Thursday, January 21, 2010

It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your fear mongers are?

Even with a blog I remain a traditionalist when it comes to media. I read three hard-copy newspapers a day, and sometimes a fourth if I can find a Newsday. I'm up to about a dozen magazine subscriptions now. I read books that remain in their proper form, not on a Kindle or any other E-reader. And I buy those books at a bookstore, avoiding Amazon except for perhaps one purchase a year. Someday all of those things might go away, but if that day does ever arrive I hope I'm long gone as well.

And, finally, I still like capping off the night with local newscasts, those 30-minute recaps of the day's news, weather and sports, with some cuddly features about abandoned three-legged cats thrown in to break the monotony and some hearts. All of it brought to the world by folks sporting impeccable hair and marvelous teeth. In today's world, where the idea of a traditional news cycle is seemingly as outdated as an afternoon newspaper and where stories come and go as quickly as a page refreshes, the late local newscast has suffered in ratings and relevance, just like its old-school media brethren. But I still tune in nearly every night. Get the big news right at the top. The anchors greet us with smiles, before turning serious and saying, "Those stories coming up. But first on 4 at 11..."

Whether it's a national story or a local tragedy, the top story is recapped in about three minutes, usually with a reporter on-site somberly pointing to a building where a fire or grisly slaying took place. Sometimes we get team coverage, where each reporter gives one minute of information that still leaves huge gaps in a story. They give me the basics, and that's what I need, not three hours of arguing between a pair of think-tank nitwits on the cable news channels.

About 15 minutes in our favorite weather personality appears, moments after that same meteorologist teased us with a 15-second forecast that ends with, "But I'll have all the details on that killer storm in 15 minutes." The weather guy gives us the story of what happened and what the next five days hold. I love the competing Doppler technology on each channel. I savor the cheesy banter between news and weather, especially when the anchors inexplicably blame the weatherman for rain or snow, as if the well-manicured, smartly dressed hairpiece summons storms with the fury of an ancient god. And the meteorologists sometimes apologize! Yes, they say they're sorry if they mess up a forecast and someone gets stuck without an umbrella. But they often apologize for the actual weather. The rain. Or snow. Or hail. Or lack of sun. In the end, as ridiculous as it is, at least someone's held accountable.

Then it's off to sports, where we get the news and scores in a couple of minutes. Perhaps with some interviews in the locker room. The sports guy is usually brought in by the anchor who seems to be pleading for some good news.

"Len, the Yankees, tough one tonight, huh?"

Highlights of the home team, maybe some out-state scores of local interest. Again, the basics and all I need at that time of night. The late-night SportsCenter will provide the other highlights and cringe-worthy catchphrases.

At the end of the broadcast they'll wrap it up with a touching tale about a crippled child up for adoption or a wacky story about a pet python, followed by a reminder to watch Letterman or Conan or...Leno.

Print people like to poke fun at TV folk, deriding them as nothing more than solid teleprompter readers with oversize egos whose knowledge of makeup exceeds their knowledge of basic reporting skills. In some cases it's certainly true, real-life Kent Brockmans and Ron Burgundys brought into our lives by HD technology. But I've seen enough print people appear with wide eyes and cracking voices that sound like a 13-year-old boy to know that it's a fairly tough job that the best make look easy.

Are there negatives about the local newscasts? Yes. The worst things, without question, are the over-the-top fright stories that anchors present as some type of breaking news, reports designed simply to alarm, never really inform. And much to the chagrin of the stations, I can honestly say I've never learned a single thing from the terrifying features, nor been frightened. Although I'm admittedly probably not the target audience, which would seem to be hypochondriacs suffering from agoraphobia who also have kids at public schools.

"Could your corn on the cob holders kill you?"
"Is your taxi driver a terrorist in a sleeper cell? What his accent can reveal, next at 11."
"What's lurking inside your toilet? You'll be surprised what our I-team investigation discovered."
"The Eight-Fingered Killer wreaked havoc on CSI: New York tonight. Could one of your neighbors be raising a potential serial killer? That and more, but first, how about that stormy weather? Bill?"
"Erasers. The hidden danger your child's school isn't telling you about."
"Tonight, the first in a three-part story. Is your toenail clipper slowly poisoning you?"

These types of stories usually appear even more often during sweeps week, when the stations are selling what souls they have left for ratings.

But nothing can top the frightening opening to the New York Fox 5 10 p.m. telecast.

It's 10 p.m., do you know where your children are? The phrase has been a part of newscast lore for decades. What an odd question. Actually it's more of a challenge than an inquiry. Hey, fat-ass lazy parent stuffing your face with beer and Ring Dings: Do you know where your children are? Do ya?

It even has a creepy stream of faces belonging to ghost children floating at the top of the screen, the souls of kids whose parents apparently didn't have an adequate answer to the pressing question of the night.

Who is this intro targeting? And what age are these theoretically endangered children? 5? Teenagers? Say you're a parent of a 14-year-old. You've raised a kid with a B average who's respected by adults and has lots of friends. He aspires to getting into college and getting a girlfriend, though not in that order. This parent would most likely know where Johhny is at 10 p.m. They don't need the deep-voiced reminder. Or say you're a bad parent. You let your 12-year-old drink beer and don't care when he skips school. Is this ad causing that parent to rethink their decisions? Will they drop the joint and think, "My god. Where is my child? They said they were going to TP old man Wilson's house, but do I really know if he was telling the truth? What if they were breaking into the school to vandalize it?"

Who is this ad helping? Who? Someone with a 6-year-old, who has perhaps lost track of the youngster? Did that person forget that little Jenny fell down a well and now needs help, aid that will come once Channel 5 presents the heartbreaking story?

That's why I think the ad is actually a subtle way to guilt parents. The ad is actually saying, "It's 10 p.m. You know where your children are. But so do we. And do you think you're doing a good job with this kid by letting them go to a PG-13 movie? On a school night? How do you know they're not sneaking into that R-rated movie that shows tits? Remember when you promised to be a better parent to your kid than your mom was to you? It's not working. It's now 10:01 p.m. You know where your children are. Are you going to track them down?"

And what about people without kids? Is Channel 5 simply saying goodbye to that demographic? Or again is it a type of subliminal message, suggesting that if you don't have your children, you're really not worthy to watch this broadcast and maybe you should just settle for the 11 p.m. news on Channel 7?

I want to be moderately informed by my newscast, not tormented or terrorized. Give me the news, forecast and sports. Keep some of the fluff, but leave the fear behind.

Here, finally, is a rather disturbing collection of celebrities asking the question. From role model Darryl Strawberry to Medicine Woman.

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