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With Elizabeth Smart hire, is ABC News trying to corner the market on women-in-peril stories?



elizabeth-smart-talks-to-the-media-outside-the-federal-courthouse.jpgIs ABC News trying to corner the market on women-in-peril stories?

It certainly seems that way after news of the network's latest hire, former kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart. Brought on board as a "contributor," Smart is expected to "help our viewers better understand missing person stories, missing child stories, with the perspective of what a family really experiences when a loved one goes missing," according to spokeswoman Julie Townsend.

Smart's qualifications? Back in 2002, she lived every parent and child's worst nightmare, kidnapped from her home at age 14 by former street preacher Brian David Mitchell and held captive, raped daily until she was found nine months later.

After spending years as an advocate on issues involving missing children and recovering from trauma, the now-23-year-old is ascending to her biggest stage -- less than two months after her kidnapper was sentenced to two life terms in prison.

elizabeth-smart2200.jpgABC's Townsend said Smart could begin appearing on air "in the next week or two," providing a personal perspective on new stories the network covers (and, not-so-coincidentally, not appearing on competing networks). "Everyone's familiar with her story," the spokeswoman said. "We've been talking to her for quite some time -- months -- and she's incredibly thoughtful and well spoken."

But does that qualify her to be a paid staffer at ABC News? And what does it mean, when a TV network spends money to hire someone so closely identified with a type of crime that, while attention-getting and sensational, doesn't really happen all that often?

"That one threw me - I've never seen that before," said Deborah Potter, a former correspondent for CBS and CNN who now serves as executive director for Washington D.C.-based Newslab, a broadcast journalism training and research center. "(Smart) is a contributor on a topic that you would imagine wouldn't be in the news all that often. Are they going to cover these stories more because they have her?"

ABC's emphasis on such stories may already be at hand. Already criticized for paying $200,000 for exclusive video and pictures from accused murderer Casey Anthony years ago, the network last week threw serious resources at covering the aftermath of her acquittal -- sending Nightline anchor Terry Moran to Orlando for the first TV interview with a juror on the case while featuring Barbara Walters' interview with her attorney, Jose Baez.

jayceeduggard-abc.jpgOn Sunday, top anchor Diane Sawyer hosted an exclusive primetime interview with Jaycee Dugard, a woman who was kidnapped at age 11 while heading to school and held captive for 18 years, giving birth to two children fathered by her kidnapper. The primetime special drew nearly 15 million viewers, prompting ABC to rebroadcast it at 9 p.m. Saturday, with updated viewer reaction and new material. Sawyer has also slotted stories on the interview within ABC's evening newscast World News last week and this week.

The network has boasted in a press release that its primetime Nightline special on Anthony last Wednesday drew its biggest audience for that timeslot in five months. Sawyer's newscast ratings last week were closer to timeslot leader Brian Williams on NBC than she's been in almost a year, according to another ABC release.

Small wonder then, that Broadcasting and Cable noted ABC by far spent the most time covering the Casey Anthony trial during its evening newscasts last week, notching 22.9 minutes, compared to 8.4 minutes on NBC and 5.4 minutes on CBS.  

"Sawyer has brought a lot of the techniques she used (as an anchor) on Good Morning America to World News," said Andrew Tyndall, a New York media analyst who has monitored the networks' weekly newscasts for 20 years. ""it's human interest and lifestyle and tabloid and female-oriented."

casey-anthony-justice.jpgTyndall's theory: Sawyer's newscast changed after the arrival of new ABC News chief Ben Sherwood, hired in December to succeed longtime head David Westin. Sherwood was executive producer of Good Morning America in 2004 when Sawyer was a co-anchor there.

In today's landscape of morning newscasts and true-crime network TV newsmagazines, women-in-peril stories have turned crime news into melodramatic, real-life soap operas, Tyndall added.

"It's converting the previous demographic for soap operas into news (viewers)," he said. "Almost always, the central character is a woman and just like the soap operas, it doesn't matter if the lead character is a good guy or a villain. That's why you can talk about Elizabeth Smart and Casey Anthony in the same breath."

But the problem with these soap operas, is they can give viewers a skewed sense of what crimes are important. Critics have already complained that the national media's focus on pretty, young white middle class female victims can lend the audience to care more about crime that affects certain kinds of people. And less about others.

Now ABC's arrangement with Smart raises the question: Has the network embodied the focus on endangered white women with one hire? and are they trying to scare women into watching their news programming?

Not so, said ABC's Townsend. "It's fair to say we've always covered missing person stories, particularly on programs like Good Morning America," she added, noting that ABC's discussions with the telegenic and well-spoken Smart began months ago. "The timing of all these things (news of Smart's hiring, the Dugard story and the Anthony coverage) is truly a coincidence...These are the kind of stories that are riveting and people want to hear about them from people who have experienced these issues firsthand."

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 13, 2011 10:59am]


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