In the spring of 1988, I moved to the South Bay area of metropolitan Los Angeles. Really. I figured I was just about played out in Oklahoma, and maybe I was overly influenced by the lure of Tinseltown and/or the lore of Tom Joad. It didn't last: all I have to show for my brief stint as a Californian is a copy of a smog certificate for a car I no longer have, and that car's 1990 license plate, which is hanging on my garage wall. And, distressingly enough, I found that the #2 TV market was no more sophisticated than the middle-40s market I'd left behind. I sent a letter to Oklahoma Observer editor Frosty Troy to that effect. It's dated 31 May 1988; I don't recall if it was ever printed or not. Either way, it's reprinted below.
In the May 25th Observer, you take KWTV, Channel 9, to task for their "investigative series" on the controversial subject of whether Elvis Presley is still alive, with the unsubtle hint that only in pitifully unsophisticated Oklahoma could a TV station pull off such a scam. Not so.
During the last week of the May ratings sweeps, KABC-TV, Channel 7 in Los Angeles, fearful of losing its dominance in the afternoon news blocks, spent untold hours promoting and about fifteen minutes reporting the selfsame "Is Elvis really dead?" controversy. The local print media excoriated KABC, its corporate parent (Capital Cities/ABC, Inc.), and its news director for such blatant foolishness masquerading as journalism. Said news director defended the series as appropriate to present, and cited the necessity of keeping the ratings up. Crosstown rival KNBC-TV, delirious at the thought of actually finishing ahead of KABC in the ratings, ran nasty counterads: "No matter what anyone else may tell you, Elvis is dead. For real news, watch Channel 4."
This isn't the first dartworthy caper at KABC it wasn't that long ago that Channel 7 did a series about the local Nielsen families. During sweeps, of course. The families, of course, flocked to see themselves on the air, inflating KABC's audience numbers. Nielsen, appalled at this stacking of the viewer deck, voided the entire set of ratings. KABC's on-air ombudsman took vehement exception to this stunt, even in the red face of a defense by the station's general manager. Shortly thereafter, the ombudsman himself was nowhere to be seen.
I am pleased to report that the good guys came out slightly ahead on this one. KNBC edged KABC for the top spot in the afternoon news ratings, and both KNBC and third-place KCBS far surpassed KABC in the perennial quest for local Emmy awards. But regardless of market size, there is still far too much fluff cluttering up local TV news, and if Los Angeles' tales seem worse, it may be due simply to the sheer enormity of the operations KABC's afternoon news runs three hours, not including Peter Jennings on the network. Perhaps things aren't quite so obtrusive in Oklahoma after all.
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Copyright © 2005 by Charles G. Hill