You Are There!

May TV sweeps deliver horror, hysteria, and helpful hints

You Are There!
Illustration By Doug Potter

If the local TV news operations needed a gift from heaven, it came in the form of a cyanide canister discovered in an abandoned grain silo in Hutto the last week of April. The key May sweeps ratings period was just starting, and they were able to fill programs with "live reports" from the evacuation scene, evoking images of birds falling from the sky and farmers stampeding into the cornfields.

The TV sweeps ratings periods are no longer quite the bacchanalia of strippers and teen prostitute exposés that they once were. Meters now measure viewership in Austin year round, diminishing the relevance of the quarterly battles. But the May sweeps period, which ended last week, is still a key period for the local network-affiliated news operations – the last book of the season, a chance to strut their best stuff and bitch-slap the competition.

It was easy to spot the local stations in sweeps mode, rolling out their news features and in-depth investigative reports on news that "every parent should see." Everybody was working it a bit harder, begging to be loved. You could practically see the flop sweat dripping from the forehead of new KTBC bohunk anchor Mike Warren, as he leaned into the camera and punched his words, pushing like it was the fourth quarter and he was going to bring home the title with his dramatic reading of the report of a traffic accident on I-35.

CBS affiliate KEYE immediately pounced on the Hutto cyanide story, repeatedly telling viewers that it was the first station to report on the canister, suggesting that its reporters just happened to be roaming the streets of Hutto in hazmat suits. All the stations jumped on the Horror in Hutto once the city announced plans for a controlled two-hour evacuation of the surrounding area due to the cyanide – although the canister, once commonly used for grain insecticide, had apparently been on site for decades without so much as a whiff of public danger.

"How are folks handling the news?" KEYE news mom Judy Maggio breathlessly asked fresh-faced reporter-on-the-scene Julie Simon.

"People seem perfectly all right with it," Simon reported.

When there were no poisonous gas scares or kids bringing weaponry to school, the stations spotlighted their big news exposés, the important stories – aka the stuff to kill time between weather reports. These were the stories generated from fever-pitch newsroom meetings and expensive sessions with consultants, designed to send Austinites scurrying to their VCRs, desperate to record the upcoming news shows. If nothing else, in their selection of sweeps stories the local news directors revealed their working conception of the local TV news' target audience – semiliterate soccer moms and crazed Dr. Phil fans, judging by their choices. KEYE waded in with "Manicure Mistakes"; KXAN reported on "Love and Deception"; KVUE exposed a new tummy-tuck technique; and KTBC offered the "Buzz on Light Wine" – all of which suggest the stations are not exactly aiming for the Wall Street Journal crowd.

Public schools took the brunt of the action, as stations descended on local campuses, hoping to woo viewers away from E! True Hollywood Story. "AISD doesn't want you to see this story," KXAN assured viewers, promoting an "undercover" investigation of school security. Instead, it is almost certainly a story reporter Julie Shields doesn't want anybody to see, considering the best she could uncover was the shocking news that someone can actually walk into an unlocked school without getting zapped by laser beams. "Kids were smiling, talking to me," the undercover agent shockingly reported to Shields.

Equally shocking was Fox affiliate KTBC's report on the dirtiest school cafeterias, which hinted at mice feces in the Sloppy Joes. But, as it turned out, all the school cafeterias received passing grades. (That "dammit!" you heard was certainly a KTBC news executive lamenting the demise of another big scoop.)

When they were not trolling school grounds for perverts and kitchen workers with dirty hands, the TV news hounds were all over the roads, exposing the Hidden Evils of Commuting. Both KVUE and KEYE waded in with dangerous road reports, but KXAN won the traffic story battle by making "Dangerous Roads" a centerpiece of its sweeps month strategy. Reporter after reporter was sent into the field to warn viewers of the dangers of talking on the cell phone while driving and the tragic consequences of jaywalking. And, thanks to an in-depth report by veteran reporter R.J. DeSilva, KXAN viewers now know that driving with a seat belt is a good thing.

Many of the stories had that "well, duh" level of sophistication. "Don't be afraid to ask questions beforehand," KTBC reporter Chris Coffey revealed, after his much-hyped "investigation" of summer beach rentals. The local stations are, to put it mildly, a little loose with their definition of "investigates." KVUE's Olga Campos barely left the building for her much-promoted "special assignment" on worker's comp fraud, which consisted of generic insurance company hidden-camera video slapped together with two local interviews.

Several of the biggest, most promoted features had that fill-in-your-city's-name-here feel, leaving the distinct impression they were pulled from a list of story ideas passed around among news directors. Decent reports, such as KVUE's story on a shady local car dealership, were lost in the blizzard of reports that looked vaguely familiar. There was a noticeable lack of imagination in the offerings, especially when the stations slid into the familiar fearmongering that makes TV news such a heartwarming experience.

"Are you capable of murder?" KVUE asked viewers, as a way of drawing them into a fun and informative segment called "Born to Kill," which promised to reveal the "murderer next door" (it turned out to be nothing more than a report on a book by a UT professor). To honor its network's Shakespearean-like epic on Amber Frey ("alas, poor Juliet chose to record her lover's phone conversations..."), KEYE offered up the "Cheating Spouse Test," warning women that if their man was flossing too much, he was more than likely boinking his secretary. And for those who weren't worried about their suspicious neighbors, spouses, or sex offenders on Viagra wandering the hallways of elementary schools, there were killer tornadoes, as KEYE and KXAN offered helpful tips on how to avoid ending up like Toto on a bad hair day.

Even more shameless were the now-familiar plugs for network shows, led by KTBC's cheerleaderlike zeal for reporting on the latest developments of American Idol. "I heard a rumor that Bo is sick and Carrie has an ear infection," baby-faced KTBC reporter Will Jensen revealed, reporting live from Hollywood. "Oh, no!" squealed professional news anchor Linda Stratton.

Jensen was forced into the indignity of going through singing lessons, supposedly to prepare for an appearance on American Idol, the type of skit that goes over well in junior high video classes. On KTBC it warranted a multipart series. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

television news, local television, Mike Warren, Judy Maggio, Julie Simon, Julie Shields, R.J. DeSilva, Chris Coffey, Olga Campos, Will Jensen

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