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Jewish World Review / May 18, 1998 / 22 Iyar, 5758

Larry Elder

Larry Elder This just in

Channel 4 News sincerely apologizes for broadcasting the suicide of a man on a freeway in downtown Los Angeles. We did not anticipate this man's actions in time to cut away, and we deeply regret that any of our viewers saw this tragedy on our air.

This statement, issued by the Los Angeles NBC television affiliate, followed the live coverage of a man who committed suicide by a rifle shot to the head, splattering blood and brain. Nearly every Los Angeles TV station covered this "late-breaking event." Two even broke from cartoons.

The drama took approximately 45 minutes. The sequence of events: The "suicide victim" called 911 from his truck, apparently set his truck (himself and his dog inside) on fire, fled the truck (the dog didn't escape) with his clothes in flames, appeared poised to jump from a freeway overpass, and put a rifle to his head, pulling the trigger.

Shocked viewers and pundits complained. Why do we have to see this? Why didn't the stations cut away? What are we coming to?!

Wait a sec. Given the time span over which the "late-breaking suicide victim" story progressed, surely it occurred to viewers to switch channels? Get up and fix a sandwich? Perhaps browse through James Joyce's Ulysses?

Now stay with me here. Is it possible that viewers actually wanted to watch this "event" unfold? When newscasters bust through regular programming gasping, "We have a late-breaking news story!" do we really expect live coverage of Mother Teresa accepting the Nobel Peace Prize? The Supreme Court debating the line-item veto? Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan speaking out on liquidity in foreign markets?

The folks who are "shocked, shocked" face a problem. The viewers. Survey after survey tells us that local news viewers want violence, mayhem, crime and disorder. The New York Times recently profiled an Orlando, Fla., news station that decided to de-sensationalize the news and turn down the gore. Well, no more gore, no more ratings.

Face it. We're conflicted. When a pollster asks, "Are you concerned about sex and violence on television?" what do you expect Joe and Joan Middle America to say? "No, in fact, we would love to see just a little more."

C'mon, everybody's concerned about violence on television. Problem is, we watch it anyway.

The live coverage of the "suicide victim" brought triple the normal ratings. The apologetic stations that gave us a close-up view drew higher ratings than competitors that panned to a violence-avoiding wide shot.

The violent television movie The Last Don drew major numbers. This, in turn, brings us The Last Don II. A reviewer describes Don II, this way, "In the first hour alone, a mobster is squashed by a steel beam, an innocent mother dies after opening a package that turns out to be a bomb, another mother and her children are massacred, an aging don is shot in the head in front of his grandson ... and a schoolteacher's throat is cut in church." Next up: The Last Don III, The Stepson of the Last Don and The Last Don Moves to Sandusky.

NBC just aired The Long Island Incident, about the subway massacre in which six people died with 19 wounded. One reviewer found the movie too subdued, "This minimization -- avoidance, even -- of the act of violence undercuts the story's effectiveness." Oh, not enough blood.

Remember school-yard fights? Kids dropped their books and lunches in mid-bite and tore across the blacktop to get a better view. Stuck in traffic? Looky-loos cause more clog than the car accident itself.

We should debate whether news directors acted responsibly by breaking into children's programming. But, honestly, let's say you're 9 years old again. You witness this suicide on television. Later in life, do you climb a water tower with an AK-47, or do you still make it to regional sales manager? Whether viewers truly want to watch violence, mayhem, crashes, fires and riots, however, cannot seriously be debated. We do. We cover our eyes. And then peek through the cracks.

Dan Rather called today's emphasis on celebrity, gossip and the tawdry, the "Hollywoodization" of the news. Alternatives do exist, one of which is on PBS -- The News Hour by Jim Lehrer. Depth, intelligence, balance, as well as bright, weighty talking heads. It's got everything. Everything -- except ratings.


5/11/98: Stepping up
4/30/98: Who's faking whom?
4/16/98:To spank or not to spank

©1998, Laurence A. Elder