There was a time, not long ago, when the sweeps ratings periods prodded local news stations into orgies of in-depth features on hot-oil wrestling and the pros and cons of penile implants. If nothing else, it was fun to watch the stations abandon their thin veneer of pompous news righteousness and gleefully wallow in the muck. During sweeps, the local TV stations revealed their true lap-dancing nature, assuring viewers that in the name of ratings news anchors would gladly get on all fours and bark like a dog to try to woo a few extra ratings ducats.
But these days the sweeps have lost their sleazy luster. Ratings meters installed in households now provide the advertising geeks with year-round numbers, making sweeps less important to the stations.
Faced with the blood-smeared ratings battleground of the May sweeps period, the San Diego stations barely roused themselves out of their slumber to mount a fight.
The stations don't seem to have the stomach for the competition anymore. Even Channel 8, which is always good for a few stories that "could save your life," didn't seem to have its heart in it. With a zillion household items out there that could kill you, Channel 8 tried to entice viewers with the screaming headline, "Unpaid Parking Tickets: Pay Now or Pay Later."
Channel 10 asked its audience the provocative question, "See Lights, Hear Sirens: What Should You Do?" Ostensibly designed to illustrate the shocking news that some people don't pull over fast enough for fire trucks, the concept had all the news sophistication of "let's go ride on a fire truck!"
Faced with tales of corruption and sleaze in the big city, KSWB decided to unleash fiery newsbeast Dave Carlin on the horrors of moving companies. It turns out movers occasionally break things and over charge, and KSWB felt this would be news to its viewers.
Many of the stories used by the stations during sweeps had a faintly generic sound, like the news directors went to the Wal-Mart of TV news features and picked a few off the bottom rack. This reeks of the influence of consultants, who tell stations like Channel 39 that doing a quiz is a sure-fire ratings winner, as evidenced by the kick-ass performance of the Fox affiliate in Boise last May.
Channel 8 countered Channel 39's road-rage quiz with its own "politeness test," which asked the deep question, "How nice are San Diegans when we think no one is watching?"
This, of course, is not real news, but simply News Lite, a low-carb TV version of news. As always, presenting the appearance of real news was more important for the stations this sweeps period than tackling actual news.
Channel 39's report on "DUI zones" discovered the shocking news that most DUIs occur in neighborhoods with "bars, liquor stores and the congregation of youthful people who like to party."
Pieces that smelled like real stories were lost in the avalanche of reports that only contained a slight whiff of news. Channel 10 reported on an investigation into alleged improprieties at the city's Miramar landfill, but it also presented Carol LeBeau's "virtual colonoscopy," which gave viewers a chance to "go inside Carol's intestines."
If nothing else, the stations' sweeps efforts painted a portrait of how news directors view their own audiences. Judging by their choice of subjects, they believe their prime viewer these days is a tubby, shut-in mother with paranoia issues and an IQ somewhere in the 70s. From Channel 39's special report on "Amazing Arms," which promised to help its sophisticated news viewers "get rid of that jiggle and wiggle," to KSWB's exposé on finding bikinis that fit, the stations battled it out for the legions of Oprah watchers and soap opera fans.
The stations have apparently given up on the vast audience of working men and women, who can get more comprehensive news reports from their cell phones. Instead, they are slavishly wooing soccer moms who may have trouble operating a Dustbuster. If armed terrorists storm the shores of Maryland, Channel 8 would lead with the impact of the attack on Pampers prices at the Encinitas Wal-Mart.
The quest for these female viewers is evident in every aspect of news operations, including the new wave of hunky male anchors and the perky anchorwoman-moms who always appear ready to whip open their blouse and grab a young'un to illustrate a story on the joys of breastfeeding.
During May sweeps, KSWB dispatched professional journalist Darlynne Reyes to investigate Dollar Stores because its street tipsters hinted that some of the quality of the merchandise might not be "up to snuff."
The feature, "Dollar Store Dangers," speaks volumes about how KSWB perceives its audience, and it's clearly not a vision of the La Jolla tea-and-crumpets crowd. Apparently, the station poobahs believe that not only are KSWB news viewers likely to shop at Dollar Stores, they are also the type that might be confused by the pricing.
So instead of covering important issues of corruption and addled-brained politicians, KSWB devotes its resources to covering topics like "dirty" Laundromats and an insider report on the last episode of Angel, which happens to air on KSWB.
The stations have been jumping over those ethical lines for decades. But now they're guilty of the one sin that should be inexcusable in TV-they're boring. ©
Write to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SD citybeat.com.