There’s a place for ads during crisis coverage

YOU’VE JUST SURVIVED the biggest earthquake to hit Southern California in nearly 23 years.

So why not have some Miller Time?

For the second time in less than three months, local broadcasters were forced to go nearly 24 hours without airing a single commercial while they covered a natural (or, in the case of October’s arson fires, man-made) disaster — a practice, it seems, that warrants reexamination in light of economic realities and the expanded TV spectrum.

Obviously, no one wants to see ads for Maalox in the middle of a tragedy, and there’s a matter of advertisers being appropriately leery of trying to cash in on this sort of event. There are also legitimate issues of propriety as to how soon to begin airing commercials.

Still, by 2 or 3 p.m. Monday, after newscasts had been through the quake scenario a dozen or more times, there would have been nothing wrong with carrying some form of advertising — a move that could ease some of the enormous financial burden such events put on local broadcasters.

The precedent for “emergency news” advertising, in fact, has already been established by CNN, which struck such deals after the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War. The network has a standing list of ads specifically tailored to such events, and thus far, no one has called its credibility into question because of the practice.

It was also a bit jarring — and, indeed, something of a respite — for cable subscribers to scan the dial and find movies, reruns and ads for detergent running on national cable services, even as the nine local VHF stations (and UHF Spanish-language broadcasters) played commercial-free.

Aside from the economics, there are other logical reasons to run advertising. An occasional break in the coverage might actually benefit local newscasters, who, unlike print reporters, must essentially think aloud and make their mistakes in public.

Trying to fill gaps as they leap from place to place, newscasters frequently fall into a morbid form of scorekeeping, keeping a running tally — as if in competition with other stations — of the number of casualties. The practice was evident during the Los Angeles riots of April 1992 and even more apparent Monday.

At one point, KCBS-TV flashed a copy of an early edition of the Los Angeles Times, pointing out that its body count was lower than the standing tally at that hour. “That’s the difference between (print) and broadcasting,” said KCBS anchor Michael Tuck.

Indeed, there’s nothing like such an event — where people must turn to broadcast media for virtually all their information — to make TV and radio people appreciate why their work is the subject of such constant scrutiny. Nothing can match the immediacy of broadcasting, or the associated risk of inadvertently rabble-rousing, inciting panic or engaging in ill-advised editorializing.

FOR THE MOST PART, LOCAL STATIONS — particularly AM radio outlets KNX and KFWB — deserve enormous praise for their work under fire during the early hours of the crisis, when radio was, for hundreds of thousands of listeners, the only source of information in town.

There was, in fact, an eerie yet strangely calming influence sitting in the dark listening to KNX anchors nonchalantly announce an aftershock in progress seconds before the tremor rolled from Hollywood to mid-Wilshire.

Despite all the sleazy mini-documentaries, extended Michael Jackson “team coverage” packages and inane bantering between anchors that characterize regular newscasts, TV reporters pinned back their ears and provided solid information — with, inevitably, the occasional excess of a reporter thrusting a microphone into someone’s face, in front of the rubble of his house, and asking, “How do you feel?”

Even so, most viewers probably wouldn’t begrudge appropriate station efforts to generate some revenue during such tragedies. Stations could even consult with each other as how or when to incorporate ads, using an outside organization such as the Radio & Television News Assn. as an intermediary.

What remains to be seen now is how broadcasters follow the aftermath of the quake. Will they try to exploit it with mini-docs during the February sweeps, fostering fear about future temblors and turning Caltech scientists — who can pinpoint quakes, as one put it, down to “some time in the next 200 years”– into media superstars?

Those newscasts should be watched carefully over the coming weeks and months for how they follow Monday’s “killer quake.” And news directors, be warned: If there’s a five-part “Quake Shakes Up Michael Jackson Trial” feature in February, brace yourselves for a different kind of aftershock.

TV VIOLENCE, BY GEORGE: On a lighter — or at least different — note, George Carlin, still one of the most astute media observers around, was asked at the TV Critics Assn. tour to share his thoughts regarding the debate over regulating television violence.

“It just seems to me,” Carlin began, “that blaming television (and) movies for violence … I mean, there were no televisions or movies during the Crusades , and the Inquisition, and the Mongol hordes, and Nazism wasn’t affected by it, and the Civil War, and all the people we buried in the first World War, and the gangsters from Chicago in the ’30s, and the Wild West.

“All the violence in this culture comes out of the people, it doesn’t come out of their entertainment. So they’re looking for scapegoats. The government has to do something to keep busy.”

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