|by Arnie Hamel
POSTED DECEMBER 13, 1997--To advertisers there is nothing more desirable than a paranoid, impressionable consumer with money. And nowhere does a consumer become more paranoid and impressionable than when they plop passively in front of the television set, clicking from one stream of images to the next. Its just a matter of time before theyre convinced they need an alarm system, a minivan, a gun, diet pills.
When local watchers come across KMSP Channel 9 News they arrive at a newscast that understands this concept quite well. In fact, after watching KMSP News for a week straight, their basic premise becomes clear: How to be a Quality Minnesota Consumer and Not Get Killed.
be very afraid
Herein lies the basic strategy at KMSP and, for that matter, most local TV news stations in general. The actual subject or relevancy of a story is secondary to its ability to spark curiosity among channel surfers during promo spots. In this case, Baillons story played on peoples fears of falling to their death in a faulty elevator. "Tune in at nine and find out if youll be falling to your death anytime soon," the strategy goes. "Could your child be chewed up by an escalator at the Mall of America? Jeff Baillon has the answers for you at nine."
Baillon concluded his award-winning piece that evening by acknowledging that elevator and escalator accidents are extremely rare, followed by, of course, "thanks for watching, well see you tomorrow night."
Award-winning stuff to be sure.
When theyre not trying to scare you, theyre usually at the frightening Mall of America. KMSPs commitment to promoting the "shop til you drop" mentality is constantly reinforced with an incredible number of shopping-related reports, particularly during the holiday season: how to shop, when to shop, where to find it, whats happening at the Mall, tips for bargain hunters, holiday gift ideas, as well as a nauseating amount of interviews with people who have just bought something.
Reporter Nicole Stewart was deployed to the Mall the day after Thanksgiving where she asked frazzled shoppers "How does it feel to be shopping on such a hectic day?" She also noted the long lines at the restaurants and confirmed that, yes, it certainly is the biggest shopping day of the year. Stewart failed to mention if there were any elevator or escalator fatalities amid the huge crowds.
It hardly seems a secret anymore that local newscasts have altered their approach in recent years to more closely resemble a regionalized version of Hard Copy or, at times, Americas Funniest Home Videos. Maybe thats what people have come to expect -- and accept -- from the areas well-groomed teleprompter readers. But as long as KMSP calls themselves "Minnesotas News Station" and promotes themselves as something more respectable than Bob Sagat, they leave themselves open to be assailed for the ridiculous pack of goofballs they truly are.
Bells and whistles
The decorative overkill on Channel 9 is highlighted throughout with whats called the "News Menu." The News Menu is the mask that attempts to promote KMSP as the cyber-savvy, progressive news station. "Weve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the News Menu," says KMSP news director Dana Benson. "We want to be up front about whats coming up. We know people are sitting there with their remotes so we try and hook somebody with a story thats coming up." Ultimately, though, KMSPs News Menu is the equivalent of following along in the program at church just to see how much longer until its finally over.
I will survive
Two days later, the Family Survival Kit announced that a Sign Language Santa Claus would be appearing at Ridgedale Shopping Center the following day. The next night, the Kit told us how to shop for a Christmas tree.
Next the FSK warned that if your family was planning a holiday trip its best to get those airline tickets well in advance, "so you better hurry up," chirped anchor Angela Hampton, as footage rolled of a Northwest DC-10 flying off into the sunset. Apparently, making purchases is the essential component of any Minnesota familys survival.
That potential award-winner was followed by the longest story of the evening; a CNN piece on how consumers can construct a Holiday Spending Budget. Appallingly, it reported, 65% of shoppers dont have a plan for their holiday shopping trips. "Make a list and stick to it," they recommended, and for heavens sake dont wait until the last minute, we were told. Put together your list and get the hell out there!
Another lengthy story followed shortly thereafter that hit the jackpot by combining the elements of shopping, tragedy and fire. KMSP devoted several minutes to the story of a fire in Stillwater that damaged several small retail shops during the busiest shopping week of the year. Mildly dejected small business merchants of obvious wealth were interviewed alongside their inventory of damaged trinkets and doo-dads.
Passolt is paired up at 9 p.m. with co-anchor Robyne Robinson, whose biggest contribution takes place when she gets up out from behind the desk to do her segment called "The Buzz." The Buzz runs down entertainment headlines, like what pedophile Michael Jackson named his baby and which movies just arrived at the video stores. Essentially, though, The Buzz is just another blatant advertisement for monopolies like Sam Goody music stores, Kenny Gs latest CD, Express Mail, Princess Di Beanie Babies and the Mall of America.
Add some color
Stewart is usually shown with microphone in hand at the scene of some petty occurrence that is impossible to find anywhere in the daily newspapers the next day. On Thanksgiving, Stewart reported on the potentially dangerous driving conditions for holiday travelers now that the speed limit has been raised. Stewart interviewed a state patrol officer who concluded that your chances for an accident increase as you drive faster and that, due to the unseasonably warm weather, the roads this year were dry and safe.
Among Aokis recent contributions was a "Breaking News Story" live from the Peking Palace restaurant in Columbia Heights where a fire was reported in the kitchen last Tuesday. Aoki reported in the pitch-blackness that no customers were in the restaurant, the fire was put out quickly and there were no injuries. In other words, the potential for a dramatic visual of orange flames engulfing a building is the type of story that sends KMSP camera crews scurrying to the scene, rather than reporters spending time compiling and researching something of real value to its audience.
Three nights later Aoki filed the story of a little girl who made up a board game and was selling it at you guessed it a shopping mall!
Such sad examples of reporting, however, pale in comparison to the top story on December 9 in which Liz Costello reported from Coon Rapids that young neighborhood vandals had stolen the figures of Joseph and Baby Jesus from someones front yard Nativity scene. This tragedy which amounts to the juvenile act of smashing pumpkins on Halloween -- commanded the first five minutes of the newscast, with a concerned Liz interviewing the distressed victim, who said he wasnt even sure if hed set up his Nativity scene next year.
Turn it to Beavis & Butthead
Asked why there is such an emphasis on shopping-related stories, Benson replied; "That stuff is just out there," and surprisingly that, "its by no particular design. But to some extent its what CNN gives us. Ill stand guilty as charged for doing too much of that."
It may be that Baillon, Aoki, Stewart, Costello and the rest of the cast of characters would love to educate suburbanites of the plight of the inner-city poor, investigate the current problems within our school systems, reveal inequities between the upper and lower classes and inform people about candidates during times of public election. But instead, theyre smiling at the Mall, interviewing shoppers and calling themselves Minnesotas News Station.
In between trips out to our nations number one tourist attraction, it seems Channel 9 wants its audience to believe that fires, possessed elevators and slippery roads await around every corner. KMSP then comes to the rescue, saving consumers everywhere from the near-death experience of living from one shopping spree to the next.