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Ah, the glories of autumnal D.C.! Congress returns! The leaves exchange their green for burgundy and gold!
TV news also turns to burgundy and gold in fall, and not even a 30-3 opening-day drubbing by the lowly San Diego Chargers could stop local stations from converting the Washington Redskins bandwagon into a tank to blitzkrieg viewers.
Take last Sunday’s late newscasts. The Lord’s appointed day of rest is kept religiously by local TV stations, so the Skins’ banana-peel slip in San Diego was a shoo-in for the lead story. Yet it was the geyser of news time allotted to the game that appalled me: the endless recycling of video (has anyone not seen Skins coach Marty Schottenheimer wag his finger at hapless QB Jeff George?), the adjectival avalanche (“awful,” “humiliated,” “ugly,” “disappointing”), moronic fan-reaction pieces, and the mindless chatter that makes “team coverage” so worth the uplink time. This pigskin parade had the subtlety of a Chinese re-education campeven before the extended post-newscast wrap-up shows that aired on three of the four news stations.
For anyone keeping stats, WRC-TV (Channel 4) devoted almost 10 minutes of a 30-minute newscast to the Skins. WJLA-TV (Channel 7) clocked in at nearly eight minutes. WUSA-TV (Channel 9) punched out at seven minutes. WTTG-TV (Channel 5) handed over close to 13 minutes of its hourmost of it fluffto the Skins.
Let’s go to the lowlights.
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WRC managed to cram only six news stories into its 11 p.m. newscast. Total time on these stories? Six minutes. And the stories themselves? Nearly three-and-a-half combined minutes were devoted to a Newsweek article on the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2000 election and Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ reaction to a Washington Post investigation into the city’s child-welfare system. (The latter item was the only local news story covered by all four stations.) A forest fire and a Sacramento manhunt also made Channel 4’s short, short list.
WRC’s Redskins coverage was full-blooded. Sports director George Michael kicked off, followed later in the newscast by a five-minute package shipped in from San Diego by Wally Bruckner. Mercifully, WRC did spare viewers a metapiece on fan reaction.
WJLA got eight news stories on the air in something over four minutes. These included the recycling of a Saturday-night fire in Rockville, a hike in Verizon pay phone rates, and a plug for the new Lotto South game. Two plane crashes (Aaliyah’s and another in Colorado) also made the cut, but, to its credit, Channel 7 did spend more than 20 seconds mentioning the continuing violence in the Middle East on Sunday.
WUSA actually put on something resembling a newscast. Sure, Channel 9 blew almost five minutes at the top of its newscast on the game, but it managed to get eight stories on the air for nearly eight minutes. Some of the choices were dumb (WUSA recycled the Rockville fire, plus a Vienna fire and explosion and yet another shark attack), but othersincluding an IMF/World Bank package and a meaty piece on the Black Family Reunion on the Mallhad a local, non-pigskin hook.
Which brings us to WTTG. Channel 5 also got eight non-Skins stories on the air for close to 18 minutes of its hourlong program, but one hesitates to label some of them “news.” The WTTG newscast recycled the Rockville and Vienna mayhem for close to five minutes, and it also previewed a new museum, waved adieu to local troops headed to Bosnia, and re-opened a three-decade-old District murder.
That was the newsy part. Channel 5 also spent two-and-a-half minutes essaying the purchase of stereo equipment (“Set a budget”) and another chunk of time profiling a “spiritual weightlifter.”
WTTG’s Skins coverage during its newscast was flimsy and/or sloppy. Channel 5 sent reporter Melanie Alnwick to chat with a never-clearly-identified psychic and an astrologer about the Skins. “If Jeff accepts the guidance of the focus of Marty,” noted the psychic, “while Marty accepts the creativity of Jeff, the Redskins will win in the future.” The astrologer further observed that “the team itself is full of water and fluidity.” The newscast-ending package in which sports reporter Diane Roberts bowled with Redskin rookies Fred Smoot and Rod Gardner was almost Pirandellan in its absurdity. Three characters in search of a gutter ball.
Even at the basic level of overall sports coverage, local stations flunked. Only WUSA showed highlights from other NFL games during the late newscasts. (WTTG and WRC didn’t even show scores!) Channel 9 was also the only station to show Baltimore Orioles highlights, though all stations showed a bit of San Francisco Giants home-run whiz Barry Bonds.
Regardless of whether or not there are extended sportscasts directly following, there is a minimum level of info that should be provided if a newscast intends to fill a “sports slot.”
As far as overhyped sports events are concerned, there are signs that a 24/7 Michael Jordan Watch may yet force the Skins to the news sidelines. Will this be a blessing or a rough beast slouching toward the MCI Center to be born?
When Magazines Collide! October’s editions of Talk and Esquire both spotlight the same tale of an alleged $500 million investment-sector fraud engineered by Scientologist Reed Slatkin. The central gull in both stories is multi-million-dollar Slatkin investor John Poitras, and both articles focus on the cluelessness of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the story’s colorful Hollywood milieu. A quick breakdown:
Celebrity Investor Shout-Outs: Talk: Joe Pantoliano, Anne Archer, Greta Van Susteren, Giovanni Ribisi; Esquire: Marla Gibbs, Jeffrey Tambor, Giovanni Ribisi.
Did the Gull Jump or Was He Pushed? Talk: “Slatkin needled Poitras about being too cautious, and played on his masculinity”; Esquire: “[W]hile Slatkin didn’t solicit anything from Poitras, he wasn’t modest about his skills.”
Gratuitous Mention of Scientologist John Travolta: Talk: yes; Esquire: no.
Best Dig at Slatkin: Talk: “[T]he Ted Bundy of the financial world”; Esquire: “A bad hairpiece.”
Is Scientology Controversial? Talk: “The controversial religion founded by the late L. Ron Hubbard”; Esquire: “Controversy has long surrounded Scientology.”
Existentialism and the SEC: Talk: “To the horror of investors, the SEC revealed in May that [Slatkin’s “bank,” NAA Financial] did not exist and apparently had never existed”; Esquire: [A]s the SEC would discover to its embarrassment in April, NAA didn’t even exist.”
Article Grace Note: Talk: Investor dreams that Slatkin is a beggar asking for $54,000; Esquire: Poitras airbrushes himself out of photo with Slatkin. Richard Byrne