As competition for viewers heats up, so does debate over local TV news

EVERY society has its rituals. British subjects have tea in the afternoon, Spaniards take a midday siesta, and Japanese men like to soak in hot baths after work. Americans watch the evening news on television.

According to the Nielsen Media Research Company, more than 29 million households in the United States will tune in to a network news program tonight, and studies suggest that two-thirds of all Americans use these broadcasts as their primary source of news.

In a nation where the average television set works a seven-hour day, the power of the TV industry to inform the public is nothing less than staggering.

But lately, so is the competition. More than 60 percent of all American homes now receive basic cable service, and big-budget specialty channels like ESPN and Cable News Network (CNN) have lured significant numbers of viewers away from over-the-air stations.

The cable revolution has prompted an industrywide scramble to build bigger and faster organizations. TV stations owned by networks and media conglomerates have been forced to tighten their belts, while some independents have flirted with bankruptcy.

In 1989, Florida businessman Edmund Ansin, owner of Sunbeam Television Corporation, lost his affiliate contract with CBS. His TV station, WSVN in Miami, was mired in last place in America's 16th-largest market.

Aiming to cut costs and boost ratings, Mr. Ansin launched an extensive overhaul at WSVN. Its central feature: 53 hours of news every week. The transformation rocketed WSVN into second place in Miami, and turned Sunbeam into one of the most profitable independent operations in the country.

Inspired by his company's Miami performance, Ansin began pricing stations in fatter markets. Last April, he struck a $215 million deal to purchase WHDH in Boston - the sixth-largest US television market.

Sunbeam took over WHDH (Channel 7) in October and immediately brought in personnel from Miami to initiate a makeover. By November, the company had unveiled sweeping changes in the station's news format.

Last week, WHDH general manager Mike Carson announced that Channel 7 would dump ``CBS This Morning,'' its parent network's news show. In its place, he said, the station will add two hours to its own morning newscast.

In the four months since Sunbeam arrived in Boston, Channel 7's local news has swelled from two hours a day to 6-1/2.

Focusing on the news

Joel Cheatwood, senior executive vice president of Sunbeam, says the company is ``committed to the idea that news is the franchise.''

To this end, Mr. Cheatwood notes that Sunbeam has purchased two live-transmission trucks, expanded studio-production facilities, and hired handfuls of new reporters at WHDH. ``We've spent a tremendous amount of money bringing the facility up to snuff,'' he says.

The most visible sign of Sunbeam's presence at Channel 7 is a more attractive and aggressive presentation. Newscasts are introduced by energetic voice-overs and urgent theme music. Computer-generated graphics dart across the TV screen between segments, and anchors read the news at an unusually fast clip, rarely engaging in chitchat.

Camera movement adds to the sensation of activity. Hand-held units zip through the studio, following reporters as they deliver updates from the ``News Desk'' or the ``Satellite Room.'' Between stories, cameras catch staffers hovering over work stations or dashing through the studio clutching printouts.

These techniques are meant to convey the image that Channel 7, unlike most local TV stations, is a whirling dervish.

``One of the biggest complaints we hear is that the news is slow and boring,'' Cheatwood says. ``We're trying to present more than a recitation of facts. We want the news to be easy to follow, exciting to watch, with more information.... Our hope is that the time is right, the market is ready for another perspective.''

Although the Boston audience is still shifting and the results are not yet conclusive, Nielsen ratings suggest that Sunbeam's investments are paying some dividends. ``7 News'' has taken a slight lead over its sole competitor at 5:30 p.m., Boston's NBC affiliate, WBZ.

Despite this initial sign of progress, the Boston television market still presents an imposing challenge to Sunbeam. The obstacles are mainly historic. Since its inception in 1982, Channel 7 has never made any lasting advance out of third place, and the city's No. 1 station, ABC affiliate WCVB, is a highly respected industry darling. But the most pressing issue for Sunbeam is its own reputation: The company's news programming in Miami attracted a swarm of critics.

When Boston attorney William Abbott heard about Sunbeam's bid for WHDH, he filed a petition urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to block the sale.

Mr. Abbott, president of the National Foundation to Improve Television, charged Sunbeam with ``a continuing pattern of programming that clearly runs counter to the public interest.''

Although the FCC dismissed Abbott's complaint and approved the sale, his protest elicited support from a legion of critics who contend that Sunbeam lured viewers in Miami by bolstering its coverage of murder and mayhem.

Controversial coverage

Jeff Bartlett, a TV news director who has competed against Sunbeam both in Boston and Florida, says that WSVN filled its extended newscasts by hiring inexperienced, low-paid people, putting them in cars with police scanners, and sending them out to ``see how many crime scenes they could get to.''

He says WSVN reporters tended to exaggerate stories and leap to conclusions. ``It was exciting and dramatic, but it wasn't journalistically sound. They would lead into a story by saying `Seven people are dead in Miramar' and it would turn out that six died of natural causes and one in a car accident. They would make it sound like a mass slaughter.''

Last June, Abbott's foundation sponsored a forum on violence in the media. At the meeting, former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis blasted WSVN and Miami television stations in general for coverage of violent crime he considers sensational and gratuitous. A 12-minute videotape of a WSVN newscast served as a focal point for the discussion.

Ansin declined to speak at the Boston forum, but he said repeatedly that Sunbeam would not export its Miami news product to Boston because the markets are too different. He told the Boston Globe that his Miami coverage is an accurate reflection of that community. ``We don't make an effort to emphasize crime, but unfortunately there's a lot of crime in Miami.''

While statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation support Mr. Ansin's statement - that metropolitan Miami's crime rate is one of the nation's highest, and nearly three times worse than Boston's - his detractors remain skeptical.

The debate about Sunbeam's coverage mirrors growing national concern over the role television programming plays in the proliferation of violent crime.

In the wake of polls indicating that a majority of Americans think TV is too violent, lawmakers have begun to attack the industry. Last October, US Attorney General Janet Reno warned network executives that if they failed to reduce violent programming, government action might follow.

Last month, FCC chairman Reed Hundt reinforced Ms. Reno's invective at the National Association of Television Program Executives' convention in Miami. Mr. Hundt said that televised violence - real or fictitious - victimizes society in general and children in particular.

``If a TV sitcom can sell soap, salsa, and cereal,'' he said, ``then who could argue that TV violence cannot affect to some degree some viewers, particularly impressionable children?''

Such speculation is nothing new. Leonard Eron, a University of Michigan researcher, launched a study in 1960 to determine the effects of television on 875 third-graders in upstate New York. His 1980 follow-up concluded that children who watched a lot of violent TV often grew up to have serious criminal and family problems. Mr. Eron has testified to Congress that the study proves ``a causal connection'' between childhood viewing habits and aggressive behavior in adults.

George Gerbner, Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, says televised violence contributes to what he calls ``the mean-world syndrome.''

``What we have here,'' Mr. Gerbner says, ``is the first time in human history when stories are told not by parents or teachers or the church, but by huge conglomerates who have something to sell.''

Ambulance chasing on TV

Children, he explains, have no way to filter out the violence they see on TV. ``For a child it makes no difference, it's a story. Violence on the news provides confirmation of a cruel and violent world, and a general sense of insecurity. It also desensitizes the viewer, because [he doesn't] see the consequences'' of such behavior.

The object of television news, he says, is no longer to inform, but to hold an audience and pass it along to the next show. ``The general trend in local news is a lot of ambulance chasing, particularly violence.''

Sunbeam executive Cheatwood calls the issue of violence on television ``tricky.'' He says that in Miami, ``this type of coverage ... has helped in preventing other people from being victims, and let people know what was happening on the street.''

Cheatwood argues that ``looking away from crime is a terrible disservice to the public. Our responsibility to the community is to provide perspective, and our Miami station has made a concerted effort to do this. But you can't walk away: You can't ignore it because it's unpleasant to look at.''

The news on Channel 7 reflects a desire to expand the horizon of local TV news. In addition to Boston-area coverage, WHDH runs updates on pressing national and international events, often using satellite feeds from its parent network, CBS.

In addition, Sunbeam sent its own crew to Alabama to cover a train wreck; to Waco, Texas, to cover the Branch Davidians; and to Detroit and Portland, Ore., to cover the attack on ice skater Nancy Kerrigan, who trains in the Boston area.

``For years, anything of a national variety would be left to the networks,'' Cheatwood says. ``But we've learned that most viewers would rather get the news from local broadcasters. We realize that the news is no longer a monopoly. Now that the technology has expanded, we have to be an all-encompassing source of news.''

Not rushing to emulate

While industry competitors have been monitoring Sunbeam's progress, not all of them are rushing to emulate it, although some say that could change if Channel 7's ratings catch fire.

News-director Bartlett says Channel 7's coverage is a watered-down version of WSVN in Miami: ``From what I've seen, they scan the world looking for tragedy and mayhem,'' Mr. Bartlett says. ``They look to all the feeds for the most exciting, bizarre, and deadly video they can find.''

Most evaluations of Channel 7 are less caustic. Abbott says the news product hasn't caught his attention as being especially bloody. He notes that WHDH participated in another forum on TV violence his group sponsored in October. ``They've been cooperative,'' he says.

Jim Thistle, a communications professor at Boston University, finds nothing particularly offensive about WHDH in its present incarnation. ``Ansin is taking a page out of his book in Miami, but he's obviously not going to the kind of tabloid format that WSVN has.''

Professor Thistle, a former WHDH news director under its previous owner, explained that Sunbeam's approach in Boston makes sense from a fiscal standpoint. ``The big force at work is money, or the lack of it,'' he says. ``Cable is rewriting the rulebook. Networks are no longer a license to print money. Everyone is going to different formats, coming up with things that never would have happened five years ago. Ansin has deep pockets; he wants to make news a profitable thing rather than just breaking even. He's trying to catch a new audience, to be an alternative.''

Other analysts argue that the fierce competition for dollars has had negative effects on news quality.

Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Barone Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, says that sensational journalism has already taken hold in local news. ``The battle has already been lost,'' he says. ``Local news went tabloid years ago. These stations will run virtually anything that is soft, sexy, or violent. Now the only question is, who does this kind of news better?''

Others agree. Professor Gerbner says today's local stations base news coverage on a formula of the ``cost per thousand viewers,'' and that coverage of violent events is expanding because ``it's cheap to produce.''

While Cheatwood admits that television news is under new financial demands, he disputes the idea that Channel 7 has sacrificed balanced reporting for the sake of cost.

``Basically what we did is upgraded the graphic look, brought in key people, and turned what was a poor No. 3 news operation into a more competitive one. We really base everything we do on the idea that strong coverage is the key. We want the viewers to know that we will commit a ton of resources to an important story.''

``This is a long-term proposition for us,'' he adds. ``We're not out to make a fast buck. We intend to own this station forever.''

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