Behind the TV news
Outside consultants play a key role in shaping broadcasts
By Don Aucoin and Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 04/30/99
As another ratings ''sweeps'' period gets underway, television news
stations from Boston to Berkeley will pull out the stops with stories
such as hotel-room horrors, people who faked their own deaths, dangerous
underwear, the amount of caffeine really in your cup of decaf, and other
''shocking'' and ''breathtaking'' discoveries.
Savvy viewers know to expect this brand of news during a sweeps month, such as the one that began last night, when audiences are closely measured to set advertising rates. What many may not know, however, is that such orchestrated strategies - along with numerous less sensational programming decisions that affect whom and what they see on newscasts - often come from the playbooks of a handful of consultants who have emerged as the unseen powers behind local TV news across the country.
At a time when the average tenure of a local news director is only 24 months, the most lasting signature on a TV station may be left by influential consultants like the Iowa-based Frank N. Magid Associates (which has handled WCVB-Ch. 5 for more than 20 years) and two Texas-based companies, the Broadcast Image Group and Audience Research & Development (which consults for WHDH-Ch. 7).
''Their role has expanded over the past 10 years or so,'' said WBZ-Ch. 4
reporter John Henning, a 35-year veteran of Boston TV news. ''They used to just advise on how anchors ought to dress or what sets should look like, but now they are almost telling news organizations what kind of news people want to hear.''
For the viewing public, the question is whether these consultants are savvy packagers of lively journalism, as local station managers and news directors contend, or cynical peddlers of ratings-grabbing fluff and gimmicks, the description favored by many TV newsroom reporters.
''We are journalists who understand marketing,'' said John Quarderer,
vice president of Magid's North American Television Group, noting that
''it's not always a perfect marriage.'' Philip Balboni, the president of
New England Cable News and a former news director at Channel 5, said, ''A good consultant, like anyone else with good ideas, can be helpful. But it can also be very destructive'' because ''the criterion is almost always on how to win, not how to do the best journalism.''
Consultants have been the driving force behind some of the trends that have shaken up the once-staid world of local television journalism: the disappearance of one-hour newscasts; the proliferation of gory crime stories and the-sky-is-falling weather coverage; the infatuation with easy-to-promote ''news you can use'' about health dangers and consumer ripoffs; the trend toward jazzy graphics; the ubiquitous ''live shots'' in which, for example, a reporter broadcasts from the lawn of the darkened State House hours after lawmakers have departed; the faster-paced, shorter news story; and the de-emphasis on foreign news and coverage of government and politics (even in Boston, this most political of cities).
On a more micro level, consultants can influence everything from the color of the set (and the anchor's hair) to the wording of the newscast promotional ''teaser'' designed to keep viewers from channel-surfing. News executives call on consultants to conduct market research on how their newscasts, anchors, and reporters are viewed by the public; to recruit and critique on-air talent; to conduct workshops on newswriting; to train producers; to provide story ideas and advice; and to send them tapes that show how news is covered in other markets.
Although Boston has proved to be a more stable and sophisticated TV news market than many, it has seen its share of questionable consultant input. Channel 5 has relied on the Magid group since the mid-1970s, when the company got off to a bumpy start by advising against giving an evening anchor slot to a young newswoman named Natalie Jacobson, arguing she would not be ''a long-term plus for the station,'' according to then-news director Jim Thistle. (The dominant Boston news personality of the past two decades is equally unimpressed by consultants. In a Globe interview last year, Jacobson called them ''the worst things that have happened to television.'')
Since the beginning of this decade, Channel 4 has relied on Clemensen & Rovitto, a Connecticut-based consulting group. According to station sources, the firm several years ago persuaded management to largely abandon the widely known call letters ''WBZ'' in favor of ''News 4 New England'' - a move many staffers (and rival stations) believe helped muddy up Channel 4's identity and added to its ratings woes. One still-incredulous executive at a rival station remarked: ''The line around our shop was, `If they're not going to use `WBZ,' can we use it?'''
Consultant Doug Clemensen said he could not remember who recommended the decision on call letters, saying that it emerged from a meeting with station management. ''Call letters are for most intents and purposes meaningless ... a holdover from the early days of television,'' he said. Nevertheless, when Ed Goldman was appointed Channel 4's new general manager in June 1997, one of his first actions was to restore the call letters, though ''News 4 New England'' still occupies a prominent role.
Inside Boston TV newsrooms, consultants inspire every feeling but ambivalence. Proponents hail them as a source of valuable audience feedback and fresh ideas from other markets that keep local news stations from stagnating.
''In this town, we get much too close to our product and our competitor's
product,'' said Channel 5 general manager Paul LaCamera. ''It's very important for someone to come in and give you the perspective from the outside.'' Added Goldman: ''They give us a fresh set of eyes that see what's going on in other markets. ... They don't come here telling us what to do.''
Yet, critics blame consultants for cheesing up and dumbing down the TV news product with ''happy talk'' - having look-alike anchors indulge in inane banter - and one-size-fits-all newscasts. ''They alter the impact of journalism,'' said Donald McGaffin, a former West Coast anchor and reporter who witnessed the first wave of the consultant invasion of newsrooms in the 1970s. ''Consultants and the overnight [ratings] have combined to make television nonjournalistic.'' (During the past few sweeps periods in Boston, Channel 5 has held the news ratings edge during all time periods except 11 p.m., where Channel 7 has consistently won. Channel 4 has run third.)
Mindful of their bosses' fondness for consultants, most reporters are reluctant to publicly criticize them, but their distaste is evident. One Boston TV reporter calls consultants ''one step above used-car salesmen,'' while another noted that ''what they generate is used to fool and manipulate the public. They've homogenized the industry.''
To be sure, consultants aren't the only factor responsible for this homogenization of local TV news. Large chain ownership of multiple stations and nomadic news managers who bring their story playbook to numerous communities have a crucial role as well. But consultants are surely a part of the equation.
''You do see evidence to reinforce the notion that consultants tend to
have a theory about what works that they cart around from city to city,'' said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which released a study of local TV news earlier this year.
''You could look and tell, to some extent, from the news they put on who
was a BIG client, who was a Magid client, who was an AR&D client.''
''They send you lists [of stories] and copies of stuff that has `spiked'
in other markets,'' said Emily Rooney, the former Channel 5 news director who now hosts WGBH-TV's ''Greater Boston.'' ''Dangerous nail salons, that's a favorite. Anything `tainted' is good.'' (Mark Jurkowitz is a regular guest on ''Greater Boston.'')
Consultants deny the homogenization charge, arguing that they tailor their research and advice to individual markets.
''If there was ever a time when formulas worked, formulas long since
ceased to provide results for clients,'' said Clemensen, the consultant for Channel 4. ''The needs of a particular station or client vary enormously from place to place ... We help connect a station with its customers.''
''We're not a company that's invested in amortizing ideas,'' said Larry
Rickel, the founder of the Broadcast Image Group. ''I think, in the competitive pressures for stations to get better ratings ... there's a natural tendency to say `will this work here?' I don't think that's consultant-driven.''
That view of the consulting business is frequently shared by top station executives. LaCamera said the station altered its early-morning newscast to feature more news, weather, and traffic reports rather than longer features in response to advice from Magid Associates. He noted that Channel 5 often wins the early-morning ratings race.
''They are not an intrusive force at our television station,'' said
LaCamera. ''I would describe them as helpful and supportive.''
Station rank-and-file, however, tend to take a more jaundiced view. On a Web site called ''News Blues,'' (www.newsblues.com) consultants are pummeled by anonymous newsroom staffers. ''In the spectrum of TV news usefulness,'' wrote one, ''consultants fall somewhere between manual typewriters and one-inch videotape.''
''In the newsrooms, people feel they've lost control,'' acknowledged
Marty Haag, senior vice president for news at the Belo Group of 17 television stations scattered throughout the nation. ''You fight that by not doing everything [the consultants] say.''
The role of consultants is controversial enough that some news executives draw distinctions on how they are used. Channel 7 news director Mark Berryhill, for example, said the station relies on Audience Research & Development only for research and talent recruitment, not for ongoing advice on the news product. ''Those decisions should be made inside the station, not in Marion, Iowa, or Dallas,'' Berryhill said.
Executives at Channels 4 and 5 insist the consultants there do not call the shots, either, but simply supply information and perspective. ''The influence of consultants is overstated,'' said Channel 5 news director Candy Altman. ''There's a fear of the outside force and the unknown. But it's important to know what's happening in other markets.'' She noted that the Magid associate, with whom she speaks about once a week, is a former Minneapolis news director now based on Cape Cod.
Today, the consultants' considerable influence is related to harried TV news executives who often don't have the time to search for or train talent on their own. Observers say some news directors and station managers are so unfamiliar with their community and so uncertain of their status that they are forced to rely upon consultants as ratings cure-alls.
''The issue is finding a stable and competent news director,'' said Haag,
whose stations use both Magid and AR&D. ''When the turnover is every two years, you find a lot of cats on a hot tin roof out there.''
Meanwhile, Magid's John Quarderer wants to debunk the consultants' Svengali image. ''We're a very well-informed set of eyes and ears,'' he said. It's up to the stations ''to look at what we do and what we suggest and say, `Is this what we want to be?'''
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 04/30/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.