California is well known for inaugurating cultural trends, even if the state lagged behind Minnesota in tapping a well-muscled alumnus of the movie “Predator” as its governor.So what does it say that morning TV viewing in the Los Angeles area tumbled during the May rating sweeps, with an especially precipitous drop by the market’s two ditsy Fox and Tribune local programs — KTTV’s “Good Day L.A.” and “The KTLA Morning News,” respectively? One sweeps book, of course, does not a sea-change make, but for anyone who has wondered “Who’s watching these clowns?,” there are some encouraging signs. Certainly, it would be welcome if the ratings marked a pushback by audiences that might temper the mind-numbing giddiness of morning TV — an increasingly valuable patch of real estate for broadcasters, who can ill afford to view erosion cavalierly if these results persist. “You have to wonder if it’s gone too far,” says one veteran TV exec, citing the mix of goofiness, half-dressed women and intramural bickering on display before 9 a.m. Overall TV viewing was up a year ago thanks to the Iraq war, but the decline during the just-concluded sweeps in HUT (homes using TV) levels from 7 to 9 a.m. was an extra-steep 9% in L.A. And while the big network morning shows were essentially flat versus May 2003, KTTV and KTLA slumped by 32% and 27%, falling behind “Today” and “Good Morning America” after posting a one-two finish the year before. Both stations also lost considerable ground with their 6 a.m. newscasts. By contrast, Tribune’s WPIX in New York gained by more than 20% with its morning show, while Fox’s WNYW slipped that much during those hours. The N.Y.-L.A. axis was also split for the CBS-owned stations, with WCBS doubling its tune-in for local news and “The Early Show,” while the network program remains less popular than a Guthy-Renker infomercial in L.A. and placed well out of the running. These numbers are significant for stations because the morning has become a major cash machine — particularly for the local shows, since KTTV and KTLA control all the commercial time. As for the “why,” KTLA suggested in one press account that heightened interest in hard news might have helped deflate its lighter touch — which, if true, doesn’t bode well for either program. After all, since Sept. 11 one of the best reasons to flip the TV on in the morning is to make sure nothing terrible happened overnight — a hunger ill fed by seeing KTTV’s Jillian Barberie discuss how her therapy is going. (Barberie, the ubiquitous weather pin-up, is leaving syndicated companion “Good Day Live” but staying with the local show.) What’s interesting, though, is that the ratings drop by KTLA and KTTV didn’t appear to benefit anyone else. It’s not like viewers gravitated to the network shows, which basically passed their local competition by running in place. Moreover, those programs hardly burnished their “hard news” credentials in a month where the standard-bearing “Today” often seemed to be “all-‘Friends’ and all-‘The Apprentice'” almost all the time. Notably, the ratings column encompassing cable alternatives rose a modest 6%, meaning that a lot of viewers simply left the TV off. Numerous factors could contribute to the morning malaise. Maybe people grew weary of the Iraq prison abuse scandal. Maybe fatigue set in. Maybe the news-lite contingent has been co-opted by network shows with their “Survivor” and “The Bachelor” recaps. Maybe there wasn’t enough happening with Lakers star Kobe Bryant’s criminal case to maintain viewers’ attention. (Fortunately, the Scott Peterson trial is starting, making news safe for lovers of fluffy trash again.) Another potential explanation, however, is that the morning-becomes-apoplectic template is wearing thin. People might have tired of watching anchors guffaw and tease each other and labor to convey a carefully put-on rapport. Maybe KTTV’s inane coverage of whether Ben still loves J. Lo and one of “The Swan’s” plastic surgeons amounts to a big “Who cares?” Maybe people yearning to see nincompoops or Britney Spears lookalikes at that hour are finding “Three Stooges” shorts, “I Dream of Jeannie” reruns or music videos elsewhere. Much as the media loves easy answers and instant analysis, deciphering whether a ratings shift is a blip or a trend usually defies them. Nor am I naive enough to presume that entertainment values can be stripped from news given how far the pendulum has swung in that direction. Personally, I’ve never fretted over reports that young people glean news from David Letterman, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart, since it’s not like that beer-swilling crowd is going to read the New York Times’ op-ed page instead. Better for Gen-X and Y to gulp down depressing headlines with a little comedy, I’d say, than to shun current events entirely. Yet given the daily barrage of such headlines, there ought to be room for news served up straight — with allowances for slick packaging, breathless promotion and obligatory synergy — minus the brass band and big, floppy shoes. Ah, now what a beautiful morning that would be. A HIGH NOTE: Beware critics bearing plaudits around Emmy ballot time, but it’s hard to allow “The Sopranos'” current flight of episodes to conclude without notice. In what has arguably been the show’s finest season, creator David Chase and his henchmen have audaciously dropped major bombshells — what happens with the mobster espied orally copulating another guy in the parking lot? Who knows? — then ignored them, challenging modern conventions of the serialized drama and almost daring viewers to keep pace. Tellingly, the series also featured a subplot this year in which a TV writer, deeply in debt to mobsters, seeks without much success to pawn an Emmy. It’s not an Oscar, he’s told, but the metal itself might be worth 15 bucks. Although the series’ nasty streak has made it unpalatable to some Emmy voters in the past, with “The West Wing’s” constituency thinning, few newcomers meriting recognition and the TV academy’s historic reluctance to honor freshmen (sorry, “Deadwood” and “Nip/Tuck”), this might be “The Sopranos'” year. And whatever he says or puts in the mouths of his characters, I suspect if presented one of those gilded figurines, Chase wouldn’t part with it for $20 and a big plate of pasta, much less $15.
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