Perennial cellar-dweller in the local network news race, KCBS-TV Channel 2 last month turned to one of the oldest tricks in the book to boost its ratings: a series on restaurant health conditions.
The two-week series took on a life of its own as a wave of prominent restaurant closures including Jerry's Famous Deli in Studio City, Mayor Richard Riordan's Original Pantry and even the cafeteria at KCBS studios followed. So did public commendations and ceaseless self-promotion by the station.
But amid all the hoopla, several television news experts sharply criticized the series, saying it lacked balance and perspective and was motivated primarily by a need to boost ratings, rather than inherent news value.
"Restaurant sanitation stories have long been a standby in both print and broadcast journalism; they've been done for decades," said David Klatell, director of broadcast journalism at Columbia University in New York. "These types of stories are easily copied from market to market and can usually be counted on to raise ratings. And it's not limited to restaurants: Another standby is nursing-home conditions."
KCBS General Manager John Culliton did not deny that the series was motivated in large part by a desire to boost ratings.
"There is no question that we are a business and our business relies on ratings. We try to put our best foot forward during those periods, and we succeeded with this series on the restaurants," he said.
KCBS's late-night news had started the November sweeps period in last place among the local affiliates of the Big Three networks, but came within 0.1 rating point of KABC-TV Channel 7 during the four-week sweeps.
The ratings jump could have been expected. In fact, such series have run recently in Houston, Detroit, Minneapolis and Orlando.
"Just because these stories are copied in many markets is not to say that these stories are not legitimate stories," Klatell said. "In fact, the reason why they are so successful is that, if done correctly, they appeal to a broad audience and, at the same time, are a real public service."
The question is whether they're done correctly.
Culliton conceded the series was far from original, but defended it nonetheless.
"Of course there has been coverage of restaurant closures here and elsewhere," he said. "But this market as a whole hasn't done an investigation of this level in a long time. And with the public eating out more often, the appetite for such stories is tremendous. I've received hundreds of letters from viewers thanking KCBS for doing the series."
Not all viewers were impressed. "This series lacked context and perspective," said local consumer reporter David Horowitz, who spent several years at KNBC-TV Channel 4 and had a stint at KCBS. He has reported on restaurant sanitation several times.
"You didn't hear too much about the good restaurants until the very end of the series," Horowitz said. "Nor did you hear a response from every restaurant singled out in the series. As it is, these restaurants have been hurt tremendously by this broadcast."
Culliton said the station's investigative team tried to contact by phone or fax every restaurant singled out.
Culliton also refuted the criticism that the series was unbalanced because it focused too heavily on low-scoring restaurants.
"If you watched the series from end to end, you would have gotten a fair and balanced picture of restaurants in Los Angeles," Culliton said.
However, many viewers, including three of the journalism professors contacted, only watched parts of the series.
The idea for the restaurant report dates back to last year, when Culliton was brought over from WCCO-TV in Minneapolis as part of KCBS management's attempt to revitalize its news department and boost the station's ratings. As part of that effort, the station has heavily promoted its investigative reports and its "balance" between crime and disaster coverage and more "good news" stories.
Culliton said doing the series was first discussed early this year when he and investigative reporter Joel Grover (who had worked for a competing station in Minneapolis before both came to KCBS last year) began brainstorming about potential "high impact" stories that Grover could work on.
Grover had reported what Culliton termed a "lower-profile" series on restaurant inspection in Minneapolis, so it was natural that the subject came up.
From the outset, Culliton said, these stories have been timed to air during ratings sweeps periods.
Although the series caused a modest jump in KCBS's ratings, some local journalism professors said it lacked context and perspective, thereby unfairly tarnishing the image of all L.A. restaurants.
"This was a good idea for a series and was clearly an attempt by Channel 2 to get back to serious news, but it was not executed well. It lacked full explanations and the images on the screen did not always coincide with the reporting," said Jack Langguth, a journalism profesor at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC who said he watched part of the series.
As an example, Langguth said he saw one of his favorite restaurants, Pinot Hollywood, shown in one of the promotional teasers for the series, thus associating it with restaurants with serious health violations.
A couple of nights later, Pinot Hollywood turned up in the series segment on the cleanest restaurants in L.A. with a "94" score from health department inspectors. (The rating scale ranges from 1 to 100, with 60 or below being grounds for closure.)
As for the health department scorings, Langguth said the series did not explain the difference in the nature of the violations of restaurants receiving scores close to zero and others receiving scores in the 50-to-60 range.
"Without that explanation, the scores are almost meaningless," Langguth said. The explanation provided on-screen, he said, was like the small print in car ads and was probably not read by those too busy looking to see where their favorite restaurants placed.
KCBS General Manager Culliton said the series did provide full explanations. "I can tell you that there was not a single instance in the series itself where the pictures on the screen did not match the copy. We made sure of that," he said.
As for the scores, "the heart and soul of this story is that the restaurants that received scores close to zero were often not closed by inspectors," Culliton said. "They are supposed to be safeguarding the health of restaurants and they decided to keep these places open."
Despite the criticism, at least one local politician Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs believed the reporting was good enough to warrant bestowing a public commendation on KCBS. Wachs, a city official with no jurisdiction over restaurant sanitation, has been rumored to be a candidate for mayor.
"When the councilman saw this particular report, it totally overwhelmed him," Wachs aide Greg Nelson said. "Just the impact the reports had in a day was nothing like he had ever seen in his 27 years in government."
However, USC broadcast journalism Chairwoman Sherrie Mazingo said Wachs rewarded the news station for merely "doing what it should be doing every day: reporting in the public interest."
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