If you happened to watch the reality show "Anchorwoman" on Fox this summer, you know there's plenty to mock about local TV news. A supermodel-turned-news-anchor proved just how low news directors will sink in their desperate attempts to attract viewers. The show was cancelled after two episodes.
Sometimes, local TV practically begs to be ridiculed, from the shameless touting of nonexclusive stories to the absurdly repetitive plugs to bland "Web Channels."
But TV news continues to be the biggest source of news for citizens in America. And some observers, like Madison journalist and media critic John Nichols, see news-business trends as a threat to democracy.
"It is easy to blame local television news," says Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times and founder of Free Press, a media-reform group. "But the real problem is a broader media system that, driven by consultants and financial managers, is dumbing down broadcast, print and digital outlets." Nowadays, "Commercial and entertainment values dominate media that the founders intended to serve civic and democratic purposes."
Madison has its share of TV news gimmicks. But it's not all bad. Wisconsin Public Televison offers dependably excellent programming, and Madison's commercial stations buck some of the worst trends.
None of Madison's stations broadcast "fake news" from Bush administration propaganda machines, as did dozens of stations across the country. And one study found that Madison stations surpassed other markets in terms of minutes dedicated to local political races leading up to the 2006 election.
"Madison's television news reports are actually a little better than in some cities because this is a state government 'company town,'" contends Nichols. "The consultants allow for slightly more coverage of state elections and issues than is usually the case, on the theory that, with so many state employees, such reports fall into the 'news you can use' category."
Journalistically speaking, local television news has always struggled to balance quality journalism with more scintillating stories. Reflects Tom Bier, the veteran station manager at top-rated WISC-TV, "It's always a competition between the news people need and the news people want."
Chicago provides a good example of the failure that comes with giving viewers too much of a good thing.
In 2001 WBBM, the local CBS affiliate, decided to redesign its news division and focus on quality journalism and insightful analysis, led by anchor Carol Marin. The show was met with rave reviews and was studied by journalism experts in hopes that it would serve as a national model.
Viewers, it turns out, didn't watch. The newscast's failure, speculated The New York Times, "could be taken as reaffirmation that a serious format cannot succeed - that people need to be drawn in through celebrity gossip and miracle diets introduced by bubbly anchormen and anchorwomen."
Has it really come to that?
In Madison's TV market, as elsewhere, retaining viewers is a constant challenge. A decade ago, 77% of Americans said they turned to local TV for news. By 2004, that dropped to 59%. Nationally, 2006 ratings data show declines in local TV viewership in all timeslots.
Still, local TV news remains the nation's dominant news source. Only 42% of Americans say they get their news from newspapers, and only 34% report wacthing the nightly network newscasts, according to bi-annual surveys by the Pew Research Center.
Local TV news remains a cash cow for TV stations. The Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that 2006 likely saw a double-digit increase in revenues for the local TV industry, mostly attributable to the estimated $2 billion in political ads leading up the November 2006 elections.
Driven by this high profitability, local TV stations have been expanding news programs and experimenting with new slots. Hours dedicated to local news are at an all-time high, according to industry reports. The amount of money dedicated to newsgathering, however, has remained the same.
"Doing more with less has been the mantra in the industry," says Bier. "News departments are asked to do more with the same number of people. They didn't call them the 'good ol' days' for nothing."
Former reporter Joel DeSpain remembers when the 6 and 10 o'clock shows were the big shows, and he could spend his day assembling a package with one deadline in mind. The additional news shows and pressures to expand web offerings have changed the ways reporters work.
"I still felt on most days you could do a semi-decent job with the day's news and present a good visual story that was compelling, but it was becoming increasingly challenging," admits DeSpain, who left WISC-TV earlier this year to become spokesman for the Madison Police Department.
Now DeSpain sees firsthand the shortcuts journalists take because of the pressures they're under.
"People just don't have time to dedicate to a story," DeSpain says. "Most of the time, they're in and out quickly and they take what I give them. To ask why something's happening requires more time, and because there are so many time slots now, they just don't have the time to dig deeper."
But that's only one problem with local TV news. There are many more. In fact, if one were so inclined, one could produce a list.
THE TOP TEN MOST ANNOYING THINGS ABOUT LOCAL TV NEWS
1. More hours, less news
Just how much "news" can Madison take? There are two-hour early-morning shows, the mid-morning shows and the lunchtime show. Then, there's the 4 and 5, the 5:30, the 6, the 6:30, the 9, and the all-important 10 o'clock news. That's a lot of news.
The reality is that station owners see local newscasts as vehicles to sell audiences to advertisers without delivering much new content. Spend a day watching the news on the same station, and you'll quickly see that most stories run more than once. Even within the same newscast, especially in the early morning, stories are repeated almost verbatim.
Some stations don't even staff the morning shows with a reporter. That means there's really nothing "new" in the morning, other than what gets repackaged from the night before or culled from the morning paper.
2. Weather all the time
BREAKING NEWS! The sun is shining!
Across all news shows in Madison, weather dominates the news. On NBC-15's "The Morning Show," Charlie Shortino delivers "Weather on the 5s" so many times it's like watching him on a loop.
Stations use tricks to prolong the weather forecasts. There's the "Forecast First" and the "first check on weather" broadcast before the weather segment. And the newscast ends with a "last check on weather," in case Mother Nature has changed her mind in the last few minutes.
Channel 27 makes a game out of the forecast with its four-degree guarantee. Viewers can't help but hope that Bob Lindmeier will miss this mark and have to give away that Ho-Chunk Casino hotel room.
There used to be the dueling Dopplers - Super Doppler and Doppler 3000 - but now the stations use intricate maps to show the one-degree differences in local towns. Do we really need to listen to a rundown of the pinpoint temperatures in Verona, Sun Prairie, Waunakee and downtown Madison? Even inside Madison, some programs distinguish between the east and west side. What is this, Los Angeles?
And of course, even a chance of a sprinkle brings out the looming threat of severe weather that springboards the weather segment to even more prominence. On a recent day, NBC-15 was billing itself as "Your Official School Closing Station" for winter weather news. We hadn't even seen a hard freeze yet.
3. Idiotic segment names
News directors must think viewers are tricked into thinking they're getting more news if the news is packaged in some corny way. On NBC-15, TV screens in the background scream things like "CrimeTracker Alert" while the anchor reads what seem to be stories from the Associated Press wire.
Even lamer is the station's "County by County," which delivers news, apparently from re-written press releases, about things like a car crash in Sauk County or a break-in in Jefferson County.
4. The Rock County bureau
Madison TV news reaches 11 counties, so give the stations credit for assigning reporters to Rock County, with its sizeable populations in Janesville and Beloit. But WKOW-TV's Rock County Bureau? It's inevitably the rookie reporter who has a hard time pronouncing Wisconsin place names standing in front of a computer-generated graphic that says Rock County Bureau.
Stories from the "bureau" - which uses a weatherman's blue screen as a backdrop to the "set" -- can be snoozers, leaving the vast majority of readers wondering why they should care about debates over details in the Janesville city budget, which newspapers do a better job of covering anyway.
The "bureau" needs to find stories that more than a handful of viewers might want to watch.
5. Constant web promos
WISC-TV contracts out its website, channel3000.com, to a company that seems to know what it's doing. Its website occasionally offers more than transcripts of stories already aired. It has a track record of providing live feeds of breaking news, so anyone in America could watch the station's coverage of the Audrey Seiler case, for example.
But why would anyone turn to the other stations? NBC-15 streams some of its newscasts, which arguably adds some value to the site. But nothing justifies the over-the-top plugs its anchors and reporters bake into each newscast.
Leigh Mills and John Stofflet chatter about their latest blog posts (go read them for laughs!) and anchors have a tendency to say things like "As you first saw on NBC15.com..." when they're reading wire copy. Morning anchor Sarah Carlson recently plugged the station's "Web Channel" by saying she's "heard we're getting a lot of traffic" from people looking at pictures of kids in their Halloween costumes. Yeah, right.
6. Staff turnover
If you blink, you might miss the tenure of some local TV reporters. Between the firings, contract non-renewals and voluntary departures for better-paying gigs in bigger markets, Madison is a revolving door for TV journalists.
Channel 3 was once the obvious counterexample, a station whose status as the best and highest-rated local TV news program stems in large part from its seasoned staff. But over the last year there's been a mass exodus: Katy Sai and Jay Olsen left to start their own documentary film website; DeSpain and Pam Tauscher left because the evening hours took their toll on family life; and Toni Morrissey left for a hospital PR job.
Madison is a small television market where the pay is mediocre, relative to other places. Oftentimes, the local stations are a training ground where TV news folk get their feet wet and learn their craft before moving on.
That's painfully obvious when on-air reporters look like they're fresh of out high school and stumble over pronouncing toughies like "Waunakee" or "Cieslewicz."
7. Hyper-emotional anchors
Sure, news anchors are supposed to read the news with feeling so viewers develop a sense of connection. The best anchors make this look natural. Then there are people like NBC-15's nightly anchors John Stofflet and Leigh Mills. Stofflet seems like he's going to cry when he's talking about the death of a local soldier and then moments later is exuberant about Halloween. Mills is even worse: she can look stern one second and in the next, her eyeballs seem to pop, her eyebrows nearly reach her hairline, and her smile consumes her face.
8. Enough with the music
Do viewers really get that much out of the dramatic music that accompanies news alerts? At least stations could spring to update their sound-effects. Weatherwoman Haddie McLean has some terrible Halloween sound effects, and Channel 3's noon show, "Ag News," is set to bizarre funeral music. Better yet, maybe stations should forgo the instinct to blast sound into every report.
9. You're not exclusive
There are times when TV reporters actually break some news. But it's rare. That doesn't stop local stations from saying things like, "As we first reported last night..." on stories everyone else reported last night, too. Recently on Channel 3, a reporter tried hard to make it seem like the station was broadcasting the first interview with ousted state Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson, only to show a clip from an interview Robson gave on Wisconsin Public Television's "Here and Now" program.
Not every story is an exclusive. Not every story is breaking news. Not every news story is new.
10. Stupid slogans
"Working for You." "Making a Difference." "On Your Side." Yeah, right. How about "Squeezing Our Journalists to Boost Corporate Profits"? Probably more accurate, but not very likely.
Maybe "Straight to the Point" helped brand Channel 27 and shaped the way the station delivered news. But after however many years, it feels straight to the pointless.