Bad News from Local Television
By Patrick F. Cannon
(Note: This post originally appeared in 2016. If anything, things have since gotten worse. I then failed to mention the increasing use of “cute” or weird video clips that have absolutely nothing to do with news, either local of national, but are run so that the anchors can say “wow, that’s the cutest things I’ve ever seen.” These used to be the kind featured only on “Funniest Home Videos.” In the best traditions of Capitalism, companies were soon formed to provide packages of them to local TV stations. One wonders if journalism schools are now preparing their graduates to properly read and report non-news with a straight face.)
Some of you may remember Floyd Kalber and Len O’Conner, the long- ago anchor and commentator respectively on Chicago’s Channel 5 News. I remember both with fondness as entirely professional, no nonsense newsmen. Kalber – who had started as a print journalist – was a particular hero of mine, as he once talked the folks at Channel 5 into letting him just read the weather report, rather than having a dedicated weather person stand in front of a map and parse the forecast for valuable minutes that could have been devoted to real news.
Predictably, his good sense approach to the weather forecast was doomed. Eventually, Kalber decamped for New York and the Today show, where he did the news every morning and reported occasional stories for NBC News. He later returned to Chicago and ended his career at the local birthplace of “Happy Talk” news, WLS-TV, Channel 7. It must have been bittersweet capitulation.
While the local ABC affiliate was the groundbreaker in softening and cheering up the news, all of the local Chicago stations now follow its lead. In a 30-minute newscast, with approximately 22 minutes devoted to content, there will be two weather forecasts. The first one will give the basics, but if there are any rain, snow or temperature extremes within 1,000 miles of the city, it will end with “the teaser of doom.” In the later forecast, always longer and more detailed, the impending winter storm will turn out to be flurries. This is not to say that the weather folks don’t do a good job when there is an actual weather event; they do. But is there any excuse for devoting so much time to the weather when it’s just normal for the season? And for the seeming competition among female meteorologists to see who can wear the tightest dress?
While the overemphasis on weather is annoying, the flagrant promotion of network entertainment programming as part of the newscast is infuriating. If ABC wants to promote “Dancing With the Stars,” it should do so in a commercial, not have its news anchors, presumably professional journalists, debase themselves by pretending that what fading actor is attempting to rejuvenate his or her career by dancing the tango with some hard body, is actually just as worthy of coverage as the latest failure of the political class to solve the state’s fiscal mess.
The local ABC affiliate also pretends that the latest Disney movie is worthy of news coverage, as long as it ends its blatant hucksterism with the phrase “Disney is the parent company of ABC News.”
Thank God for newspapers, even though declining circulation and ad revenues make them a dubious investment for their corporate owners. What would television news directors do if they couldn’t depend on their local newspaper to uncover the stories that they piggy back on for their own content? Their own “investigative” teams are largely a joke.
Thirty years ago, newspapers were a hot investment item. Family-owned papers began to sell out for the exorbitant amount’s corporations were willing to pay for what were then considered cash cows. Then appeared the internet and a new generation that seemed unwilling to tear themselves away from their computer and phone screens, and who seem increasingly unable to tell the difference between unbiased reporting and opinion.
If great newspapers were still privately owned, they might be better able to weather revenue declines without having to worry about panicked stockholders. I wish someone would buy the Chicago Tribune as a civic duty, just as Jeff Bezos of Amazon has bought the Washington Post. In the meantime, everyone who cares about unbiased reporting should subscribe to their local paper for the real news, and then depend on their local TV news for entertainment and the weather forecast.
Copyright 2016, 2019, Patrick F. Cannon