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Pardon me while I vent

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


As a TV critic colleague of mine often says, it's time to put on the cranky pants.

That's what happens when enough absurdities pile up on the TV screen that you just can't take it anymore; it's time to start calling people out.

So in the interest of maintaining my own sanity and venting a little, here's a list of some recent small-screen stuff that has rubbed me the wrong way; I'm assuming you might feel the same way about some of this, too.

Elected officials trashing TV for political points.

On Wednesday, a phalanx of suits from the national TV news outlets have been invited to face a panel of legislators convened by U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the powerful House Committee on Commerce and Energy. The purpose: to explain what happened the night every major TV news outlet predicted Florida's electoral votes would go first to Vice President Al Gore and then to George W. Bush -- two mistakes that heralded weeks of struggle over the actual result.

But what does Tauzin hope to accomplish?

When he first announced plans for the hearings last year, he wanted to investigate claims the early Gore call may have suppressed votes for Bush in Florida's Panhandle, where 10 minutes or so remained before the polls would close.

But others have made the argument that the later call for Bush helped cement his status as front-runner in the state and stymie Gore's attempts to challenge results certified by Florida Secretary of State (and Bush supporter) Katherine Harris.

Several networks have already released reports with their explanation of what happened, mostly blaming the consortium that collects exit polling and vote totals, the Voter News Service, for faulty information.

Among reports prepared by CBS, NBC, CNN and ABC, most called for improvements at VNS, a uniform poll closing time nationwide and additional reporting to supplement VNS information on election nights. Also, most promised not to call elections in a state until all its polls are closed and to make plain that such calls are merely projections, not established fact.

Of course, many of these points are just strengthened versions of policies TV outlets had already outlined before November. And it was obvious in the aftermath of the blown calls in November that VNS would shoulder much of the blame.

Tauzin admitted as much himself Thursday, during a press conference held to announce congressional investigators found no evidence the media's "clearly flawed" methods intentionally misled the nation.

So what's left for government to do? With no legislation on the table, and strong free press concerns about any possible effort to regulate election news coverage (including a possible ban on exit polling), TV industry types are left to wonder what could result from Wednesday's hearing.

Other than prominent video clips of Tauzin and his fellow committee members berating network officials for their mistakes, of course.

TV studies that don't mean anything

"Mealtime TV Linked to Poor Diet," screamed the headline in one story based on a Tufts University study that indicated kids who watch TV during meals eat fewer fruits and vegetables than children who don't watch TV then.

Of course, in the fine print, readers discovered TV-watching kids ate 5 percent more pizza, salty snacks and soda than the non-TV kids. (TV watchers did consume twice as much caffeine.)

Stories on the study also failed to note any correlation between the general parenting environment and the results. In other words, isn't it possible that homes where kids watch TV during mealtimes are run by parents too busy or uninvolved to regulate closely many things about their children's lives -- including their diet?

Another study emerged last week, also outfitted with an alarming statistic: a 12 percent rise in the amount of sexual content featured from among more than 1,100 episodes of shows surveyed from the 1999-2000 TV season.

According to the survey, released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, there were other attention-getting results: 10 percent of shows depicted or strongly suggested sexual intercourse, up from 7 percent in 1997; nearly half of those scenes involved couples who either had no past romantic relationship or who had just met; 9 percent of them appeared to be under 18 years old, a percentage that has tripled in three years.

Of course, in a TV environment where teens are losing their virginity on Dawson's Creek and Friends are discussing sex at 8 p.m., noting an increase in sex on prime time TV is like noticing that people seem to like that Survivor show.

What's missing here? A link to the real reason we're seeing more sex on TV: ratings.

A look at recent history says it all. NBC's debut of its over-hyped, borderline sexist XFL football league (complete with scantily clad, frequently seen cheerleaders) tripled the network's ratings among key viewers on Saturday.

Likewise, Fox's Temptation Island -- a show that takes four couples and encourages them to cheat on each other -- has saved Fox's Wednesday night, encouraging executives there to consider adding a seventh episode to the series.

In other words, there's more sex on TV because we watch it. Wanna make it stop? Stop watching it.

And I didn't even need a multimillion-dollar study to tell you that.

Local stations airing feature stories about their networks' shows

I know, this is something that has gone on for years, launched into hyperdrive by the success CBS stations have had in latching on to the Survivor phenomenon.

Perhaps that's why we seem to be drowning in such cross-promotions lately: WFLA-Ch. 8's Gayle Sierens interviewed The Tonight Show's Jay Leno; WTVT-Ch. 13 last week featured Fox's America's Most Wanted and Temptation Island on its midday talk show Your Turn; and WTSP-Ch. 10 has had endless Survivor stories (the one last week previewing a USA Today piece on "surviving" office politics was particularly stinky).

The weakness of such stories is obvious: focused mostly on promoting series that can help their ratings in February's "sweeps" period, local outlets provide no incisive reporting or new insights -- just lots of glad-handing and softball questions.

Worst of all, it makes the news product look like just another commercial space -- available for promotional use when needed. And broadcasters wonder why the media's credibility is sinking.

The end of affirmative action rules for broadcasters

The Federal Communications Commission on Jan. 31 had a wonderful present for the nation on the eve of Black History Month, suspending all its Equal Employment Opportunity outreach rules geared toward ensuring that TV stations work to maintain a diverse staff on air and off.

The decision followed a court ruling in January vacating the rules, which once required stations to compile records about their minority recruitment efforts and make them available to the public. Among other requirements, they also made compliance with such outreach efforts a consideration for renewal of a station's broadcast license.

So far, the end of the rules, which began with court decisions a few years ago, has not affected the level of ethnic minorities at TV news departments nationwide -- which rose to 21 percent in 2000, according to an annual survey by the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Ball State University.

But diversity among radio news outlets remains deplorable, with staffs now 90 percent white according to the survey -- an increase of 1 percent.

So it falls to the consumer to keep an eye on diversity, at least among TV stations' on-air staff, since the FCC won't do it anymore. Let's hope that's enough to keep people focused on doing the right thing.

-- To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com.

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