“If it bleeds, it leads” is local TV’s aphorism that dictates its belief that fires, car crashes, and shootings lead off the nightly newscast. These stories, of course, are more “visual” and easier to cover than poverty, worker exploitation, and the health care crisis.
But, now and then, it’s hard to find an assortment of adrenaline-enhanced stories. And so it was that WOW-TV’s panicked station manager met with his news director late one afternoon to go over the final line-up for the 6 O’clock news, which, with few variants would be the same news the station would run in its “expanded news coverage” shows over the next 24 hours. The station manager wasn’t happy.
“What do you mean leading off the news with a report that some jokers at the Public Health Service found the cure for AIDS? Weren’t there any accidents? Fires? Murders!”
“Sorry, Boss, there’s nothing out there.”
“NOTHING?! ‘Nothing’ as in ‘no accidents,’ or ‘nothing’ as in ‘You’re about to get a job at Kwik-E-Mart’?!”
“Boss, we really tried. I have five camera crews running around right now.”
“Think you can get two of them to run into each other? We’d pay the hospital bills.”
“Boss, don’t you remember? The union made us agree to a six-month moratorium on stories that involve us maiming our crews just for the sake of ratings?”
“Some union,” the station manager huffed. “Doesn’t even want its members to get more air time.”
“It’s only for six months,” said the news director. “After that, maybe we could cut the brake linings on Unit 3 and have Unit 4 cover it. But for right now, the news scanner is dead.”
“What happened to that fatality on Honeysuckle?”
“By the time we scrambled the chopper, the drivers had exchanged insurance numbers and left.”
“Left!?” thundered the station manager. “No one leaves when there’s a camera crew on the way!”
“Best we could figure out, it was just a few paint scratches.”
“Any of the cars red? If you got there faster, it might have looked like blood. Check the cops again. They might be covering up something.”
“Sorry, Boss. Even Philly’s not reporting any murders in the past 24 hours.”
“Then go out and shoot someone!” the station manager demanded.
“Sorry, Boss, I can’t do that.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” said the station manager. “Tell Susie Sweetwater to do it. Her ratings are down. This should help.”
“Susie’s in the middle of her reading class right now, and you know how she hates to be disturbed when she’s learning new words.”
“Then Heartthrob! Audiences salivate whenever he’s on. The public would back him even if he had assault weapons and made welsh rarebit out of the Easter Bunny.”
“It’s an hour until air,” the news director reminded the station manager. “Hearthrob’s already in Makeup. They’re darkening his hair tonight.”
“Celebrities!” shouted the station manager. “Audiences love train wrecks, and celebrities do it better than anyone! Find me Lindsay Lohan!”
“We have two crews on her now,” said the news director, “but all she’s doing is drinking and partying. Besides, we’ve done that story five times this month.”
“What about the Jersey Shore morons.”
“They’re currently destroying what’s left of the Roman civilization, and we can’t afford to send a crew.”
“Get me a fire! Forest. Trailer. Stove. I don’t care!” the station manager demanded, smashing his coffee mug against his desk, and cutting his wrist. “BLOOD!” he shouted. “We have blood!”
“It’s only a scratch,” said the news director.
“It’s blood! And it’s good for a grabber. Grab a producer. Come in with an extreme close-up full-frame, and then pull back to a medium shot. Dissolve to some of the footage of the Vancouver fans rioting when their team lost the Stanley Cup. Here’s your lead: Violence in Canada leads to blood-letting in America.” He paused a moment. “Make sure you run teasers on this every five minutes.”
[Walter Brasch, who once worked with TV, says it’s much safer in print journalism. His latest book is Before the First Snow, which is receiving critical acclaim for its look at the American counterculture.]