that night. Quality broadcast news stations in other markets do this on a nightly basis.

But so far, for their efforts, Channel 10 lags behind Channel 3 in the ratings. For the May sweeps period, Channel 3’s 11 p.m. news brought in a 10.8 rating, or about 350,000 people. By contrast, Channel 10 pulled in a 6.5 rating, or about 210,000 people.

On the night that Chandra Levy’s remains were found—ironically the last night of the sweeps period—the numbers got even worse for Channel 10. That night Channel 3’s broadcast pulled in an almost 14 rating (an amazing 27 percent share of Sacramento households) compared to News 10’s 7.2 rating. You’d hate to think that Sacramento television viewers don’t respond to quality, but at least in this instance that appears to be the case. There’s a reason, after all, why news producers live by the saying, “If it bleeds, it leads.” That philosophy works.

As does the philosophy that holds that just any inconsequential national story should be put on air if there are compelling pictures to go with it. On the same night the broadcasts led with the Levy story, Fox network featured its second installment of the gruesome Celebrity Boxing. All the newscasts, save for KOVR, showed the embarrassing highlights. Fox 40 even proudly ran a two-minute story asking people which two Sacramentans would they like to see boxing each other. Even KXTV Channel 10 ended its broadcast with it—much to the anchors’ apparent chagrin.

When anchor Mendonsa warned, “We’re a little embarrassed to even run this story,” her co-anchor, Schornack, smugly replied, “We’re proud to say it happened on some other network tonight.”

But then, of course, they rolled the tape.