AUSTIN – “City Council voted today to increase fees for bigamists…” “TxDOT is limiting the number of mules on I-thirty five….” “The weekly Festival of Love, Drugs and Flowers will be held….” The local TV news here in Austin deals with matters viewers care about, and more importantly, effects them. To be fair, this is, indeed, our state capital (aka, the People’s Republic of Austin, a worn-out phrase as is Keep Austin Weird), but the news is still relevant. The local TV reporters are inside a state building or courtroom or maybe on the UT campus, reporting on or interviewing something or someone on events that matter – like a new football coach.
Yes, Austin TV news programs do have the occasional shooting, apartment fire or car wreck, but not the daily dose we get in Houston, where each program begins with: “Breaking News!!!” Summer will arrive at …. A lost dog has been found and someone got shot. As we prepare for the hot bulletin we hear: “But first…” then “Prior to that, we have this report on…” Sometimes there are so many stories preceding the Breaking News! that they never get around to it. You can almost bet that each local news program will contain at least (1) A shooting that requires flashing red police lights, a body covered with a sheet and yellow police tape. (2) An apartment or house fire preferably with a fighter emerging from the blaze holding a frightened puppy. And (3) a high-speed police chase with breathless pictures from a helicopter. The newsroom axiom is: If it bleeds, leads. So what we are given each evening is not so much important developments as the police blotter.
When was the last time you saw a report from the City Council, Commissioners Court or HISD School Board? The Texas Legislature just met in its regular session for 140 days, and only at the very end was it mentioned on local TV news. Not so long ago, local stations sent a reporter and photographer to Austin to cover the entire session, because our legislators do important work affecting our taxes, students, parents and a lot more aspects of our life. But covering all of that costs money, and our local TV news departments don’t have much. On the local front, it’s a lot cheaper to pay some free-lance photographer who prowls the city with his or her police, fire and EMS radio bands turned on, who then races to the crime and sells video tape of it to the station. Sometimes, I swear, if the stations can’t find a good apartment fire or high-speed chase in Houston, they show us one from Dallas or Denver or wherever.
This brings us to money, which is the core of our problems. No network affiliate TV station in Houston is owned by Houstonians, or even Texans. They are owned by faceless corporations on the Coasts which care not a fig about quality TV news in Houston. We are a red pin in a large map in the corporate board room. We must feel sorry for our TV anchors and reporters, many of who are top-notch journalists, hamstrung by bean-counters in far-off glass towers empowered to maximize profits while cutting costs to the least. Also, it’s much cheaper to follow than lead: Years ago, I visited KPRC-TV studios for something, I forget what, and there was the news director, Ray Miller, an icon of the business, carefully cutting out articles from that morning’s Houston Post and handing them to reporters to follow up. That is still done. Just like national TV news directors pour through The New York Times and the Washington Post for stories, local TV news shows would have trouble with anything beyond the yellow police tape if it weren’t for the Houston Chronicle. (Incidentally, same for our conservative radio talk-show hosts, who constantly bite the hand that feeds them their feedstock.)
There are a few simple changes for the better. Don’t have a reporter standing in a vacant parking lot across the street from the hospital or court house telling us what happened inside hours ago. Teach the meteorologists the difference in further and farther. And while not all has to be gloom and doom, would Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow giggle and guffaw through “happy talk?”
If you would only get your news about what’s going on in Houston from our local TV news programs, you would think this place is Baghdad-on-the-Bayou. Indeed, some years ago the Fox affiliate nightly ran a series, “City Under Siege.” It was a recitation of that day’s crimes, no matter how boring. We can well imagine a crack CEO and her spouse, a world-famed medical researcher, flying into Houston from Chicago for job interviews. They check into a five-star hotel suite and turn on the TV. “Breaking news!!! A shoot-out a pool hall has resulted in two deaths and 18 police cars surging to the scene! But first a follow-up on our lost rabid dog story, but we begin with our Strangle in Tanglewood series.” The CEO turns to her Nobel Laurate husband, and says, “Don’t bother to unpack, Chou Ming. We’re going back to the south side of Chicago where it’s safer.”
Back to the local news on Austin TV, which is being told to us by a beautiful young lady with long blonde hair, a product of the Roger Ailes Cookie Cutter Academy: “The fire department is holding classes on the need for a boat when water skiing.” “A scientist at UT has discovered a cure for kale.” “The circus won’t be coming to town. Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey will…” Huh? I swear she said Bros. which rhymes with hose or froze. What’s up, Bros.? The teleprompter gave that twinkie – as the old pros call the good-looking airheads — the word Bros. and she hadn’t a clue it should be pronounced Brothers. Where’s the yellow police tape?
Ashby watches at email@example.com