July 20, 2008

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas, Bud Kennedy Column

By Bud Kennedy, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas

Jul. 20--Some folks seem scared that Tracy Rowlett left local TV news to report for an energy company's Web site.

Frankly, I'm more scared by what I see on TV news.

Every report lately is either frightening or silly. If it isn't a breathless warning against swimming or eating a vegetable, it's a vanity tip about, say, "How to Stay Looking Salon-Fresh All Night."

Or maybe another ATM is gone. Or another fancy apartment was robbed.

In a metropolitan region of 7 million people, that's "breaking news," even though it's not unusual and nothing is breaking.

No wonder reporters want out. Or maybe Rowlett had enough after one TV anchor reported on her bikini wax.

I am not kidding. On May 13, Jane McGarry of KXAS/Channel 5 wrote on nbc5i.com about her waxing experience.

No word on whether co-anchor Mike Snyder waxed.

Of course, TV also gives us the latest Jessica Simpson upheaval and Britney Spears lowdown.

Fort Worth native John Sparks retired after 40 years as a news producer.

Now, he describes newscasts as "either something that scares the heck out of the viewers, or tabloid stuff."

His fifth-generation Fort Worth family owned early movie theaters and moved here before Exchange Avenue was bricked.

Now, he will join Rowlett as the executive producer of video reports for shale.tv, an advertising Web site devoted to gas drilling and bankrolled by Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy.

Sparks has worked for four local stations, mostly WFAA/Channel 8 and KTVT/Channel 11.

"The only way we could ever get the local stations to cover the Barnett Shale," he said Friday, "is if Britney Spears went out there naked drilling for gas."

Sparks has read comments slamming him and Rowlett for taking advertising jobs. He vows that the webcast will report "the good, the bad and the ugly" about drilling and the Barnett field.

"It's an opportunity to do meaningful, serious stories about issues," he said.

That's something that he finds missing from TV news.

Forty years ago, WFAA/Channel 8 might have led the ratings with 35 percent of the audience at 10 p.m. Now, the top station -- Channel 8 or KXAS/Channel 5 -- has half that share.

Viewers go to the Web for national news and sports scores. Local newscasts are left covering regional events, doing the weather and adding a few game highlights.

"Before cable, there were only certain times every day to get the news or scores," Sparks remembered. "It was the Vietnam War era, and the draft was on, so news was a matter of life and death. If the president came on TV, it was serious."

Now, local TV news has less content, and also less money, because viewers are gone to cable or the Web.

"So you get police blotter news," he said. "People tell us crime is a concern, and it is. But there's a shooting somewhere every 20 minutes. There's a reporter standing there because it's cheap to cover, and because it triggers that fear factor that keeps people watching."

That "fear factor" bothers Sparks.

"You hear people complain about the line, 'Coming up next!'â“š" But it's because people are flipping through 200 cable channels. â“š...So you scare them -- sensationalize something so they're afraid to tune away."

Over and over, Sparks described TV news with the words sensationalism and tabloid.

He remembers back when KXAS/Channel 5 personality Bobbie Wygant hosted a variety show on movies, fashion or celebrities.

"Today, they put all that in the newscasts," he said. Advertisers want young viewers, "so you get stories like 'Get Rid of Your Cellulite' or 'What Botox Can Do for You!'â“š"

Sparks longs for the day when TV newscasts were mostly "school issues, government, politics, investigations."

And he remembers what he told editors who asked to cut his stories.

"I used to tell them that I'm trying to save the world," he said. "I'm not trying to save 20 seconds."

He and Rowlett can't save the world doing advertising.

But TV news isn't even trying.


To see more of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.dfw.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.