Setting standard for lighter stories

TV/RADIO COLUMN

News: `60 Minutes' takes intriguing look at Thomas Kinkade.

November 28, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Sometimes television reporting can be a joy to behold - even stories promoted with an eye for ratings. Take this Sunday's 60 Minutes on CBS, which was the eighth highest rated TV program in the country last week.

Longtime correspondent Morley Safer methodically unraveled the cynical marketing genius that has enabled artist Thomas Kinkade to reap a fortune from selling retouched posters of treacly landscapes as though they were original works of art.

"A few dabs of paint and -presto! - each canvas: $1,000 to $50,000 framed," Safer told viewers, as the camera showed footage of the factory where more than 400 employees toil to create the reproductions.

"He is a one-man cottage industry," Safer said. "There's Candlelight Cottage; Twilight Cottage; Cottage by the Sea. ... If you like six sugars in your coffee, these are the paintings for you."

As the chief executive of the company that sells Kinkade's work told Safer: "There's over 40 walls in the average American home, and Tom says our job is to figure out how to populate every single wall in every single home and every single business throughout the world with his paintings."

Entertaining, insightful and thoroughly reported, with a quietly wicked skeptical streak - this piece is classic 60 Minutes. No surprise: it made for good ratings, too. More than 16.7 million homes are estimated to have tuned in for the program nationally on Sunday; in Baltimore, more than 187,000 households turned on WJZ (Channel 13) to watch the program, which followed the thrilling last-second Ravens win on CBS.

The same lesson can be drawn from a recently released study of 189 U.S. local news stations by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The group says higher-rated newscasts are grounded on higher standards. Its key recommendations for news executives thirsting for better ratings:

Cover a broader section of the community.

Do more original reporting, rather than recycling stories from other media outlets or relying on corporate video news releases.

Build a newscast's credibility by providing more detailed sourcing within stories. Fully one-third of the more than 6,000 stories examined involved no named sources whatsoever.

Drop some of the quick, scatter-shot stories from the newscasts to give more time to other pieces.

Add reporters and give them more time to work on their stories.

It's easy for a not-for-profit group funded by grants to make these recommendations. News executives face new cost-cutting edicts during what now officially is a recession. But the study indicates that it's good business to pursue good journalism.

Locally, stations have a mixed record for the November "sweeps" period. Overheated (and belated) pieces on the scourge of OxyContin and the promise of better sexual performance through drugs have shared time with more thoughtful stories, such as WBAL's interview with Cardinal Keeler about faith in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks or WJZ's piece about how Maryland Muslims have fared since then.

As the November ratings period draws to a close tonight, WBAL (Channel 11) seems to have a distinct edge for most of its news offerings, but, as ever, once-triumphant WJZ is claiming its own victories.

In truly head-to-head competitions, Nielsen Media Research estimates show that WBAL has the most viewers in the 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and weekday 11 p.m. newscasts. (For Monday through Sunday at 11 p.m., it's coming down to the wire.) WJZ boasts the highest-rated morning show - a big money-maker - and the most viewers throughout the entire day. The CBS station also claims to be the only one in Baltimore to have increased total audience over last year's levels.

Yet there's tougher news in there for both stations; WJZ has shed some viewers when compared to last November for the morning, 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. news shows, while WBAL has dipped in audience size for its late newscasts.

As for Kinkade, the numbers worked out both for CBS and for him. At once missing and getting the point, investors clamored Monday to buy stock in the sole company licensed to traffic in Kinkade's work, sending its value shooting upward.

Criticism and kudos

The war over wording remains contentious. The British Broadcasting Corp. is facing criticism from a conservative American watchdog group for avoiding the word "terrorism" to describe the Sept. 11 attacks.

"If hijacking planes filled with innocent civilians and running them into office buildings, filled with innocent civilians, isn't terrorism, then there's no such thing," says Rich Noyes, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center.

But the BBC, heard and seen in 43 languages by millions across the world, says it has not changed any of its practices. According to the broadcaster's relevant policy guidelines, read aloud by a spokeswoman: "Our credibility is severely undermined if audiences detect a bias either for or against any one individual. Neutral language is key; even the word `terrorist' can appear judgmental in some parts of the world."

WMAR's Andy Barth, a veteran of more than three decades at the station, was inducted into the Silver Circle of the Washington-Baltimore chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his years of work. Barth is uniformly well-regarded by his peers, both professionally and for his work as the station's chief union representative.

"He's a remarkable reporter and storyteller," says WMAR reporter Mark Vernarelli, a colleague for 16 years.

David Folkenflik can be reached at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or 410-332-6923.

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