Not Suitable For Broadcast

by Mark Lacter

There was some pretty important stuff going on last Tuesday morning. The FBI had issued a new and ominous warning of another possible terrorist attack. Former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay was prepared to appear at a congressional hearing. The war crimes trial of ousted Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic was just getting underway in The Hague. House Republican leaders were putting the finishing touches on a broad overhaul of the campaign finance laws. And of course, the Olympics.

But for the morning TV news shows, none of this held a candle to the most important story of the day. That is, the 5:38 a.m. announcement of the Academy Award nominees. (For those of you out of touch on such matters, the nominees are revealed at that hour to catch East Coast viewership a practice that has been picked up by other entertainment awards.)

What's revealing about this early morning ritual is that it's actually considered real news supplanting most everything else and that it comes just months after the serious-sounding talk of a post-Sept. 11 renaissance in the broadcast news industry. One local news director told the Business Journal last fall that "Literally, after the Sept. 11 attacks, we realized it could not be business as usual. We didn't want to do stories that seemed frivolous."

This, of course, turned out to be nonsense. If there's one thing these folks are good at it's recognizing the basic instincts of their viewers, and as the nation gradually got back to normal last fall, so did broadcast news. Which meant that during sweeps month, we had the requisite call girl profiles, health cure scams and anything having to do with Hollywood.

It's more than just sweeps. Vacuousness pervades all facets of broadcast news, including network and cable. Print types are not helping matters by turning the on-camera talent still laughingly referred to as "broadcast journalists" into part of the story. This was most recently evidenced by the coverage of CNN-turned-Fox anchor Greta Van Susteren's facelift as well as the supposed flap over a suggestive CNN promo for anchor Paula Zahn. Then there's the ongoing tongue wagging over a rivalry between ABC superstars Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters.

It sounds old hat to gripe about how celebrity and sensation dominate the media agenda, but the effects of this triviality are especially apparent in a world now fixated on terrorism and scandal. Need we be reminded that the many warnings about lax airport security and lethal madmen went unheeded for years? Or that in the midst of the longest-running bull market in history no one bothered to examine how the Enrons of the world were doing business?

And when newspapers and magazines took the trouble of investigating complex misdeeds, they were typically deemed "not suitable for broadcast," a convenient euphemism for "too many words and ideas."

Even the Enron mess held little fascination until it was transformed from a straight business story (too boring) into a morality tale of how corporate greed left innocent investors and employees holding the bag. If the Washington politicos hadn't chosen to get involved, with televised congressional hearings and tailor-made sound bites, there's no way the story would have sustained this kind of coverage.

But give it time. Sooner or later the broadcast jackals will tire of Enron's supposed evil doers and move on to more important matters like handicapping the race for best supporting actress.

Mark Lacter is editor of the Business Journal.

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