News goes on vacation at CBS-owned stations

September 23, 2010

When Steve Baskerville cheerfully delivered the weather forecast for Honolulu during WBBM-Channel 2's 5 p.m. newscast Monday, he wasn't just shilling for the premiere of "Hawaii Five-O" that night. He was taking part in a well-coordinated plan to prostitute the newscasts of CBS-owned stations nationwide.

From New York to Los Angeles, CBS stations transformed their local newscasts into shameless infomercials for the prime-time drama series.‚ News anchors at KCBS-TV in L.A. even wore leis on the air, according to a published report.

"This was beyond embarrassing," wrote Scott Jones, editor of the industry website FTVLive.com. "Hijacking a large market newscast and turning it into [one] long promo should be a crime."

Nowhere was the mandate carried out with more gusto than in Chicago, where Channel 2 ran commercials for weeks featuring its top news talent pimping for "Hawaii Five-O." In one, they were seen sitting around pretending to conspire to find ways to tie themselves in to the hot new series. From principal news anchor Rob Johnson came this idea: "Let's call it Aloha Monday!" Right you are, Rob.

Earlier Monday, morning news anchors Steve Bartelstein and Susan Carlson did their part for the cause, too, introducing Megan Glaros (who, in turn, introduced a piece by some guy from Cleveland named Chris Van Vliet) with the most awkward and uncomfortable handoff you're likely to see all year.

Most depressing of all was witnessing Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson, once among the most respected local anchors in America, take part in the forced frivolity. (The same Walter Jacobson who used to bristle at the relentless hype over "American Idol" at his former station, Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32.) Now in their 70s and happy to cash their paychecks, Bill & Walter seem willing to do almost anything --  including appear in goofy ads about a cop show. Somehow they've convinced themselves it will endear them to the audience and boost ratings for the 10 o'clock news.

Perhaps sensitive to the overkill, Kurtis still had the subject on his mind Tuesday when Channel 2 chief correspondent Jay Levine reported that the upcoming mayoral election could be a boon to the sales departments of local television stations. "There won't be room for a single 'Hawaii Five-O' commercial," Kurtis chuckled.

In the big picture, Channel 2's sell-out for "Hawaii Five-O" is one more example of how the station's New York bosses are calling the shots on everything from hiring to the format and promotional content of newscasts. It's hard to see how any of it benefits viewers.

Peter Dunn, who's been overseeing all 16 stations owned by CBS since last November, recently was asked how he would define a CBS-owned station. "If I had to sum it up in one word," he told Broadcasting & Cable's Michael Malone, "it would be 'equality.' " Sorry, Peter, that's not exactly the word that comes to mind.

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