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We're Channel Five without the helicopter

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. It’s just a matter of time before they’re 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.

Attention, shoppers… be very afraid
KMSP features profiles of its on-air personalities on its web site at Reporter Jeff Baillon, it boasts, has won over 20 national and regional awards for investigative and in-depth reporting in his career. Among those cited was for a story a couple years back about what’s wrong with elevator and escalator inspections. Baillon’s conclusion: Nothing.

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, Baillon’s story played on people’s fears of falling to their death in a faulty elevator. "Tune in at nine and find out if you’ll 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, we’ll see you tomorrow night."

Award-winning stuff to be sure.

When they’re not trying to scare you, they’re usually at the frightening Mall of America. KMSP’s 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, what’s 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, America’s Funniest Home Videos. Maybe that’s what people have come to expect -- and accept -- from the area’s well-groomed teleprompter readers. But as long as KMSP calls themselves "Minnesota’s 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
With a lower budget and fewer resources than the competition, Channel 9 News has clearly committed itself to a different approach than channels 4, 5 and 11. But as the Twin Cities’ 9 p.m. alternative and 10 p.m. redundancy, KMSP’s lack of any real substance renders them the fourth string quarterback on a last place team. Instead of distinguishing themselves with more in-depth, pertinent news stories than the lame competition, KMSP simply becomes Channel 5 without a helicopter.

The decorative overkill on Channel 9 is highlighted throughout with what’s called the "News Menu." The News Menu is the mask that attempts to promote KMSP as the cyber-savvy, progressive news station. "We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the News Menu," says KMSP news director Dana Benson. "We want to be up front about what’s coming up. We know people are sitting there with their remotes so we try and hook somebody with a story that’s coming up." Ultimately, though, KMSP’s News Menu is the equivalent of following along in the program at church just to see how much longer until it’s finally over.

I will survive
The "Family Survival Kit" is possibly the best example of KMSP’s flimsy disguise as a legitimate news source. On Thanksgiving Day the Kit featured a story that asked viewers the question: Did you cook your Thanksgiving meal properly? This segment was followed by a poll predicting that 12% of holiday shoppers plan to spend more money on gifts this year, 56% the same amount and 31% less than last season.

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 it’s 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 family’s survival.

Noose worthy
KMSP’s hour-long 9 p.m. newscast begins by briefly covering the major headlines – usually consisting of crime, fire or bad weather -- followed snappily by the regular slew of lengthy, shopping-related features. Baillon was at it again, recently discovering the Lost & Found department at the Mall of America and reporting on the alarming amount of personal belongings left behind by people following another day of chaos inside shoppers’ paradise.

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 don’t have a plan for their holiday shopping trips. "Make a list and stick to it," they recommended, and for heaven’s sake don’t 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.

Say cheese
Much of this non-news is presented tidily by lead anchorman and Minnesota hero Jeff Passolt. Passolt is a familiar face to locals who came to know him and his hair during his time as sportscaster at KARE 11 and, maybe equally significant, his weekday presence on the hugely popular KQRS Radio morning show. Passolt no doubt plays the role of smooth talking, good looking anchorman to the satisfaction of his bosses. In fact, his only perceptible purpose at all seems to be that he’s quite good at transitioning from one warm, fuzzy story to another and improvises well with the more clumsy reporters at the scene of some firetruck or grand opening.

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 G’s latest CD, Express Mail, Princess Di Beanie Babies and the Mall of America.

Add some color
KMSP’s employment of three minority TV personalities -- Robinson, Nicole Stewart and Lori Aoki – further promotes the station’s goal of being viewed as alternative and progressive-minded. And while the station deserves credit for hiring more minorities than the bleached white competition, the bulk of the news these three present is simply more niftiness targeted toward the same yuppies who get Paul Major’s autograph at the State Fair every year.

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 Aoki’s 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 someone’s 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 wasn’t even sure if he’d set up his Nativity scene next year.

Turn it to Beavis & Butthead
In fairness to the reporters, it is the job of KMSP news director Dana Benson to determine what is newsworthy and to assign reporters to stories. And night after night the decision at KMSP is to seek out the trivial and keep shoppers well informed.

Asked why there is such an emphasis on shopping-related stories, Benson replied; "That stuff is just out there," and surprisingly that, "it’s by no particular design. But to some extent it’s what CNN gives us. I’ll 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, they’re smiling at the Mall, interviewing shoppers and calling themselves Minnesota’s News Station.

In between trips out to our nation’s 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.