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From AJR,   August/September 2006  issue

Gaffes Go Global   

No TV mistakes are local in the Internet era.


By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     

Whoever said there's no such thing as bad publicity didn't work in TV news and live in the age of the Internet. Back in the old days, when you made a mistake on the air or did something just plain stupid, you could expect to be ribbed by your colleagues and possibly a few sharp-eyed viewers. But you could feel fairly confident that cousin Betty in Boise would never know. Not anymore. These days, a blooper can make its way around the world before the newsroom stops giggling.

Just ask Cynthia Izaguirre, an anchor at KOAT-TV in Albuquerque. "After the break," she promised viewers, "we're going to interview Erik Weihenmayer, who climbed the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest." Then, after a suitable pause, came the kicker. "But...he's gay!" Actually, he isn't. And Izaguirre quickly corrected herself, "I mean..excuse me. He's blind. So we'll hear about that."

Hear about it she did. The blooper, posted on YouTube.com in May, has been viewed more than 240,000 times. Izaguirre even made the national news, only not the way she might have hoped. MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" played her gaffe for a national audience in May.

At least Izaguirre realized something was wrong. Karen Bowerman, a business anchor at the BBC's 24-hour news channel, apparently didn't during a live interview this spring with a person she identified as computer expert Guy Kewney. Viewers must have thought it odd when the guest gave the camera a startled look during his introduction. Even odder were his vague, French-accented answers to Bowerman's questions about a music-downloading lawsuit. But she kept right on going.

Had the BBC been pranked? Nope. They just had the wrong Guy. The man on the set knew something about computers, all right, but Guy Goma, a native of Congo, had come to the BBC that day to apply for an IT job. Seems a production assistant went to the wrong waiting room to collect the guest. Oops. Score another one for YouTube. The video has been viewed online at least 180,000 times.

In Terre Haute, Indiana, NBC affiliate WTWO decided to promote its weather team during the May ratings period by attacking the competition at the local CBS affiliate, WTHI. Not content with touting its own weather team, including 5 p.m. forecaster "Doppler Dan" Reynolds, WTWO created a promo that mocked WTHI's lack of experience a mere 30 years compared with WTWO's 45. And if that wasn't enough to convince viewers to switch, the station charged in ominous tones that WTHI's radar is in a "Doppler dead zone," leaving thousands without coverage.

Within days, the promo drew the kind of national attention that's much better avoided from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." Stewart thought it was so "retarded," to use his word, he ran it twice. "My God," he said of the radar claim, "if you live in Terre Haute, you have to look out the window!" The station pulled the promo, but it lives on in cyberspace.

Stations get bad publicity from things that happen off the air as well. Norfolk, Virginia, television reporter Andy Fox was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol this spring. His arrest made the papers, of course, but it drew more attention than it might have otherwise because of what Fox is known for a regular segment on WAVY-TV called "Road Rebels." His routine was to confront drivers he spotted doing something dangerous or illegal behind the wheel, and then shout at them or chase them down the street. Shame works both ways, apparently. Fox is back on the air after pleading guilty to DUI. His feature, however, was canceled.

And then there's the strange case of KRON-TV in San Francisco. To say things haven't been going well there lately is an understatement. The station used to be a TV news powerhouse, but in 2001 it lost its NBC affiliation. Viewers melted away, and so did ratings and revenue.

So this year the station's programming director, Pat Patton, decided to do something about it. In keeping with TV tradition, he hired a consultant. But not just any consultant: Jesse Kalsi, an astro-numerologist. "The success of a business is greatly dependent on a business name with the right numerological vibration and a positive business address," Kalsi states on his Web site. His solution for KRON was simple. Just add a few digits to the street number above the entrance at 1001 Van Ness Avenue. After Kalsi's intervention, the mailing address stayed the same but the sign over the door read 1001552.

And Patton says it worked. "Morale is better," he told the San Francisco Weekly. "People seem happier." Then again, they may just have been laughing at the absurdity of a TV station turning to a psychic for help. As former KRON producer Kevin McCormack put it, "I find it ridiculous that numerologists are being consulted to make up for the lack of a coherent business plan." Soon after the paper's story appeared, the extra numbers vanished.

So there is such a thing as bad publicity. Irish writer Brendan Behan knew that when he said it. Maybe folks in the TV news business should check the original quote: "There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary."