Broadcast news, local style

Today, I had to kill time for about half an hour at a local business. A TV was on showing local news at noon. Normally I would ignore it and whisper sweet nothings to my iPad instead. But today was no ordinary day. Inspired by Tod’s painful and selfless work watching cable news so the rest of us don’t have to, I decided to watch local news for the first time since I moved to the DC metro area eight years ago.

Before I describe what I saw, here’s what I would be totally interested in seeing on a local news station: Local politics, including new or proposed bills, campaigns, corruption problems (a wee bit of a problem in this neck of the woods). Attempts to develop mass transit and alleviate traffic congestion. Analyses or undercover examinations of the performance of government services would be awesome. DC home rule issues. Relations between federal government and the metro area more generally. Weather or other stuff that might actually affect my life that day. School system. Local businesses (business regulations, businesses trying out new ideas and succeeding, businesses failing). Local activities in every price range for every age, including stuff that’s always been there, but tends to go unnoticed (say, a hiking trail). Local history. Local wildlife. Spotlight on an neighborhood. Even stuff happening at federal agencies located here – NIH, Walter Reed, what have you.

So I watched twenty-four minutes of WNBC TV before I had to leave. Here’s what I saw:

The anchor is appealingly low-key. She looks not at all like a weird mannequin, and her hair looks as if she might have done it herself! Neat!

HEAT WAAA-AAA-AAVE!!!!!!!!!!! Interminable dwelling on the fact that it is in the high 90s today. “Stay cool, everyone!” Interviews with people on the street asking how they plan to beat the heat. Etc. etc. I’m all in favor of weather coverage, as I said above. And some of what they show is useful, such as information about where to go to cool down if you don’t have A/C. But. Perhaps all this other coverage is excessive? I mean, this is DC. It’s known for being a disgusting fetid swamp in summertime. Last year there were 14 days in July alone that exceeded 95 degrees. This year, I got a notice from my son’s summer program that they would only go outside on the (fully shaded) playground for 20 minutes at a time, with constant access to water. Except on “code red” days, when they wouldn’t go out at all. It occurred to me then that we actually live in a place that is semi-uninhabitable for four months of the year. All to say, I’m not sure why the heat hysteria. Do they do this every time it’s going to be in the high 90s? Tomorrow it’s supposed to be 100. Will they do the same thing all over again?

Longer amount of time on various and sundry crimes, all violent (yet somehow lacking in even prurient interest), all including interviews with information-less “witnesses.” All presented, as the heat wave was, in intensely urgent Watch This Or Die! tones of voice, music, and editing.

A seemingly endless interview with the stars of a local musical production. Hooray for some coverage of local activities a viewer can actually do! Ideally, it would have more than one suggestion and be a tad less boring, but we’re on the right track.

The Bay Bridge is closing for 40 minutes later today because a crane is moving under it! The excitement over this seems a tad unwarranted, but some nice helicopter shots of the bridge. And a crane going under it seems pretty fun.

Then a traffic report. Don’t get me wrong, I am near-obsessed with finding alternate routes to avoid traffic. (My hero in this regard is Holly Hunter’s character in Broadcast News.) But how is a traffic report on TV news helpful? Even if you leave your house immediately after watching, you’d still almost certainly need an update before you get to some of your main routes.

Then…national business news. I mean, okay. It’s more tolerable than the tawdry crimes. But does anyone who cares about national business news watch the local news at noon? If you need an update on business news, there’s CNBC and Bloomberg, not to mention the internet.

Followed by national non-business news. The stories they covered were: the effect of Hosni Mubarak’s state of health on the Egyptian election and the House vote to hold Holder in contempt. Just kidding! They were: A passenger groped a TSA agent. Pizza companies are banding together to fight menu labeling. A dead dog received a voter registration form in the mail.

There were five minutes left in the half hour, but my business concluded at that point.

So. Apparently, half the show is taken up by national news. Or “news.” And a good two-thirds of the local stories were of the We’re All Going to Diiiie! variety. Pretty useless. A quick glance at the metro section of the Washington Post suggests there were plenty of interesting stories to cover.

If any TV news has a future at all (and I’m not sure it does), I would think it would be local news. Local internet sites or blogs don’t have the resources and reach that TV news still does. Local sites also tend to be far more fragmented – all about music, say, or about a specific social scene (hipster, parents with young kids, etc.). It’s nice to get a broader picture.

There may not be a market for what I have in mind, I suppose. But if there are three or four local stations all doing heat waves and murders, couldn’t one stand out by doing something totally different? I’m not looking for highbrow analysis, I would just like a show that had actual useful information about my community that might affect the way I live in it. On the local NPR affiliate, the Kojo Nnamdi Show (also at noon) frequently covers local issues in a pretty serious way – politics especially, but also restaurants, schools, and other issues. So it seems as if there’s at least some appetite for it.

Also: is there any good TV news anywhere, even national? I know Tod liked Rachel Maddow, and I do too. Is there anything else?

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


    • When I lived in NYC, there was a local 24hour news station that was quite good, NY1. Much better than the national 24 hour stations.

      • I remember NY1 fondly. It was easily the best local news I’ve ever seen, and nothing I’ve ever found in any other local market compares. FWIW, I find local news unwatchable.

  1. A passenger groped a TSA agent.

    I really hope this is what you meant to write, and didn’t just leave out the “by.” Because “Passenger gropes TSA Agent” is perhaps the most awesome spin on “man bites dog” I’ve ever seen.

  2. We have a local news station that tends to be on in similar situations to the one you described. I haven’t watched it a ton, but they do a great job of truly focusing on “local”, which is hard when you live in the shadow of NYC and many local things tend to be about NYC, despite the fact they don’t really impact us. They tend to cover news stories in towns I live in or work in or visit regularly. Which is nice. But I haven’t really done a thorough review. Maybe I’ll try that given that I can’t get off the couch and am going stir crazy…

    Regarding the weather, when Hurricane Irene hit last summer and turned out to be much less destructive to NYC as suspected, the local news folks went into a tizzy to pretend it really WAS super destructive, since they had been spending days telling us the city might just be gone by the end of the storm. Nevermind the fact that they could have gone across the river into NJ and NY State to find real areas that had been truly devastated by the storm. No. They had to turn the storm into a disaster movie and had to have every disaster movie’s favorite target, Manhattan, at the center.

    At one point, they were doing a “man on the street” interview. They found a guy walking his dog in lower Manhattan, the area that probably got he “worst” of the storm which amounted to a few flooded streets and not much else. Here is roughly how the interview went:
    Reporter: Sir, what do you make of the storm thus far? How worried are you?
    Man on the Street: Not really. The worst seems to have passed and it wasn’t as bad as reported. I think we’ll be fine.
    R: Yes, but, it could get worse!
    MOTS: Probably not. All reports seem to say the worst has passed. And the tide is receding.
    R: But the damage! How will Manhattan recover?
    MOTS: It’s not that bad. We’ve had flooding before. We’ll be fine.
    R: Well, be careful out there sir. Things are starting to get dangerous!
    MOTS: Um. Ok. [Man walks away, revealing he is walking one of those tiny dogs, completely unphased by the storm and its “danger” and “damage”]

    If you had HD and looked closely enough, you could see the anger welling in the reporter’s eyes at the fact that the man didn’t play along with the Roland Emmerich script they had written for the piece.

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