Pre-emptions display news judgment

Breaking question: When does breaking news demand programming break-ins and when should they just cut us a break?

Saturday’s news cascade culminating in the discovery of kidnapped 6-year-old Cole Puffinburger, whose disappearance triggered headlines nationwide, created a study in news judgment.

On Saturday afternoon, a Las Vegas police news conference to reveal a second "person of interest" in the case was carried live by … CNN … via a feed from KVBC-TV, Channel 3 … which did not carry it live. Nor did KLAS-TV, Channel 8, or, for the most part, KTNV-TV, Channel 13, which broke in late with a brief recap that didn’t intrude on the game.

The locals made the right decision, even if not, perhaps, for the purest reasons. Pre-emption that afternoon would have — in an act of TV sacrilege — interrupted sports, specifically college football on Channels 8 and 13, and "Action Sports" on Channel 3. Had the news conference come down during "The Ed Bernstein Show"? Cue that annoyingly urgent breaking-news music.

The afternoon briefing provided an incremental development in the investigation, not a climax worthy of head-snapping attention. In this 24/7 media-verse, "Breaking News!" has lost currency and meaning, now applied not just to legitimate major events, but often to any new information offering the flimsiest excuse to holler "This Just In!" and clamor to be heard above the rest of the media din.

It’s manufactured importance and egotistical bravado.

All news, by definition, is breaking — i.e., simply happening — and the point is to gather, prioritize and assemble it into newscasts. That’s where the police department’s announcement correctly wound up. It wasn’t an as-it’s-happening chase or armed standoff or … the discovery of a kidnapped child.

But little Cole happily turning up Saturday night, even though it was in time for the regularly scheduled 11 p.m. broadcasts, justified the concept of "breaking news" and even Channel 3’s repeat of it by briefly docking "Saturday Night Live," a dicey decision given the enormous interest in Gov. Sarah Palin’s appearance (which fetched "SNL’s" largest audience in 17 years).

Smartly — and likely avoiding a storm of outraged calls that would’ve made football interruption look like, well, an "Ed Bernstein Show" pre-emption — Channel 3 waited until after the opening Palin & Co. sketch, instead lopping off host Josh Brolin’s monologue. Channels 8 and 13 stayed with 11:30 p.m. reruns of "House" and "Desperate Housewives," respectively, but all the locals returned for live reports to cover the 12:30 a.m. news conference, a no-brainer, with Channel 3 later picking up "SNL" from where it left off.

They got it right (even with the night’s eeriest ad placement alongside news of a kidnapped child’s return: a trailer for Angelina Jolie as a mother searching for her missing child in "Changeling").

Still, the best ‘tude toward breaking news remains the "Daily Show" motto: "When news breaks, we fix it."

Contact Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld or 702-383-0256.

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