by | Nov 17, 1996 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Let’s talk about TV helicopters.

Let’s talk about TV helicopters hovering over a police chase. Let’s talk about TV helicopters reminding us how their pictures are “exclusive” and their pilots heroic. Let’s talk about TV helicopters creating pictures that suggest a climax from the movie “The Fugitive.”

Then let’s look at the calendar.

As someone who works for newspapers and television, I can tell you that most of the time, each collects news in a unique yet professional fashion, with a sharp eye toward accuracy and good taste.

Except during ratings sweeps.

Which might explain the helicopters.

Ratings sweeps — month-long periods, used in the TV business — turn stations into rabid dogs, ready to electrify, amplify or even manufacture news if it means more people will watch. Here’s why: Ratings during these periods determine ad rates, which determine how much money a station will make.

Thus, the news during sweep months — February, May and November — is simply more important to stations than the rest of the year.

And as a result, dangerous stories become attractive, sex is sexier than usual, and murder is a home run — especially, creepy, horrifying murder.

Which brings us to the Ford Wixom plant.

And the helicopters.

Mutually exclusive

“You’re watching an exclusive report . .” was the sentence TV viewers heard all afternoon Thursday, as a wacko named Gerald Michael Atkins tried, for several hours, to escape police after his rifle rampage in the Ford plant killed one man and wounded three others.

Not only were you reminded about the exclusivity of the report — which was pretty stupid, because with three helicopters in the air, how exclusive can it be? — but you were also given interviews with “stress experts” who postulated about the pressures of factory life that might have led Atkins to pull the trigger.

Of course, as it turned out, Atkins didn’t even work at the plant, and was likely motivated not by stress but by an infatuation with a woman. But such facts require reporting, and reporting takes time, hours, maybe days. And time is something you don’t have when you’re trying not to lose the viewer.

But pictures! Pictures are immediate! So the very expensive, high-tech helicopters that three local TV stations now employ were put to the test, and they turned the whole scene into an afternoon-long movie — with the same voyeuristic overtones of the O.J. Simpson Bronco watch. Between the SWAT teams, the police choppers, the armored vehicles and the heat-seeking radar, viewers might have thought they were watching the capture of Saddam Hussein instead of a story that wasn’t even a blip on the national stage.

Which brings us to the question of perspective. Yes, this was a big local story. No one wants to fear going to work. But if the guy had turned himself in to police inside the plant, would we have had the same hours of TV coverage? Would we have had an hour-long, prime-time special on Channel 7 and a late- night special on Channel 4 recounting the whole eye-in-the- sky drama?

No? Why not? The same number of people would be dead and wounded, right? The same horror would have taken place.

Ah, but there wouldn’t have been a movie. It would have been less entertaining. Which leads to an important question: Where does news end and ratings-grabbing begin?

Discretion . . . all year

Now, perhaps my friends in the TV world are saying, “Aw, he’s only writing this because newspapers are in competition with TV.” A fair statement. And I readily admit that newspapers are as competitive as TV stations, and often exploit news to make flashy front pages.

There are simply two key differences:

1) Newspapers do not have these dangerous ratings periods. They do not get more credit for attracting readers in one month than the next, thus creating the temptation to look for sexy, dramatic news at certain key times (have you noticed how many stations are sending their reporters on expensive, far- away assignments this month, or how many “special investigative reports” seem necessary this month, or how things like sex, diet, children and money — buzz words to attract viewers — are magically in the news this month?)

2) Newspapers can only report what happened, not what’s happening. This is the great advantage of TV (and radio.) But it is also a huge responsibility. By choosing to broadcast news events live, you are suggesting they are important. Live broadcasters therefore need to keep things in perspective as they’re happening — which is more important than reminding people who was first in the air. Or saying “exclusive” 100 times.

I’m not saying our TV friends did not work hard or capture the facts in this story. They did both. But reporting an event is one thing, milking it is something else. And it’s something the TV business needs to harness.

After all, news-as-docudrama is getting more and more popular during sweeps months. And when your annual income hangs in the balance, it must be pretty hard to yell “cut.”


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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