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A Few Basics You Need to Know When Watching TV News

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A few basics everyone should know about local and national/cable TV news:


1. All TV news, national or local, feeds on pictures. B-roll and "wallpaper" will do nicely (that's footage without reporters, the anchors voicing over the details). The early/5 a.m. local newscasts need local pictures, and the best source of these is usually overnight fires. There's a small army of freelance "shooters" driving around your local area each night with cameras and with police/fire scanners on, getting footage to sell to local TV stations. It's all but impossible to turn on an early-morning newscast without seeing fire footage. There's a famous saying in TV newsrooms about picture-driven news:

"If you're going to say 'That's water under the bridge,' you better show water, and you damned well better show a bridge."

2. Some local TV news departments specialize in crass "body-bag" news, sometimes called "If it bleeds, it leads." Pictures of local murder and accident scenes often lead this type of newscast. There is a lot less of this in some local TV markets, more in others. Seattle TV, as one example, has a lot of this bloody "journalism." Several good studies have shown that this kind of TV reporting makes many people fearful, makes them believe the world is a far more dangerous place than it really is.

3. Viewers love animal pictures. For years, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco has used an animal story at the end of its 5:00 newscast. You could even set your watch by it (5:27 p.m.). One Albuquerque TV weatherman shamelessly uses his cute little chihuahua on camera all the time. Awwww.


1. Cable news (CNN, MSNBC, etc.) also thrives on footage, especially major disasters, hostage situations, and live police/car chases. But it has a whole lot more time to kill than local stations - 24 hours a day - and so it also hires "personality" anchors like CNN's Geraldo-in-training Rick Sanchez, and the vapid T.J. Holmes, who was also lame in his previous gig in San Jose. CNN is constantly on the hunt for time-killing lame-o's.

2. Conflict and controversy gets far more viewers than thoughtful programming. That's why the loathsome Fox News gets many times the viewers of, say, PBS's news and public-affairs shows. One long-time conservative talk host I know who left broadcasting in disgust, told me then, "What do YOU think gets a bigger audience - a calm discussion of foreign policy, or two sailors duking it out down at the corner bar?" I think we all know the answer to that.

3. On cable news, people of moderate views don't draw as well as political extremists. Also, It's imperative to keep controversies going - and, if necessary, manufacture them. Keep the pot stirred. If Joe Biden, for example, says something quietly to the President that's only audible on the most sensitive audio equipment, get sound engineers to amp it up. Voila - instant controversy for cable news, the Beast That Must Be Fed.

4. Attractive blonde female anchors draw male demos. Especially ones willing to say vicious things. Fox News czar Roger Ailes has proven this. Nasty attractive brunettes can be effective, too, in drawing male demos - e.g., the two Michelles, tinfoil-hat Rep. Bachmann and right-wing bile machine M. Malkin.