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Television struggles to balance hype, credibility

Beth Horowitz tries to take the high road, but these days taking that route is more like walking a high wire without a net.

When she promotes the newscast at her Hartford, Conn., station, she tries to emphasize solid reporting and "news you can use" consumer reports.

Her competitor is taking a different tack. "Yeah," she said, "In my market, the other stations are doing strip club promos at 11."

It's called hype: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll promos to win viewers during sweeps months.

Among marketing and promotion executives, the hunger for hype grows daily. Forget about 500 channels of the future, the masters of marketing who gathered in last week Orlando are worried about the three or four stations back home.

Hyping newscasts is a troubling, thorny question for journalists who like to think they are above this sales pitch stuff. Noble as that sentiment may be, the reality remains that newscasts are a product in a competitive business that must be promoted so they can succeed. Just ask Dan Rather and Connie Chung.

Or their co-worker Charles Osgood. The veteran CBS journalist agrees that the lines between news and entertainment have been blurred. He skips over the line himself, doing radio commentaries and ads.

"Obviously you have to promote it," Osgood said of news programs, noting that it's the oldest tradition in journalism to sell stories, "but you have to have that balance between what is real and sensational."

In a provocative session at the PROMAX and Broadcast Designers Association meeting at Disney World, broadcasting promoters discussed how to hype news programs and how to do it with taste.

"How far can we push the edge?" asked panel moderator Frank Radice, manager of advertising and promotion at WCBS-Ch. 2 in New York.

Good question.

The first rule seems basic, but, in a business that often doesn't follow it, the panel tooks pains to stress it: Never promise what you don't have. Don't say a series is sexy, when it's not. A promo with MTV-like flash about a story that's a PBS-like look at Medicare is only going to disappoint the viewer who has been promised glitz but gets something totally different.

Paul Amos, senior vice president for news at Fox and formerly with CNN, says the viewer does not differentiate between the promo and the newscast. If the promo goes too far, the newsroom will suffer.

"The bottom line in any news operation is credibility," said Amos, who's creatimg a Fox newsmagazine show. "If you lose that, you lose your viewers. It can be damn good television but it's not news anymore."

The second rule, all agreed, is to work closely with news producers so the spot closely reflects the story.

The problem of slice-and-dice spots hasn't reached critical mass in Tampa, where WFLA-Ch.8 and WTVT-Ch. 13 do their share of spicy stories during sweeps month but also produce strong, serious investigative pieces as well, but Horowitz's problem is well-illustrated. WTSP-Ch. 10 tried to promote and produce its "news you can use" format and came in last place in the ratings.

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