Transiency and accountability in TV news broadcasting

THE changes underway in network television news operations are drastic mistakes which threaten the future of an informed electorate, so necessary to an effective democracy. CBS, NBC, and ABC would all like to decentralize much of their news operations; they would essentially turn over a number of news responsibilities to local news departments. It's a move that would save the cost-conscious networks millions of dollars annually.

One way to accomplish this is to combine regional news bureaus with local news departments in major markets, such as Los Angeles and Chicago.

On the surface, decentralization should not be a problem. There is duplication of effort between the network and local news operations, especially at local stations owned and run by the networks in major cities.

But news programming is done in the public interest and for national identity at the network level. The money needed to pay the bills comes from entertainment programs. By contrast, local broadcasters see news programming as a profit center. In some local stations, the news department produces up to 70 percent of the station income at just 40 percent of the expense.

In major markets such as Los Angeles, where local news departments fight tooth and nail for evening news ratings, the difference between winning and finishing last can be as much as $10 million a year.

That stake explains why entertainment program values are regularly applied to local evening news broadcasts.

The government has generally condoned such thinking by giving local broadcasters the freedom to ignore ``public interest'' clauses in their licenses and cut their commitments to news programming.

So, should local news be entrusted with more responsibility to broadcast news, especially national news and information, in the public interest?

Probably not.

Consider KCBS-TV, the CBS owned-and-operated station in Los Angeles as a microcosm of what's wrong with local news broadcasting.

In the 1960s, the station dominated the Los Angeles evening news market. At times, one in three television sets in use at six in the evening was tuned to the news on Channel 2. But now cartoon programs for kids regularly outshine the sagging Channel 2 evening news ratings.

In an effort to get those viewers back, CBS management has spent millions of dollars on new sets, news formats, and new promotional campaigns. Generally, the viewers have rejected all of it.

Making matters worse, CBS network managers in New York repeatedly have ordered station management changes in Los Angeles which destroy any attempt at long-range planning or program continuity.

So-called ``local'' broadcasters for Los Angeles came from New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Philadelphia.

Since 1980, Channel 2 has had six general managers and six new directors. Only one of the 12 has lived in Los Angeles for any length of time.

Ironically, one of those hired-gun general managers from New York City thought he could improve ratings last month by hiring a popular woman anchor from the No. 1 ABC station across town. He hired her and promoted her upcoming debut.

But days before the new anchor was to take her seat, the ABC station obtained a court order which said the woman was still under contract to her old station and could not leave. A recently announced settlement indicates she could be on the air at the CBS station soon. Until then she's off the air altogether.

The issue of transiency fares no better inside the Channel 2 newsroom at the production desks. Only three of the 12 executive, show, and associate producers grew up in southern California. Only two have worked longer than five straight years in the Los Angeles market. Only one would qualify as a journeyman news producer.

That might explain why one or the other has had to be told that singer Billie Holiday wasn't a man, that Father Daniel Berrigan was an important figure during the Vietnam war, and actress Elsa Lanchester's death is worth a mention on the next newscast.

Experience in the market isn't a prerequisite for doing the news job well, but it helps.

Fortunately, the public can have indirect input into management and producer accountability by simply changing the dial. Apparently it's a step local news viewers are taking in Los Angeles, and many other local news markets around the country.

Transiency in local broadcasting raises another disturbing issue. None of the top managers is directly accountable to the public for the news product supposedly broadcast in the public interest.

And, since there are several layers of corporate bureaucracy between local station managers and corporate directors, those managers are only accountable to themselves and their immediate supervisors who will advance them along a career path. Normally that's to New York City and out of local broadcasting.

It can be argued, then, that local news programming is done by professional transients who produce shows for their neighbors and few others.

Should they be entrusted with more responsibility to broadcast news and information in the public interest?

Bill Wood is a writer/producer at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.

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