Sixteen Hours in Hell

What’s happening on the new Fox 4 Texas? Maury Povich, Geraldo, Jerry Springer, men who used to be women and wish they could go back, Complain-O-Vision, "news" that isn’t, ad nauseam. Our reporter watches, so you won’t have to.

IT CANNOT BE STATED WITH ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY THAT NO intelligent person would be caught dead watching KDFW-Channel 4 now that the Fox Network has got hold of it-but it’s safe to say that the current fare at 4 is not aimed at a thinking audience of mature citizens. Morning, noon, and night, in its entertainment programming and its approach to news coverage, Foxy 4 is North Texas’ top offender against taste, good sense, and civility.

Foxy 4 has a roster of talk shows that would gag any self-respecting maggot, from the first dose of Maury Povich at 8 a.m., right on through Regis & Kathy Lee (fairly innocuous but so blasted insipid) to Geraldo (who should be shot) to Donahue to Charles Perez to Montel Williams right on to the last disgusting gulletfull of Jerry Springer and his People With Sex Problems Who Love to Talk About Them at 11 p.m.

Five days a week.

If you want to lose your mind, leave the set on Ooze 4 Texas, sink back into the armchair, and prepare to gape. It is as though the new Channel 4 executive leadership came to town and decided its mission was to nauseate Dallas. Watching 4 is like staring 16 hours a day into a suppurating wound. Believe me, I’ve done it.

It’s not the dirty talk or sexual references that are so offensive; it’s the way the hosts exploit and manipulate these poor and largely undereducated folks who are seeking their little moment of recognition and vindication, and are willing to take off their pants on TV to get it.

Channels 5,8, and 11 run a distant second, third, and fourth in their offerings of this offensive and voyeuristic talk-porn, doing a little less than 4 to lower both our standards and expectations of our fellow man with Marilu, Jenny Jones, and Ricki Lake in the case of Channel 5, and Oprah, “Entertainment Tonight” (more a gossip show than talk, but still pretty salivatory), and something called “Rolonda.”

True, Fox was also cranking out this dreck when it was at 33- but 33 was not a Dallas “institution, ” just a relatively new TV station unashamedly out to make a buck.

And now? Channel 4, we hardly know ye. Sometimes, on the evening news, Clarice Tinsley and John Criswell look just a bit ashamed. And with their ratings dropping by more than half since the takeover, they sometimes look a little nervous as well.

They should be. Because Channel 4 under Fox is pursuing a dangerously contradictory strategy, trying to simultaneously steer two incompatible courses: They want to become a big, legitimate news operation and remain a Fox affiliate. It is like squaring the circle, or being a little bit pregnant.

What a spectacle: Here’s poor old 4’s respected and even somewhat beloved Clarice Tinslcy and John Criswell-hot on the heels of, yeesh, Charles Perez and Transsexuals Who Regret Having Their Surgery. Says one He that became a She: “See, they cut it off and split it right down the middle like a sausage, then they scrape all the…”

Wait, there’s more: Perez is followed by Sally Jesse Raphael and Girls Accused of Being Promiscuous by Their Sisters, in which, as I recall through waves of nausea, the words “bitch” and “slept with” and so on were used with tactical and titillating precision.

And then comes the news. Hoping to hang on to these sweaty-palmed armchair voyeurs, the Foxers trot out-proper Clarice and fatherly John with News 4 Texas? And they’re right up against reruns of “Roseanne,” “Fresh Prince,” and “In the Heat of the Night.” You can hear those remotes clicking in trailer parks from Pottsboro to Mabank, all across North Texas.

Set this misguided strategy against this implacable fact: The market for news is now split four ways, with Channel 11 competing aggressively (if still somewhat amateurishly). And there are no indications that local TV news viewership is growing.

Many guessed, before the Fox change took effect in July, that Channel 4 was about to be hurtin’ for certain, ratings-wise, and they were right. First night out, the news operation’s viewership was cut in halt- while Channel ll’s newscast, now with a decent CBS lineup to lead it in, shot right through the roof. Its Sunday news operation was par-ticularly fortunate; thanks to “Murder She Wrote” (one of the biggest in the network’s lineup). CBS shot from a 3.1 rating to a 10.2.

Foxy 4 has been pummeled in ratings all over the map, and it appears that over time those numbers will only get worse. Even lit-de 33, now nudged back unwillingly into independent status with the loss of Fox, has given 4 a poke in the chops a time or two, beating out 4 s 10 p.m. newscast with reruns of “Married with Children.”

Poor Clarice. Poor John. Many Dallas residents grew up or grew old with them, and the station kept them on to preserve at least an appearance of the “old Channel 4. ” Clarice and John were to be an air bag popping out of the TV on July 1, when Fox unleashed the likes of Geraldo on the unsuspecting fans of “Murder She Wrote” and “Empty Nest.”

It just isn’t going to work. All these little old ladies first encountered Clarice and later John simply because after “Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns, “or “Murder She Wrote,” they were either just too lazy or too weepy to get up and change the channel. These viewers are going to bail out. If Channel 13 suddenly put “Masterpiece Theater” right behind a wrestling match, they’d have the same kind of problem that Clarice and John do; instead of elevating the low offerings preceding them, these staid old icons are tainted by them.

Scarier still, though 4 execs like to minimize the magnitude of the error, is the fact that the station has painted itself into a very tight comer with huge increases in the news-side budget- putting more unwanted pearls before swine when it should have been concerning itself with how to keep the demographic it inherited from Fox. Channel 4 added 40 staffers to a newsroom already 80 strong to beef up the news coverage; if the strategy backfires, they’ll be left holding an expensive tab. As ratings decline, they’ll find themselves less and less able to tote that note. And the news team will be increasingly unable to pay its own way.

They should have known.

In the first place, the Fox demographie just doesn’t require news. And in the second, it is very questionable whether anyone needs as much news as Fox 4 Texas (or, for that matter, any of the rest of the stations) is trying to give us-seven hours of locally produced news programming a day, and that’s not even counting the hours of CNN Headline News starting at 4 a.m.

After having watched 4 and the others diligently for a month, I disagree with their slogan: One can know way too much about the state that’s “so big somebody’s got to cover it.”

For example, many of us got to know way too much about Mickey Mantle’s liver and other internal organs during what amounted to Ghoulfest ’95 in July and August. Mantle s body was doing its level best to die out from under him, and it finally succeeded. Did we need all the hourly updates?

Mickey’s got liver cancer, needs a transplant.

Mickey gets a transplant.

Transplant takes.

Mickey’s touchingly grateful.

Uh oh, Mickey’s got lung cancer too.

Uh oh, it’s metastasized.

Mickey’s friends all come to see him.

Mickey gets no more transfusions.

Mickey’s a fighter, doctors say.

Mickey cheers up.

Mickey jokes with doctors.

Mickey’s doctors stop laughing.

Mickey dies.

Mickey jokes with funeral directors.

Funeral directors say, “Mickey’s a fighter. “

Each phase of this personal tragedy was covered in lurid detail by all four affiliates, stretched as long as possible, padded out with brow-furrowing “consumer reports” about who decides who gets a liver transplant.

Then there are all the essentially meaningless localizations of barely meaningful “national” news required to fatten out 4’s gaping news hole-like the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, when we learned that “Texans are flocking to the birthplace of the atom bomb.” And don’t forget the reports where there is clear and politically correct news concerning Intoxication Manslaughter trials: “Fil Alvarado has all the details.” Yes, and way too many.

This news overkill borders on the hypnotic, if not the irresponsible.

There’s an hour and a half of news at night between 5 and 6:30 and another hour and a half cranking off again between 9 and 10:30, and it is mostly repeats about early non-events, or much ado about anything that comes to hand.

Some of it is just pure Complain-O-Vision. If someone has an ax to grind, News 4 busts its hump getting there to help them grind it.

You know the kind of story: School children get on the wrong DART bus. The bus driver notices it and notifies DART, which dispatches a van to correct the kids’ error. He then lets the kids out in broad daylight to wait for the van-which is a little slow, but does arrive. Kids go home safe.

And out came 4 with its hungry, accommodating cameras rolling. Naturally there were parents willing to get in front of those cameras and splutter that “it was a miracle those children weren’t killed.”

“How would you like that to happen to your child?” another mother harrumphed. “How dare that happen to mine!”

Complain-O-Vision, take two; A Texas Christian University officer files a lawsuit, claiming he was terminated because he made it a habit to bust drunk student drivers on campus and the administration didn’t want him to-and he wouldn’t stop doing it. It would be clear to anyone that this can of worms will take some “proving up” in court, and stands a good chance of being just anoth -er disgruntled employee case, but 4 works it up into a pretty good frenzy, implying rampant alcoholism and perhaps even corruption at TCU. There was 4, rolling, rolling, rolling.

My personal favorite on Complain-O-Vision (of which, in fairness, all four affiliates are sometimes guilty): This guy somewhere out in Oregon has a telephone number that’s only one digit different from Microsoft-and so, naturally, he keeps getting a lot of its calls. Microsoft won’t change its number to suit him. Cameras roll slavishly so he can angrily and righteously declare: “It’s very arrogant. They just don’t care. * And the reporter at that late stage of the game adds the theretofore missing but central fact that the phone company is perfectly willing to change the man’s number. Clarice ends this one with the sober lament, “The phone company will change the numbers for free, but that just doesn’t appear to be an option in this case.”

Hah? That’s news worth importing all the way from Oregon? What’s next-coverage of the Domino pizza guy who didn’t get there in 30 minutes? “I am outraged-and I clearly remember that I told them to hold the anchovies!”

Under this new climate, “little people” with almost any conceivable ridiculous ax to grind are getting plenty of coverage-and worse, with all these cameramen standing around available, the really big people in pos session of non-news, like Ross Perot, get slavish and unending overcoverage.

Sure, Perot’s big politico meeting was news, absolutely, and no reasonable station could be expected to refrain from actually covering that event. But did we need, days before the event, to be reminded that the Convention Center was being redecorated for the meeting? Was anyone surprised to learn that “Ross Perot hopes for a big turnout”?

That isn’t news. That’s Boss Ross running the news because he is hip to the most important journalistic tropism of all: The tendency to mistake large gatherings of other reporters as somehow intrinsically being “news.” It’s called a feeding frenzy, and a station with extra hours of new time to fill is going to be the biggest, hungriest shark of all-and will eat just about anything.

Of course, it’s had all over: The other stations in this market and most others nationwide are guilty of this same zealousness, even on some of these very stories. Whether it’ s 4 or 5 or 8 or 11, we are being overcovered, and that is dangerous. If someone with a camera comes to me in August and says, “How do you feel about your electric bill?” ] will reply, at minicam-point, that it is “outrageous, the dangedest thing I have ever seen; it’s criminal, and there ought to be a law. “

Such tics and tantrums are essentially meaningless-but they can be made to look as if they have meaning. The real screwees, then, are us, the viewers. We rely on these people for balance and perspective, but they have allowed themselves to become overbalanced by the “competition.”

The result is we are not told the truth, or even simply what we want to know. We are being told what we should want to know, and then told that thing.

Funny thing, the way that happened. Remember when 4 started stumping about how it was going to give us sooooo much more “news,” going to do us all a big favor by keeping us sooooo much more informed than the other stations? Then the other stations started howling, “oh no you’re not- we are, because now we’re the “Strength of Tradition” or “the Eyeball on Texas” and all that other self-promoting flummery.

Are they doing us a big favor? No. It’s a very simple equation. The station has to pay for its programming. That’s one large reason for the proliferation of the talk shows. Viewers are at the mercy of the station, and pretty much at the mercy of whatever it cares to show. Compared to full-blown dramas, these gabfests are cheaper to produce, and thus cheaper for the stations to buy. Talk is cheap.

But the station gets to keep every penny of the advertising revenue, beyond its expenses, for time sold during locally produced programming, such as news. The news at 6 isn’t for you-it’s for them. And since the news is essentially a matter of having reporters, cameramen, and editors-all relatively low paid-get videotape of people complaining, car wrecks the station didn’t have to stage ( NBC does that some, though ), or politicos who are throwing big parlies, news is cheap as well.

Meanwhile, in the Dallas TV advertising market, there is nearly a half a billion dollars lip for grabs.

North Texas is a big pie. Somebody’s got to carve it up. And the carving is not a pretty sight.

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