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TV newscasts bribing viewers to boost ratings

Gasoline is the new sex. Sweeps-wise, that is.

That hallowed quarterly ritual — in which ratings are measured and ad rates reset — was once synonymous with the nastier side of The Nasty. Strippers, streetwalkers, sleazy clubs and pimp interviews — their faces shrouded in shadows — overran November newscasts.

Sex is still semisexy to sweeps. Stations didn’t suddenly go celibate and snap a chastity belt on those stories. But they aren’t such potent viewer aphrodisiacs anymore to sex-soaked Sin City in porn-addled America.

And when the economy goes flaccid, what’s sexier than sex is … fuel? If gasoline is erotic, KTNV-TV, Channel 13 is Angelina Jolie. Nude. In a Hustler video.

A recent 6 a.m. newscast on Channel 13 exemplified the excessiveness, devoting more than nine minutes over seven segments and several teasers to gushy, giddy coverage revealing the Fabulous Freddy’s station to which viewers could flock for their free-gasoline giveaway. Channel 13’s Amanda Sanchez, flanked by Melanie and Michael of KSNE-FM 106.5, was forced to shill about all the fab fun and frivolity at Freddy’s. Chopper dude Paul Hollenbeck even hovered overhead for an aerial view of the balloon-festooned site.

Holy bribery, Batman! An over-the-top reminder of how watch-to-win means bribe-to-watch.

Promotions and contests are embedded in the TV news playbook nationwide, as well as in other media, including newspapers. KVBC-TV, Channel 3’s “Give & Win” is quasi-altruism, shelling out $500 to viewers, another $500 to their chosen charities. KVVU-TV, Channel 5’s “Fox-5 Rewards” showers viewers with merchandise and trips. Over the years, stations elsewhere have shamelessly abused the concept with giveaways climaxing at $1.5 million.

While nowhere near that obscene level, Channel 13’s gas-o-rama could still fuel a backlash against their credibility.

Morning newscasts are loosey-goosier than later broadcasts, but this tipped over toward radio’s business model of making love to sponsors. (C’mon down, we’re broadcasting live from whatever business coughs up our ad rates!) Still, most radio is not tethered to journalistic concerns. Channel 13 created its own (non)news, then covered it with embarrassing enthusiasm. In sophisticated markets — what we might aspire to be — that’s known as unsophisticated. With stations so awash in cacophonous talk/reality twaddle every day, news is a protected corner of credibility. Or should be.

What’s the long-term upside? Temporary, artificial ratings bumps are built on fake appeal. Viewers lured by free goodies rather than good journalism probably will skedaddle once swag shrivels up, rather than cement an allegiance to a station’s real purpose of newsgathering.

But by then, so what? Sweeps are done, ratings are up, advertisers are set. It’s enough to give guardians of journalism a bad case of gas.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sborn feld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

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