Hold the beef: Viewers want junk-food news

Until last week, viewers in Chicago had an option not found in most TV markets: a local newscast with long, in-depth stories and no chuckling anchors.

Though some people found it a refreshing change, WBBM's nine-month experiment - called PBS on CBS by some - ended last week when veteran journalist Carol Marin was replaced by a two-person anchor team as the affiliate tried to halt its falling ratings.

Media-watchers had been rooting for the austere, substantive newscast, but despite initial interest, viewers eventually tuned out.

"It was an attempt at doing the right thing. Not all attempts succeed," says Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.

Americans often say they wish local news was better -offering less violent crime, more school board decisions - but when push came to shove, viewers in Chicago clicked the remote. Some observers say people weren't given time to know the unique newscast.

"Even by today's standard's, nine months isn't much time," says Patricia Dean, a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., and a former producer at local stations including WBBM. She says the program was "right-minded, and should have been given more time to evolve."

But in an advertiser-driven medium, where a glut of options are pulling audiences in many directions, newsprograms are under the gun to deliver viewers.

According to the Pew Research Center in Washington, local TV news is still more popular than network news, but has shown steady declines in recent years. Today, 56 percent of Americans watch local news, as opposed to 64 percent in 1998 and 77 percent in 1993.

WBBM was in third place in its market when it decided to try something new -something it championed publicly, perhaps before the program was ready.

"Our intention was to return to a kind of traditional newscast -do good stories, well told, and abandon some of the current choreography that usually goes along with local news: pop medicine, celebrity news, a fuzzy animal story," says Ms. Marin, a CBS News correspondent who received thousands of letters and e-mails, many from supporters. "It's indisputable: We had some great nights, and some nights that weren't as great."

Mr. Gottlieb, who also coordinates the project's study of local TV news, says Marin's program had several problems, including trying to change the culture too quickly.

"If you're changing the grammar of a medium, you have to do so slowly and explain why," he says. "There are issues that deserve to be treated in long form, but you have to be prudent."

He says there are newscasts around the country that do good journalism, but they also have the ratings to back it up.

Barbara Cochran, head of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which gives out the Edward R. Murrow Awards, agrees. "We see some really great news operations at all levels, smaller and larger." She also cites recent national stories that have broken at the local level, including the hazards of Bridgestone/Firestone tires.

In Orlando, Fla., WESH, an NBC affiliate, retooled its format three years ago to offer more breadth than some of its tabloid-flavored peers. "We're covering less crime than we used to in order to make way for more beats," says Bill Bauman, the station's general manager.

WESH now has reporters assigned full-time to education, the environment, and the city council. It has scooped other stations, according to Mr. Bauman, and gone from No. 3 overall in all daily broadcasts to No. 2, with the biggest gains in the late newscast - jumping from No. 3 to No. 1.

He says his station took a different approach than WBBM did in promoting its changes - trying it out and fine-tuning before going public. His group followed what he calls a cardinal rule of TV news: fix it first, then talk about it.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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