May 3, 1998
Drawing the Line
So this is what it has come to …
I don’t know if you’ve been following all the hubbub out here in LA about the recent coverage of a high speed chase that ended in a bizarre suicide, televised live to millions of homes.
I think it’s an economic problem, at heart.
For years, news directors and executive producers in newsrooms in this town would light up whenever a high speed pursuit began. If a chopper could get in to position, and provide live coverage of this "breaking news story," then it would surely mean a spike in the ratings. Ratings for chases normally rise one or two percent over "average" programming. In the eighty channel universe, that’s a big jump.
I have seen otherwise sane, decent men and women only partially facetiously get fired up over the prospect of a televised chase.
I have seen firsthand the excitement in their eyes, as the same scenario plays out over and over again. ("What can you tell us about the driver, Captain Dan?" The helicopter pilot invariably responds, "Well, Peter, police wish to detain him." "On what charges, Captain Dan?" "Failing to yield to a police officer and resisting arrest is what I’m being told, Peter." Ah, good. So they’re chasing him because he won’t stop. A neat bit of circular logic, don’t you think?)
Let’s never forget that the fuel that drives the television engine is money. United States cash dollars. Lots of it. But in order to make a profit, television must consume a lot of advertising money.
Remember, we’re dealing with an advertiser supported medium here. It is in the television stations’ best interests to get as many people as possible to watch their channel, because then their ratings will be higher. If their ratings are higher, they can charge advertisers more for precious ad time.
As the boys in Monty Python once sang, "Money, money, money makes the world go ‘round." That’s especially true in television.
So, we see how it all works – stations need higher ratings to make more money from advertisers, so they’ll show whatever it takes to get them higher ratings. Chases always mean higher ratings, so they’ll always show chases.
And now, after a man blows his head off on live television at 3:30 in the afternoon, you have every news director in town saying, "Well, how could we know what was going to happen?"
How could you know? Excuse me? How could you NOT know? I mean, a man shuts down the freeways, unfurls a defiant banner, nearly sets himself on fire in the cab of his truck, runs out, gets a shotgun from the back of the truck, props it up against the center cement divider, leans over it …
Do you really, really not know what comes next? Is there anyone who doesn’t know what will happen next?
Worse, are there people HOPING that what’s about to happen (the man blowing his head off) will happen? The whole NASCAR race theory – "People only watch for the crashes." Is that what’s going on here? People want to see if he’ll "do it."
He did it. We all watched it.
Who’s horrified? Who’s mortified? Who can’t bear that a bunch of stations in LA just pre-empted cartoons, CARTOONS, for God’s sake, and talk shows to show a live suicide?
Well, everyone, of course. Everyone except the news people who keep hiding behind worthless platitudes about "the public’s right to know" and "because of the traffic situation, this was a major news story." Bull. Traffic and weather together can be heard every six minutes on KNX-1070 news radio. Traffic is not a story that a major market TV station should be devoting significant resources to. Think about it – everyone has a radio (most everyone) in their car, but who thinks, "Well, I’d better check the TV news to see what the traffic is like?" What a gutless cop out.
So what’s going to be done about it?
I guess we’ll have to wait until the next chase to find out. But here’s my guess.
As a matter of fact, I’d make the somewhat alarming prediction that more and more suicides are likely to be "accidentally" broadcast in the near future.
You see, there’s money to be made in it. And television never met a dollar it didn’t like.