The depressed whiners manning San Diego's TV newsrooms are snickering over a new widely circulated national study, which lays out the sorry state of the local-TV news game.
The exhaustive study, prepared by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, notes that the brainiacs who run local TV stations continue to cut budgets and staff while adding more programs. Not surprisingly, the study found, this shrewd strategy is thrashing the quality of newscasts and turning TV newsrooms into sulking gulags, where staffers live in dread of who will be cut next or, even worse, forced to work on the crappy noon show.
In the academia-speak of the report, the result is called "undernourished product that is in oversupply." The report provides ample evidence that the audience is starting to catch on to the "undernourished product." According to the report, viewership for early-evening local news shows has dropped 18 percent since 1997, while late-evening shows have lost 16 percent of their audience.
People who don't watch local TV news find it "repetitive, formulaic, sensationalized or insipid," the study found.
That's not exactly breaking news to anybody who just spent 30 minutes watching KSWB bo-hunk Jeff Powers read the news. The San Diego newscasts are, indeed, all clones of the same boring format, following the same rigid formulas.
The report was a general account of the national scene, but it might as well have been a case study on San Diego. See if these findings about local TV news sound familiar:
* Seventy percent of stories are less than one minute long.
* The most common topic is crime by a 2-to-1 margin.
* Four in 10 stories are about "fairly typical, everyday events."
* Sixty-one percent of lead stories involve crime, natural disasters, weather or mundane accidents or fires.
* Twenty-nine percent of stories are about pre-arranged events, such as press conferences.
Plug in an anchor like Kimberly Hunt and an XETV-style special report on penile implants and you pretty much have the blueprint for San Diego TV news. Beyond the stats, the report struck to the core of the local strategy-the reliance on news-for-the-stupid and the fake posturing that characterizes San Diego news.
The report concluded that "stations tend to emphasize branding over content," which should ring a few bells in Kearny Mesa. In other words, from the perspective of station management, the newsworthiness of an "exclusive" is not nearly as important as telling viewers over and over again that it is, in fact, an "exclusive," in the desperate hope they might one day think of your station as the one with a darn lot of exclusives.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which translates into TV speak as "Pissing into the Wind," argues that, ultimately, it's not in the stations' best interests to treat the audience like idiots. Channel 8 might scare a few viewers into watching "How to Survive a Dog Attack" by warning the report "could save your life," but it ultimately alienates a vast audience of viewers who may not consider the possibility of attacks by killer dogs a high priority in their daily lives.
Local news' beloved strategy of focusing on shorter, quicker stories "may be unwise for stations trying to build viewer loyalty," the report says. Stations that air longer stories tend to build a more dedicated audience, study after study shows.
"Well, duh," you may say. But, as the report notes, TV stations aren't getting the message. Instead news directors continue to rely on video of traffic accidents, fires and killer dogs in a cheap attempt to entice people to stop punching the remote for maybe, pleeeez, 15 seconds.
The good news for the stations is that local news still makes buttloads of money, proving that it's one of those blind-pig types of business, like radio, where turning on the switch is practically a guarantee of making money.
But that could change. Local TV news could easily sink into the irrelevant pile of available programming, fighting with the Gardening Channel for geriatric shut-ins.
As it stands, most people tune in to local news for the weather report, according to the study.
That doesn't bode well for San Diego TV news, considering that you don't exactly need a soothsayer to figure out the local forecast. And there are plenty of other weather resources instantly available, and none of them force you to listen to Joe Lizura.
"The next few years may determine whether the [local TV news] industry ultimately heads up or down," the report concludes. The real question: Will the industry decide to "to invest in its product to reach out to new audiences," or continue to act like "a mature industry that should focus on efficiency and profit."
In other words, they could just strip down the machine, plant a couple of anchors and a weather babe on the set and do cheapo news, knowing they'll always be able to sell ads to a few car dealerships and furniture chains.
Or they could reach out and try to grab a new audience, wooing sophisticated viewers who want something more than a report on a traffic accident from a perky graduate of Yuma Community College wrestling with the pronunciation of La Joy-a.
Judging by newscasts, the San Diego stations aren't spending too much time wrestling with the issue. The report answers its own question. "There is too little evidence to suggest that [the industry] is committed to improvements," it says. "Indeed, most of the evidence would seem to suggest the opposite."
Write to MsBeak1@aol.com and copy editor @SDcitybeat.com.