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From AJR,   January/February 1998  issue

L.A.: The TV News Trend-Setter   

It's turned the "live interrupt" into an art form.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     

Critics who complain that local television news looks the same all over the country must not be spending much time in Los Angeles.

"More strange things happen in Los Angeles television news," says Jim Willi, president of Audience Research and Development, one of the industry's major consultants. "It's unique and sometimes a little bizarre."

For example, nowhere in the country are there more interruptions of regular programs for "live" news reports than in Lalaland.

"L.A. has turned the live interrupt into an art form," says Mike Cavender, vice president of news for WUSA in Washington and past chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Cavender, who has worked in Tampa, Nashville, San Antonio and Chicago, does not mean that as an endorsement. He and other news executives, including some who work in L.A., believe too much of the city's live reporting is on minor or pseudo news.

L.A. TV is particularly notorious for interrupting the news to televise live car chases on the freeways, a phenomenon that began several years before the famous pursuit of O.J. Simpson that was witnessed nationwide in June of 1994.

"Live interrupts have been overdone," says Jeff Wald, news director at L.A.'s independent KTLA, who has been a news director in the city for most of the last 15 years. "News judgment has to play a part. If a guy is going down the freeway with a shotgun sitting on his lap, I think that's news. Too many chases are ordinary, and I think everybody does too much 'live for live's sake.' "

One of the latest L.A. trends is a live interrupt within the newscast for what is billed as "breaking news" but is often just an update of an ongoing story. Warren Cereghino, a Los Angeles TV news executive for more than 30 years, is especially critical of what he terms this type of "interrupt mania."

"They've completely destroyed and abused the term 'breaking news,' " says Cereghino, now executive producer of the L.A.-based Chris-Craft Televison News Service, which feeds satellite news stories and handles special projects for the company's six statioýs. "Breaking news is going to a major fire that just broke out or the three buses that have just collided and overturned and are lying on the freeway. But these people go to a news conference or a followup to an earlier story, such as a trial, and they put up a graphic that says 'breaking news' when all it is is something you would normally do in a newscast in following a developing or continuing story."

Willi says he understands why L.A. stations may succumb to the hype even if the coverage doesn't fit the critics' definition of good journalism.

"Everyone is looking to grab the viewer because it doesn't take much to win the ratings," Willi says. "L.A. is unique. The market is so fractionalized because there are so many television stations doing news. There are three network O & Os (owned and operated stations) and five or six independents that do news."

Perhaps none of this would matter if no one else paid attention to L.A. TV news. But what happens there often is imitated by local stations across the country. Live coverage of car chases via helicopter is now a familiar sight in many large cities. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the network-owned stations in L.A. pioneered the hour and two-hour local newscasts that swept the country. Later, it was snazzy graphics, upbeat music and slick news sets that made their way east.

In fact, Los Angeles TV news may have less influence on the rest of the West Coast than it does on the rest of the country. "San Diego is similar, but San Francisco is totally different," says Willi, who has clients in most major West Coast markets. "There's not a lot of spot news in San Francisco. Seattle is more a thinking person's market, more upscale and with a tree-
hugger's kind of news. And Portland doesn't really worry about the rest of the country and especially about L.A."

John Sears, news director of Portland's independent KPTV, agrees. "We get to a point that if it happens in L.A. we don't want to do it," Sears says. "A couple of stations tried the car chases and it didn't work, and they quickly ended it. We look for something that makes a significant story to our audience, and what they do in L.A. usually doesn't meet that standard."

Cereghino points the finger at the consultants and the network-owned stations. "There is a very heavy emphasis on promotion and the dramatic potential of a story," Cereghino says. "So much of TV news in L.A. becomes theatrical. It's not journalism, and it's a downward spiral that is getting worse."

Wald says L.A. news has to change. "What I see is a lot of headline journalism and stories that are visually friendly and not all that significant," he says. "It's time to raise the bar." l