I watched Jay Leno's primetime debut Monday night and learned: 1) Don't watch Jay Leno's new prime time show; it's dull and overly scripted. 2) Don't watch prime time terrestrial network TV entertainment programming; it's not entertaining. 3) Don't read about TV in the NY Times; its coverage is insipid and inaccurate.
At 11:00 p.m. Monday night, after the Leno show on NBC, I made a second mistake. I watched WNBC-TV's local news with veteran anchors Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons.
It has been at least ten years since I have watched the late news on the NBC owned-and-operated station, but what amazed me was that the newscast looked the same as I remember it from almost a decade ago. It was as though Scarborough, Simmons, and the producers and writers of the program had been frozen in time and were sleepwalking through the exact same format that it used in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
It was dull, boring, formulaic, and old-fashioned. It was as though management had said, "Don't make any changes or you'll wake up the audience." The newscast led with the death of actor Patrick Swayze, the second story was about the death of the female Yale student, and the third story was about a rape in New York. All stories to be expected on a local TV station in New York the day the president of the United States gave a major policy speech about the excesses of Wall Street.
The next section of the newscast I'll just call "Pimping for Jay." Because WNBC-TV is an NBC O&O, word certainly came from the top to pimp the Jay Leno show for all it was worth. Station news departments and producers generally hate these top-down pimping edicts – they come all the time for TV specials – because they are so clearly promotional and have no real, serious news value.
The first story in the pimping segment was about the Leno show's debut and the lead was, of course, Kanye West's tearful apology for his interrupting Taylor Swift in a mic-swiping incident at the MTV Video Music Awards, certainly a more important, newsworthy, and momentous event than Obama's Wall Street speech.
The second story in the "Pimping for Jay" section of the newscast was rather creative. A News 4 reporter did interviews with a group of New York working comedians who had gathered in a bar and were watching Leno's prime time debut. It was clearly a passive-aggressive way to get back at the suits who had ordered the Leno show pimped because the comedians generally panned the show and made fun of Jay's looks and grey hair, saying he looked too Teddy Kennedyesque.
The comedians got it right; the general consensus was that the show was not funny, was dull, and was just like the old Tonight Show. I think one comedian repeated Jerry Seinfeld's best line – the one about how in his day when someone retired, they stayed retired. Like all good humor, this line was based on a harsh truth. The line may not have been repeated by a comedian in the News 4 story, but if it wasn't it should have been.
Then there was a commercial break, one with the new General Motors chairman announcing GM's 60-day money back guarantee and daring people to compare GM's cars to all others and "may the best car win." I'm afraid GM will regret this campaign because the best cars probably will win.
The next story was a brief reader about Obama's Wall Street speech, followed ominously by a story about how banks (that were bailed out by the government) are finding new scams to bleed money out of people (my wording, not News 4's) by charging customers with debit cards for overdrafts – a direct ripoff from a NY Times story.
The weather was next, and an attractive, upbeat black weatherwoman gave a quick weathercast and spoke of the good, sunny weather "if you go to the beach." On a friggin Monday? She must have assumed all of the News 4 audience was retired or jobless – probably a good guess.
Next, a commercial break had six commercials in the pod and four of them were for political candidates running in the next day's primary. All four of them touted being endorsed by the NY Times. Because of all of the political commercials in the newscast, the NY Times was mentioned more during the half-hour newscast than News 4, which is probably the first time that has happened in years.
The next two stories were health related. This section of a newscast is often referred to as the C Block, and clearly it had been reserved for health related stories because research shows that health is one of the top issues people are interested in, especially local TV news viewers, the majority of which are 65 and older.
The stories were about preventing Swine Flu by sanitizing your hands. It told people to wash their hands a lot. Thanks. The next story was something about bacteria in shower heads, but it was completely incomprehensible. I have no idea what the message was; it must have been about making sure your shower head is clean.
No wonder I stopped watching local TV news a decade ago.
Five more commercials, four of them for political candidates, but this was the not-endorsed-by-the NY Times group. Not that anyone would care or ever know the difference, but the previous pod with the NY Times-endorsed front runners was clearly considered a better position than the second pod with all of the non-endorsed candidates. I assume WNBC-TV charged more to be in the first pod ("we'll put you and all the front runners in the first pod"). If it didn't, it missed a money-making opportunity.
But, come to think about it, that does sound like NBC.
Sports was next, sponsored by Verizon FiOS. Sports must be the only section that NBC allows to be sponsored. I guess because no one cares about a perceived sponsor influence on sports. Short and sweet: Federer loses, Yankees and Pats win, out.
The last story was the required kicker – a supposed light story that gives viewers a going-away smile. Research shows that people remember stories in a newscast based on primacy and recency. In other words, the first and last stories they watch. So, start 'em off with death, disaster, crime, blood, and guts, and leave 'em laughing.
The kicker was about a mascot of a Virginia college football team. He fell of his horse and looked like a fool trying to get back on. What a thigh slapper.
Next were two promos and then six commercials for political candidates, half of them endorsed by the NY Times (some repeats of earlier commercials), but two for candidates for governor of New Jersey. These NJ candidate commercials were nasty. They both deserve to lose for running such negative, disgusting advertising.
So, I left the News 4 newscast not with a smile from the silly kicker but with loathing for politicians – a nice lead into the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. His opening monologue was funnier than Jay Leno's earlier and he looked a lot more at ease than Jay did. No wonder, he didn't have to live up to all of NBC's hype, expectations, and pimping.
What did I learn from watching WNBC-TV's late news? 1) I was absolutely right in my decision ten years ago to stop watching local TV news; it's worthless, boring, and old-fashioned. 2) Never watch local TV in the days and weeks before elections because you'll hate all politicians and you'll avoid voting. 3) Someone should wake up Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons – it's safe because I Googled sleepwalking and it's a myth that it is dangerous to wake up someone who is sleepwalking.
And what did I learn by going to WNBC-TV’s Web site after I watched the local news? Read Part III of this blog post on Monday morning, September 21.
Until he retired in 2002, Charlie Warner was Vice President of AOL's Interactive Marketing division. Before joining AOL, he was the Goldenson Endowed Professor at the Missouri Journalism School where he taught media management and sales, and he created and ran the annual Management Seminar for News Executives. Charlie can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read all Charlie’s MediaBizBloggers commentaries at Charlie Warner - MediaBizBloggers.