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The Sins of Synergy -- The HomeTown Scheme
by Mike Tronnes

After watching Channel 4’s 10 p.m. sweeps broadcasts for four consecutive nights in mid-November, it appears that local television news, like the tabloids and talk shows it so closely resembles in style and substance, has settled into the post-salacious period. This is a period distinct in time from the early 90s, when each sweeps appeared to be lustier and more lurid than its predecessor. It was great television; watching and wondering how far the local news broadcasts would go to keep pace with their racier talk and tabloid brethren. How long could local stations continue to one-up each other, before their program offerings began resembling those at Ferris Alexander’s old "hometown venues"?

What happened to move us to post-salaciousness in just a few short years? A combination of predictability—even lab rats become satiated after awhile—and advertiser squeamishness in the face of threatened boycotts from pro-family groups. While the forces of the right Reverend Donald Wildmon can claim few documented victories, the writing was on the wall for broadcasters who are dependent on a single revenue stream. But that’s not to say that the current brand of pandermonium is without it’s share of titillation, fear mongering, fluff, fluff and more fluff. Just think of the post-salacious period as more like middle-age than exuberant youth, more interested in consuming than creating and making up for what it lacks in stamina, with technique.

The most well-developed technique—especially evident during sweeps— is choosing stories more for their promotional value than their newsworthiness, and then hyping them ad nasuem, leading up to and during the broadcast.

Among the most heavily-promoted on the nights I watched, were; an on-screen interview with someone claiming to have new information concerning Jessica Swanson’s disappearance, which ‘CCO managed to keep alive for three nights running, with dubious claims about the "impact" that their report was having on the investigation, another was a special feature on a twice convicted, rural peeping-tom, "a father a friend, a neighbor," (hey, what’s a peeping tom without neighbors?), who indulges his obsession at local farmsteads and who has been banished from four backwater Minnesota townships (Greenleaf?), and also, a Dimension report about a "hometown company" that is among those being sued by more than 600 men nation-wide for botching their penile implants.
While the reporting about the implant procedure was informative, the hook for the story—that there were hundreds of lawsuits pending against Minnetonka-based, American Medical Systems, the country’s largest maker of the devices—was never even explored. No interviews with attorneys from either side, nothing about how much any of them might be suing for and no speculation as to whether or not the plaintiffs had a case.

While the gap between sizzle and steak on these headliners comes as no surprise, the real shocker was the degree to which WCCO has abrogated any responsibility it might have to report on the business of our government. In four nights, there were only two stories that even hinted at the existence of a state or local government. One was about Scott County using computers to monitor the movement of criminals, and the other, was a report that the St. Paul impound lot has relocated and no longer accepts checks or credit cards. Together, these two stories garnered about as much total air time as ‘CCO’s coverage of the Rolling Stones concert.

If the local news doesn’t do local news, and does exactly one minute a night of national and international news ("World in a Minute"), how do they fill the time between mini-van commercials? The sweeps broadcasts that I saw beat the drum for consumption, entertainment, and, in the best of all possible worlds, consumption of entertainment, preferably the CBS variety. Among the four local news operations, WCCO is singularly poised to take advantage of network synergy. Purchased by CBS in 1992, and by CBS’s parent company ,Westinghouse, in 1995, WCCO is the only local station that is, in effect, owned by one of the three major networks.

So, when ‘CCO hypes CBS programming, Westinghouse sees the results go directly to the bottom line. If KSTP or KARE push programs on NBC or ABC, the primary benefit to the locals is that people might be more inclined to stick around for the 10 p.m. newscasts, when local stations cash in by pocketing all of the ad revenue. In the case of Channel 4 news, this incessant shilling seems to be a network directive.

It’s a Saturday night in mid-November, and the 10 p.m. news is featuring a behind-the-scenes report on the making of a made-for-TV movie. The movie, Bella Mafia—as in "Hell Hath No Fury Like the Women of Bella Mafia"—was a big sweeps month two-parter that would, coincidentally, begin airing on CBS the following evening. A call to the newsroom found a dispirited news employee, lamenting that sometimes WCCO is instructed to run stories that they aren’t comfortable with because of their network affiliation. It was a surprisingly frank and honest answer. Even local news staffs have their limits and the party line deviant who I happened to get on the phone had obviously reached hers.

One night, WCCO used the Louise Woodward trial to insert a "news as promo" segment for the new CBS show, "Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel." The discussion centered on the emotional state of the baby who died in Woodward’s care, and the entire news clip, went like this; Gumbel: "Was the baby a happy baby?" Guest: "Yes it was a happy baby, it was a great baby!"

Rebecca Kohls’ rooftop weather segment, which often features a guest from a local charity promoting an upcoming event, was turned over to some "special guests", a representative from Target, and Snowden, the lead character from an animated program called "Snowden on Ice," that was airing on CBS the Friday after ThanksgivingThe Target flak was introduced as being there to "talk about an event that Target has put together." An event? That Target has put together? As in, a television show, running on ‘CCO’s parent, CBS, that Target is sponsoring? Apparently, even the most committed cross-promoters are not so shameless as to forego euphemism. After the plug, the Snowden character hands Kohls a mini-Snowden doll and Don Shelby appears on the split screen, pointing at Kohls and jokingly shouting "bribery". I imagined Dave Moore, dropped into the anchor chair, in his best Bedtime Nooz slouch, pointing the finger at Kohls and rasping the word "synergy".

I missed Snowden, Bella Mafia, et. al, but with so much synergistic hustling going down, some of it had to work its’ way into my subconscious. I awoke one morning and remembered a dream with Don Shelby in it. In a scene straight out of a buddy movie. albeit a hometown version, Don and I—having replaced Bob and Bing—are palling around, walking down the street, and somehow we end up at Don’s house. Once we’re inside however, I get a vibe that Don wants me to leave. That’s it, not much of a dream, but what’s ironic, is that whenever I do see Don, at least virtually, he is always trying to get me to stay.

The selling of products in the form of commercials is the softest sell going on between 10 and 10:35 p.m. The real hard sell is during the news itself, which is like a video version of a boiler-room operation. It is estimated that the average viewer makes ten channel changes during a half-hour newscast. Viewer retention is the mantra and the entire enterprise seems designed to get those who have just surfed in to stick around, and to make sure the others don’t leave—thus, the latest gimmick, announcing the exact time when stories will run. The news is no longer just up-to-the minute, it is now also down to the minute. "And later, at 10:23, we’ll take an exclusive look at how one hometown company makes something you can buy!"

When ‘CCO isn’t selling you hard on the newscast that you are already watching, they’re probably helping you buy something. The longest report that I saw—four and-a-half minutes—was a dizzyingly exhaustive feature on comparison toy shopping by Kevyn Burger. "Avoid the Christmas Crisis, Hot Toys at Cool Prices," was the lead-in to Burger, dressed in a Santa suit and ho-ho-hoing it around to the site of big retailers (and advertisers) Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart, Toys ‘R’ Us and Best Buy. It was directed at the holy grail of television news demography—young families with kids. Who else buys those mini-vans and sport utility vehicles that blanket the nightly newscasts? It was also an encyclopedic chronicle of what’s out there and what it all costs, including price comparisons on 29 different items. If only our public officials received the same kind of scrutiny! And of course, CBS’s other local holding, WCCO radio, didn’t miss a chance to hop aboard Santa’s synergistic sleigh, using the 10 p.m. news to promote a following morning’s segment on "The Hot Toys This Holiday Season." The punch line to the Kevyn Burger story, was that she didn’t really need any extra padding under her Santa suit, since she was pregnant, and had just given birth that very day. Good thing she got her shopping done! Obviously, the story was timed to take full advantage of the "What’s Under Your Santa Suit?" joke, complete with a visual of the happy hometown family in the hospital nursery.

Newborns, of course, were a serious content provider to mid-November broadcasts everywhere. The McCaughey septuplets, born November 19, provided easy pickins for the emotionally correct (EC) local newscasts. On three of the four nights, ‘COO ran a story about the McCaughey septuplets. Amelia Santaniello: "The McCaughey babies are doing better and better, and tonight, some darling pictures of the septuplets." It wasn’t enough for the anchor to just read the latest septuplet news and show us those darling pictures. There had to be the illusion of a "special" report, where the anchor hands off the assignment to the likes of Jim King or Frederica Freyburg. King, 4 news’ resident light features/goofball reporter—is always on hand to further dumb down the already lowest common denominator stories that he specializes in.
During a pre-Thanksgiving segment about Land ‘O Lakes’ "Holiday Bakeline," an answer line for people with food preparation questions, King mans the telephones and answers an inquiry about how to keep your brother-in-law from eating all the skin off the turkey. King’s howler response is, "I’ve got experience with that, I don’t invite him over". Ba-Da-Boom!

It should come as no surprise that King anchors 4 news on weekends, when you can rest assured that your time on the couch will not be interrupted by anything substantial. It’s not all that different from the other five nights of the week, just a stronger than usual consumertainment focus; "light" features, usually based on the latest—surprise—new video, film, music and software releases, and of course, upcoming CBS programs to watch for. Standard fare is a "behind the scenes" Hollywood segment by Bill Carlson, Channel 4s’ creepily ageless answer to Dick Clark.

Along with entertainment posing as news—think Jim King, taking up almost three minutes of air-time, asking Rolling Stones concert-goers to sing the lyrics to Jumpin Jack Flash—"wacky" story twists have also become standard fare at WCCO, lightening up and dumbing down even the few serious stories. Nothing that I saw tops a Dimension report by Jilda Unruh, about a new, computerized method for keeping track of criminals. According to the report, Scott County will be the first in the nation to track a convicted criminals movement by using computer mapping technology, which employs a monitoring device attached to the criminal’s ankle. For instance, a computer could be programmed to begin beeping whenever a convicted stalker gets within a certain distance of the victim’s home or workplace. The deputy who was interviewed, classified it as "definitely big brother," but any implications of this were never discussed.

Instead, half-way through the report, Unruh is seen wheeling into the parking lot of a grocery store, to test a more widespread possible application for the technology. (Even more widespread than criminals on local television news?)

In an apparent attempt to tie the report to the upcoming Thanksgiving pig-out, the camera follows Unruh into the supermarket as she breathlessly explains, "You see, the whole idea is that I was on a diet and I wasn’t supposed to get caught comin to the grocery store. But this thing, tracked me to the very place I’m not supposed to be."

Back at the Scott County Sheriff’s office, the computer is beeping up a storm. And when she returns, the deputies let her know that she’s been busted. Deputy: "Hey we caught you." Unruh: (striking her baddest, bad-girl pose) "You caught me?" Deputy: "You went to the store." Unruh: (flashing a naughty grin and leaning into the camera) "I did."

If Big Brother was watching all of this, even he wouldn’t believe it.