Contagious virus lurking in your Caesar salad! Details at 11 after you've already eaten! We're Digging Deeper in Local Las Vegas because Experience Counts when you're Inside Las Vegas and We're Watching Out For You after You Ask, We Investigate ... Cha-cha-cha.
Silly? Sorta. But the scare stories, tiresome teasers, rote slogans, slick titles -- "Crime Tracker 3"! "First Response Team"! -- weather reports as meteorological thesis projects, forced camaraderie and rigid formulas? Consistent irritants to scores of news viewers.
Local newscasters are lambasted for perpetuating these patterns, but often they're just as peeved -- at the consultants imported to advise stations on a newscast's style. And to some degree, substance.
"They made a game plan and said women purchase the products, so we're going after women 18 to 54 and scare them into watching the next newscast," recalls Ron Futrell, former anchor on KTNV-TV, Channel 13. "The 6 o'clock news might tease that there's a stalker in the neighborhood, but we won't say which neighborhood, we won't say what the stalker looks like, but we'll tell you at 11. You could've been killed by the stalker by 11."
Fear not. The well-dressed, perfectly coiffed cavalry to the rescue.
"It was a consulting theme that we were the 'protect the viewer' newscast, which is absolutely condescending. Who are we to tell them what help they need? I came out of the meetings saying, 'We're going to protect them, but we're going to scare them?' Everybody in this business knows this is a joke."
Utter "consultants" and many TV journalists do the sigh-and-eye-roll. Stations can dole out $40,000 to $175,000 for as many as four visits annually, while a research survey alone can run $35,000.
(Representatives at three of the nation's largest media consulting firms -- Frank N. Magid Associates, Broadcast Image Group and Audience Research Development -- did not respond to interview requests.)
"If you watch news in L.A., there's a look to that newscast consultants try to re-create all over the country, and it's not real," says Futrell, who recently consulted for a station in St. George, Utah. "I was one of the few consultants with on-air experience and they chose me to get a more laid-back tone with their anchors. You don't want to have anchor robots, which you have now."
Kim Wagner of KVBC-TV, Channel 3's "Wake Up with the Wagners" agrees. "I hate anchors on high who come off as better than the public, like 'Listen to me, it's important,' " she says. "A lot of consultants don't get it, they try to make local news the same generic machines across the country ... because there is so much turnover, anchors hopping from one city to another."
Conflicting consulting advice also can be befuddling. "I've had a consultant tell me one thing, then another contradict it," says one reporter who requested anonymity, as did several interviewed for this story, since speaking out can be an invitation to unemployment. "You have to keep your personal style. I look at them with a biased eye. Then again, I do what I'm told."
Introduced into the industry in the early 1960s, consulting snowballed in the '70s with "happy talk" news that survives with cockroachlike indestructibility, even as ratings erode. The Pew Research Center found that local news viewership nationwide among those who regularly tune in tumbled from 64 percent in 1998 to 52 percent in 2008.
"Consultants severely damage television," says Bob Stoldal, former vice president of news at KLAS-TV, Channel 8, who will soon be back in newsroom action, having been lured out of retirement to become Channel 3's new executive vice president of news. "They would do surveys and tell you what the audience wanted. The public said, 'We don't want foreign news, what we want are surfing beagles.' A lot of stations would follow the recommendations and for a period of time, ratings would go up. But it ate away at the core of journalism."
Such is the eternal fight over philosophies: Consultants' business model (give 'em what they want to watch) vs. the news department's journalism model (tell 'em what they need to know), the free flow of news at stake. A consultant's report from 2003 obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal describes Channel 13's composite viewer as a 25- to 34-year-old, high school-educated, "mid-downscale," politically indifferent, NASCAR-loving woman who lives paycheck to paycheck and shops at Wal-Mart. She was even named -- "Lorraine" -- with stories geared toward "her." (General manager Jim Prather and news director Karin Movesian declined to comment for this story.)
"I'm not a blanket consultant-basher, but if you look at Las Vegas, (most stations) are consultant-driven (expletive)," says a local on-air personality. And some cliched hallmarks of consulting -- shorter stories, loads of live shots (whether or not anything "live" is happening) and marginalizing of government and politics to embrace crime, weather, human interest and problem-solving "news you can use" -- remain entrenched in this market.
"In Las Vegas, there's this ridiculous reliance on crime," this source says. "They reduce newscasts to cartoons."
Sloganeering -- if you don't recall the local mantras, revisit the beginning of this story -- is another consultant obsession, says an insider who claims that individual personalities disappear amid the repetition. "I know there's more to local news than anchors and reporters," she says, "but I get the sense the consultants think the slogans are a bigger deal than who says it."
Futrell recalls slogan brainstorming: " 'Inside News Las Vegas? No, that doesn't work. Inside Las Vegas News? No, that doesn't work. News 13 Inside Las Vegas? Yes, that works.' Well, what does it mean to be inside Las Vegas?"
Not everyone equates consultants with the spawn of Satan. Anchor John Huck of KVVU-TV, Channel 5 says he has never been ordered to string station slogan "Local, Las Vegas" throughout newscasts.
"We have a consultant now who knows of what he speaks," Huck says. "The good ones will say, 'Why not try A, B or C and see how that works for you?' There's a tendency to listen passively to consultants, either tuning it all out or taking it as the word of God. Neither is true. An executive when I got here put it perfectly: 'Consultants are like perfume. Take a whiff but don't drink from the bottle.' "
Huck also praises talent coaching received near the start of his career, which focuses on how on-air talent present themselves. Futrell recalls articulation advice he shared with staffers in Utah.
"There is a cadence that is irritating," he says, referring to the copied Los Angeles style. "I told them to break it up a bit. You don't have to be this da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da sound bite. Talk the way people talk."
Another reporter credits a consultant for glossing him up before the cameras. "The image consultant helped a lot, especially when we made the transition to HD," he says. "It's a different type of makeup to use and she told us what colors work better for HD, what patterns, and the hair, as well."
Consultants also can pay dividends on a sort of reverse "size matters" basis. "If you're in market 180 with five years of experience, you can benefit a great deal from what they tell you," says Channel 8's news director, Ron Comings. "When you look at markets our size and larger" -- Las Vegas ranks 42nd -- "they can give you recommendations, but I have more experience in this market, so it's a question of how to interpret the research. To rely on them to tell you how to run your station, you're going to wind up with some pretty weird stuff."
Perhaps a sweeps story about centipedes nesting in your bedsheets? At least Experience Counts when they're Watching Out For You, right here Inside Las Vegas.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at email@example.com or 702-383-0256.