Media circus soars to new heights for sweeps

Catastrophic fires threaten Los Angeles. A starlet’s sex tape hits the Internet. Several celebs wind up in the courtroom. An action hero who can’t correctly pronounce “California” suddenly becomes the state’s governor.

Like manna from ratings heaven, it’s been a November to remember for newsmags, local newscasts and syndicated entertainment news shows.

It’s almost as if the world finally realized how important the November sweeps are to broadcasters — and acted accordingly. Scandals and disasters have hit the news cycle in rapid clip, keeping assignment editors on their toes and making high-priced, expertly coiffed anchors earn their keep.

“It’s never-ending,” says “Access Hollywood” exec producer Rob Silverstein. “Now when you go a day and there’s no news, you go, ‘What the hell is going on?’ It’s been great.”

And it’s also paid off.

“Access Hollywood,” for one, has in recent weeks posted some of its best numbers ever — including its highest-ever ratings among women and its highest weekly national average of the season.

“When there’s news, the HUT (homes using television) go up,” Silverstein says. “Audiences have this thirst: What can we quench it with today?”

The surreal month began with broadcasters covering Southern California’s raging wildfires, and ends as the Santa Barbara County sheriff’s office was poised to arrest pop king Michael Jackson for allegedly molesting a 12-year-old boy.

“It’s got all the ingredients,” Tribune-owned KTLA Los Angeles news director Jeff Wald says of the singer’s plight.

“You’ve got the tabloid aspect, the celebrity aspect, the human aspect of child molestation accusations, and he’s an interesting figure, to say the least. Obviously it lends itself to TV. And viewers can’t seem to get enough.”

They also couldn’t get enough of the Scott Peterson arraignment, Arnold Schwarzenegger inauguration, Rush Limbaugh stint in rehab, Rosie O’Donnell legal spat and ongoing Kobe Bryant scandal.

Those were just some of the stories — most of them salacious — that kept newsrooms buzzing and ratings rocketing this sweeps.

For viewers who demand a little tabloid with their TV, this was their moment. (Oh, and for the few of you left who care about hard news, ongoing troubles in Iraq were covered between stories on Paris Hilton’s sex tape and Britney Spears’ new CD.)

And TV even helped fan the news flame, from the “get” interviews and telepics swirling around ex-kidnappee Elizabeth Smart and ex-POW Jessica Lynch, to the passionate debate over CBS’ decision to yank “The Reagans.”

In L.A., the transit and supermarket strikes and a freaky storm that blanketed parts of the city with layers of hail also kept news operations busy.

KNBC news director Bob Long says he continues to receive emails from East Coast colleagues stunned at the recent avalanche of news coming out of Southern California. Long rejoined KNBC just three months ago, right as the news cycle took off.

“Strangely enough, we’re always more comfortable dealing with breaking news,” Long says. “Newsrooms work best when there is news breaking and we’re chasing it. In some ways our work is more difficult when you’re in a calm news cycle. When it’s busy you don’t hear any complaining out here.”

But because so much of the news is dominated by scandal, execs admit they’re walking a fine line between real news and sensationalism.

“As reporters, we can’t stop being skeptical,” Wald says.

“There are all kinds of innuendo and stuff going on. Another side of me says, ‘Let’s not rush to judgment.’ Every story is a challenge, particularly a story (like Jackson) dealing with these elements that lend to tabloid-style journalism.

“I remind our reporters and producers every time we do a story of this caliber and nature that we have to be careful.”

Covering so many different breaking stories at once also ups the competition among news orgs — not to mention the cost of putting so many news crews to work.

On Nov. 19, the day a warrant was issued for Jackson’s arrest, “Access” had eight crews on the story, while KNBC had five reporters on it and KTLA three.

“There’s so much competition you’ve got to find your own angles and a way to do things differently,” Silverstein said. “It’s a cost issue, normally I don’t have eight crews working in a day. But at this moment you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Over at KTLA, despite the onslaught of interest in the Jackson charges, and the sheer number of other stories still percolating, Wald insists that his staff isn’t taxed.

“This is California,” he says. “You never know what will happen next, be it floods, fires or earthquakes.”

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