Robert Blake, the main course

TV networks hungrily filled their plates with another helping of Voyeurism


April 28, 2002|By David Folkenflik | By David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

You could hear the ambivalence in Aaron Brown's voice on April 18, and discern it in the words he chose as he spoke, at length, about the arrest of former actor Robert Blake.

His nightly news program on CNN, along with the rest of the cable channel's programming after 8:41 p.m. that night, was being devoted almost exclusively to the arrest of the 65-year-old film and television actor on charges that he killed his wife last May.

"As we sit here tonight, there's a ton and a half going on the world, and all of it is, in the larger scheme of things, really important," said Brown, anchor of CNN's NewsNight. "This [Blake story] is interesting, and this is breaking, and this is news. But at some point there are these other things that need to be dealt with, too."

Right there, in full public view, was a moment that captured the strains in the marriage of news and entertainment -- the continuing dilemma of television journalism.

Inside the industry, it has been suggested that the sobering events of last Sept. 11 would change the way news executives evaluate stories. But programmers find that viewers respond to breaking news -- of almost any variety -- and that a thirst remains for diversions, in this case, a story about a troubled celebrity.

Higher ratings followed the initial, splashy coverage of the Blake story, vindicating those instincts. But the larger truth would seem to be that, in the absence of true crisis, news judgment hasn't changed all that much since the terror attacks.

"People are desperate for a breather from the Middle East and Afghanistan," says Martin Kaplan, an associate dean at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication. But the Blake case "comes as a grotesque comic relief."

"Most national [television] outlets have thoroughly disgraced themselves by their attention to it," he argues. "It has only voyeuristic content and deserves only 1 percent of the coverage it's getting."

'All these sexy aspects'

The night of Blake's arrest, CNN's Brown had intended to spend the hourlong NewsNight discussing environmental policy -- a timely topic given the Senate vote that same day killing President Bush's proposal to open up protected lands in Alaska for oil drilling.

But Blake had been arrested. At the same time, there were seemingly no major developments in central Asia or the Middle East. In the world of cable news, newsworthy topics that bear continued watching are not the same as events that seem to be unfolding at that moment.

Thus, CNN emptied its schedule for the story. Helicopters hovering above a white car bearing Blake to the police department provided footage that helped stations track his every move. The cable network swiped ABC's legal analyst -- Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker -- to explain the intricacies of the coming trial.

Since that first night, Blake's booking, his plea -- each expected and choreographed step through the judicial process -- has been chronicled extensively. "It has all these sexy aspects that people tune in for," says MaryLynn Ryan, managing editor for CNN's U.S. broadcasts. "It has a murder mystery, a Hollywood player -- albeit washed up, but people still recognize him."

Surface similarities between the Blake and O.J. Simpson cases also helped make the story too tantalizing to pass up, even though the differences were stark. Unlike Simpson, Blake was not seeking to elude police; he'd already surrendered to authorities. Unlike Simpson's, Blake's fame, for his roles in the Little Rascals films, the film In Cold Blood and TV's Baretta, had long since evaporated. It has been a quarter-century since he was on television regularly.

"I don't think this story has legs," says Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report, a newsletter that monitors television news. "They're stretching to make this into O.J., the same way they were stretching to turn Gary Condit" into President Clinton as the quarry of the impeachment process, Tyndall says.

'A meal of chocolate'

On the broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- Tyndall says he doesn't find much coverage of Blake on the nightly newscasts. Instead, it appears during their morning news shows, he says, which combine elements of hard news, celebrity profiles, pop culture and lifestyle segments.

"For a long time, we have all been fascinated with celebrities who fall from grace," says Shelley Ross, executive producer of ABC's Good Morning America. "This is built for television -- you have somebody [Blake] who was in the popular culture for decades."

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