After five days of watching every 6 and 11 p.m. weekday newscast on the three local TV affiliates, I'm not sure if I should stay home 2 4/7 or pop a Prozac.
The overwhelming portrait of the area delivered by local TV news is one infected with crime, suspicious of its politicians and frightened of getting ill because of a superbug nicknamed MRSA.
During the week of Oct. 22, it was clear that Channel 2 covers the least amount of crime and Channel 4 covers the most.
Generally, channels 2, 4 and 7 cover many of the same stories, unless they're emphasizing something that is "only" on their station, even if it isn't that important. This most often happens at 11 p.m., when the stations look to lead newscasts with something that didn't air at 6 p.m.
It can be a problem in Buffalo, which doesn't generate that much news to cover.
On one night, Channel 4 led its 11 p.m. newscast with a story about animal cruelty, a regrettable and sad case that hardly affected the community beyond the family involved. On another night, it led with Erie County legislators trying to get input into the Bills' plans to play a game in Toronto even though they might be powerless to do anything.
On one night, Channel 2 led with a story about Buffalo police warning women about an attacker still on the loose. It didn't advance anything that had happened in a month. It just reminded people to be fearful. TV news can never warn people enough, but it doesn't have to lead newscasts with warnings.
The disconnect between what a newspaper with a large staff thinks is important and what a TV station with a relatively smaller one believes is important is as wide as Lake Erie.
Crime stories that may get two or three paragraphs inside the local section of the newspaper often are the lead of a newscast.
>A 'headline service'
The three stations have different styles that appeal to different viewers.
Channel 2, which is in second place in the ratings, is the most lively, most theatrical, most aggressive and the most prone to shameless self-promotion and focusing on controversy for controversy sake.
It gets an A for fulfilling its mission, but a C for the mission itself.
Channel 4, which has been the news leader for years, is the most conservative, most crime-oriented and most responsible. It gets an unexciting B all the way around.
Channel 7 is trying to do the most with the least staff and feels shouting "breaking news" is the answer. It gets a C plus, primarily because it can't camouflage its staffing problems.
Since the time frame chosen purposely avoided an abnormal sweeps week, it wasn't surprising to see so few self-generated stories on the stations that go beyond the day's events and seek to enlighten the community about an issue or make viewers concerned enough to act to do something about it.
This isn't to disparage the stations' anchors and reporters, many of whom are Buffalo-area natives or have been here so long that they feel like they are.
Most on-air staffers here do very professional jobs, especially for a market that has now slipped to No. 50 in the nation.
It's the job description that is the problem. TV news really is just a headline service that rarely goes into depth about anything and can take two minutes to tell a story with 10 seconds of news. The 30-minute newscasts at 6 p.m. and the 35-minute newscasts at 11 p.m. are often filled with stories designed to sell commercials and make money. The extra five minutes at 11 p.m. really isn't for extra news, it's for commercials. The newscasts usually have nothing more than a quick weather update in the final seven minutes.
To fill the time, a few stories each night that deserve 30 seconds of time or less get expanded to 90 seconds or more. That couldn't have been more obvious than in the coverage of paralyzed Buffalo police Officer Patricia Parete after she returned to town after being rehabilitated for months in New Jersey. There was no news beyond saying she was back.
Then there's MRSA. It is a scare story that the stations seem to believe deserved the miniseries treatment as one school or another reported having a case on a daily basis. All the stories reminded viewers that washing your hands repeatedly reduces the risk of getting it and that it can be treated. You wish it would be as easy to wash away TV news' fear factor.
>Where's the diversity?
The fear story of losing the Buffalo Bills to Toronto also was played up big during the week. Just as interesting as what you see on the news is what you don't see. The war in Iraq was barely visible, left for nightly national newscasts on the network. The minor amount of on-air diversity is more startling at night during a week's viewing than it is when watching without paying as much attention.
The only African-American reporter on Channel 4 at night during the week was Mylous Hairston. The only African-American reporter on Channel 2 at night was Claudine Ewing. And neither was on that often. Channel 7 hasn't had any on-air African-American reporters since Aaron Baskerville left two months ago. And Granite Broadcasting, which owned Channel 7 until bankruptcy caused it to restructure it and now runs it for a privately owned hedge fund sponsor, is a minority-owned company.
This being Buffalo, weather is a big deal. The area is fortunate to have three personable weathermen -- Channel 2's Kevin O'Connell, Channel 4's Don Paul and Channel 7's Mike Randall -- who use all the high-tech gizmos at their disposal to explain what should happen without being alarmists.
The future of sports on local TV is being debated nationally because highlights are so readily available on cable. The way for local stations to differentiate themselves is to cover local sports.
In Buffalo TV, that generally means focusing on the Bills and the Sabres and their injuries, almost to the exclusion of amateur athletics. An out-of-towner might think that the only sport that local high schools play is football. It is a traditional way of covering sports. High school soccer, hockey and volleyball around here are largely ignored until playoff time, even though they have become stronger sports over the years than football.
You wish the sports departments would have time to assess the best way to cover sports and not rely on the easiest and most traditional way to do it.
But you could say the same thing about the coverage of local news, which continues to believe that traditional crime stories, scare stories, self-promotion and manufactured controversy pay the bills.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last in a four-part series in which News TV Critic Alan Pergament analyzes the three local TV news channels after watching the 6 and 11 p.m newscasts for five weekdays starting Oct. 22. Today's story looks at how the three stations compare.
Too Much: Chest-thumping, self-promotion
Too Little: Self-control, plugs for Web site (kidding)
Just Right: Kevin O'Connell on weather
Grade: A for fulfilling mission, C for mission
Too Much: Crime
Too Little: Style and personality
Just Right: Responsibility quotient
Too Much: Shouts of breaking news
Too Little: Staff, stability
Just Right: Staff it has is decent.