Signs of Demise of Tabloid TV News?

A Boston friend and I recently were discussing the recent ratings downfall and news staff turmoil of a TV station in his area, WHDH-7. Apparently, WHDH has been using fast-paced video, salacious celebrity gossip, crime stories and other pointless, frivolous, tabloid style rubbish to cater to the thrill-a-minute cadre of morons with 10-second attention spans.

They’re not the only ones, of course, as I’ll note below. It’s nothing new, either, as recognized a quarter century ago by Don Henley’s popular ditty, “Dirty Laundry”. But their brand of hype-driven, painfully shallow presentation, devoid of both substance and style (I mean style in a dignified, Tom Brokaw sense), absolutely turns me off. It’s prevalent in TV news in every major market, including OKC. Yes, OKC…and one need look no farther for a prime example than the “Weather Wars” with their breathlessly yelling armadas of pseudo “storm chasers” who don’t properly recognize half of what they’re seeing, and who stupidly rate the F scale of tornadoes based only on appearance. It’s why I just don’t watch local news anymore.

The phenomenon, at least in the Boston area, is summed up well by these quotes from the Herald story:

    Ratings, demographics, and viewership is about content, pure and simple,” Piette [WBZ] said. “This is arguably the smartest market in the United States. Why would you pander to the lowest common denominator?

    “Seven [WHDH] is still shouting the loudest. It’s working a lot less than it used to. . . . WBZ is succeeding because people are tired of tabloid.”

Good for Boston! I bet the Boston market, while certainly showing good taste, isn’t quite as smart as they smugly proclaim, and that there are enough people in any metro area who want authentic, serious news to use their remotes to send a much-needed ratings message: Cut the crap!

I’ve read that TV stations around the country are feeling the heat from both online and portable-electronic news delivery — even those few who report serious and meaningful issues — but I find this development in Boston hugely ironic and amusing. The short attention spans are abandoning the very entity that panders to them, fleeing the tabloid station in droves for web delivery, precisely because of their desire to have only what they want, and have it this very minute. The thoughtful viewers who want serious content already have tuned out the screaming yahoos. Outstanding!

When my friend told me that WHDH was bought in ’93 by the same bunch that owned WSVN (Miami), it all made sense. Channel 7 in Miami — I know them well…like a familiar old wart.  They were pioneers, the true trendsetters, in the tabloid-TV movement.  They started that garbage when I still was living there in the early 90s.  Every time I visit and happen to catch their news, it’s still the same frantic lunacy — fast-paced, spastic jumping from one crime scene to another, deliberately tilted or shaky video of damn-near everything, interspersed with salacious celebrity gossip, crime scenes and disasters everywhere, sports arrests and lascivious innuendo. 

On any given night one may see breathlessly narrated and questionably appropriate footage of any combination of  refinery explosions, tenement fires, European riots, the old woman with 300 cats in her house, some baby in Kyrgyzstan with an arm growing out of its head, security-cam showing a convenience store clerk getting shot, five screaming street whores handcuffed together while being stuffed into a paddy wagon, the latest drunken-Britney mug shot, the Khmer Rouge skull collection, the man with the world’s longest fingernails breaks one, an armless surfer’s stitched-up stump after a shark attack, a python vs. alligator struggle, despondent woman wailing after being told her boyfriend died in a bad drug deal, old replay of Lawrence Taylor snapping Joe Theismann’s leg in half, multiple replay angles while a morbidly obese umpire face-plants from a heart attack behind home plate, 40 starving Haitians afloat on a makeshift raft, flashbulb-lit Jose Canseco on South Beach with his hot-babe-of-the-day, high-speed police pursuit through Hialeah ends as suspects collide with dump truck, a beanie-wearing chimpanzee that can whistle the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Michael Vick’s meanest dogs snarling into the camera, an X-ray of a man’s head after eight hits from a nail gun, motorcyclist jumps from one 20 story building to another, flies buzzing around a body bag lying behind yellow police tape while they name who is dead inside, gang fight breaking out in a court room, close-up shot of Jess Simpson’s legs as she struts across some red carpet in skin-tight shorts and five inch heels (OK, admittedly, that one didn’t bother me so much…I am partly human), and without fail, doors slamming shut while someone on the other side yells, “No Comment!”  

Come to think of it, all that could be just one 10 minute segment out of one “newscast.” 

I don’t know if the Miami station, or others like it, are planning to tone down the insanity. But the potential demise of the tabloid-TV news show is cause for celebration, even if preliminary and in gradual doses. Let’s cry no tears over these trends. Instead, a cold, sweet Dublin Dr Pepper is in order. Let the dominoes keep falling.

One hopeful side benefit of this, too, may be a drying of the market for XTREME tornado video peddled shamelessly by the proud “zero meter club” Evel Knievels and destruction-hucksters of storm chasing. Can’t feed the pig if it’s sick and not hungry!



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