March 411, 1999
NBC-10 anchor Larry Mendte knows what you think about local television news. And he's one of the few in the industry who cares enough to want to change your mind.
By Frank Lewis
Dozens of spotlights glare down on the shiny, almost disconcertingly colorful set, creating an otherworldly glow. Larry Mendte, his face caked in pinkish makeup, fidgets slightly in his anchor chair as if bored from sitting so long, and talks about ratings.
Any minute now, he and co-anchor Renee Chenault and weatherman John Bolaris will tape the brief promos that will appear throughout the night's episodes of Friends, Frasier and ER. Mendte fills the wait by crowing about the previous night's numbers, which put the station's 11 o'clock broadcast tantalizingly close to eternal ratings leader WPVI (Channel 6). Mendte grills weatherman John Bolarisgood-naturedlyabout the forecast. Even a little snow, he muses, on a night with a new, heavily hyped episode of ER, could put channel 10 ahead of archrival Action News for the night.
"I can't believe with all that equipment," Mendte says, "that you can't make some snow."
"No snow!" says Chenault, holding up her hand. "My parents are flying out tonight."
"No snow?" Mendte snaps, feigning disbelief. "Where are your priorities?"
The critics of news broadcasts such as NBC-10's are legion, and most probably would point to this little scene as evidence that their many complaints are dead-on. News teams are obsessed with ratings and weather, they'd say. The on-air personalities are little more than models who can read quickly without shifting their eyes, and have no more business calling themselves journalists than the gossip-mongers on E!. Style matters more than substanceif substance matters at all.
And in Philadelphia, Larry Mendte seems to be the critics' favorite whipping boy. Never mind that reporting for a glitzy national tabloid-style show comprised just a tiny fraction of his 22-year career; some may always remember himand dismiss himas that guy from Access Hollywood.
It probably doesn't help that NBC-10 often is the trendsetter in the Philly market, importing many of the bells and whistles that have injected life, in the form of higher ratings, into news shows elsewhere in the nation. Los Angeles stations may have been the first to interrupt network programming for every little traffic tie-up and warehouse fire, but NBC-10 learned fast.
And we won't even discuss the naming of storms. At least not yet.
Mendte's heard it all. He not only reads the daily newspapers' TV columns, which at times have skewered him and his show unmercifully, he calls the writers to discuss what they've reported. He checks in regularly on the phl.media newsgroup, and the station's own online bulletin board (at nbc10.com) to see what viewers are saying about the station, about recent broadcasts, about him. Most of the time, it's not pretty. But when the criticisms are even remotely constructive, he responds.
This is not typical in the television news industry, which generally has become remarkably warysome might say hypocritically soof scrutiny. KYW TV-3 opted to "pass" on City Paper's request to interview reporters, the news director, anyone from the news department, and WPVI didn't even respond. (Channel 6 reporter David Henry's remarks to Gail Shister of the Inquirer were the talk of the NBC-10 newsroom on Feb. 11. Henry had accused Channel 10 of stealing story ideas from Channel 6's promo spots, but the NBC-10 staff was more shocked that anyone from Channel 6 had spoken to the press about anything.)
NBC-10's publicist seemed ready to nix City Paper's proposal to interview Mendte, until the anchorman himself apparently wore her down.
Mendte says he has nothing to hide, certainly nothing to be ashamed of. He has spent a great deal of time thinking about his business, and the complaints from everyone from academics to print journalists to couch potatoes who seem to watch just to have something to bitch about. Ask a single question and he's off, musing about refuting and quoting one of his influences, electronic media guru/philosopher Marshall McLuhan.
"I've never even thought twice about it," he says of stepping into the arena with those who see his business as fundamentally flawed, at best. "A lot of times I just don't think people understand how television news works. And so I feel like I'm performing a public service."
McLuhan, he says, described television as the first invention that was an extension of our tactile senses, and therefore of our hearts. The print media, according to McLuhan, are extensions of our minds.
"So it's the classic conflict between the heart and the mind," Mendte says. "And we're that different. We do the same thing, in a way, but we're that different." It's a shame, he adds, that critics of television just don't understand that.
And so the successful broadcast journalist who once wanted to be an attorney finally gets his chance to practice law, after a fashion, in the court of public opinion. For the defense, Larry Mendte.
"The medium is the message."
Marilyn Mendte, Larry's sister and a teacher in Darby, wrote in her doctoral thesis that all children know intuitively, though perhaps not consciously, what they want to be when they grow up. He claims not to remember it, but Mendte says his sister tells him that as a boy, he used to wander off in department stores just to hear his name called out over the public address system.
The Lansdowne native got into broadcasting while attending West Chester State, interning and later working part-time for radio station WFIL.
photo: Sandor Welsh
Like most broadcast journalists, his career has been marked by frequent moves. He worked at his first television job, in Eureka, CA, so briefly that at his going-away party, co-workers hung a banner that read, "Thanks for stopping by." His goal always was to return to the Philadelphia area, and he worked at two stations in western Pennsylvania.
In Chicago, he finally hit his stride. His investigative reports for WBBM earned him numerous local Emmys over four years (he's won about 25 total, including in New York and San Diego). A series on Illinois' failure to check the backgrounds on school bus drivers led to a change in state law, and a copy of the legislation and the pen the governor used to sign it still hang on the wall in his home.
Then he made the move he may never live down. Access Hollywood, an Entertainment Tonight-style celebrity watch, offered him "a lot of money to hang out with stars," he admits with a shrug. He left in less than a year, but he might as well have created the show for all the good his premature departure did him.
"[W]CAU taps tabloid guy to lift late-news ratings," announced the Daily News. And TV writer Ellen Gray managed to take a shot at NBC-10 even while suggesting that the addition was a good one: "Viewers may have noticed that 'CAU's newscast, in its never-ending struggle to close its 11 p.m. ratings gap with local leader WPVI (Channel 6), has lately adopted some of the glitzy production techniques of the syndicated tabloid shows."
Former NBC-10 news director Steve Doerr, who hired Mendte, says the sniping about Mendte's brief flirtation with the supposed dark side of journalism is a perfect example of the biases most critics of TV newsparticularly print reportersbring to the discussion.
"He worked his way up from radio to television, became one of the most respected investigative reporters in the business, spent nine months at Access Hollywood, and when he came back to his home town that's all anyone wrote about," fumes Doerr, now a vice president at NBC. "It's difficult for me to understand Larry is a hell of a reporter. He gets it right."
"Mud sometimes gives the illusion of depth."
Skilled though he may be, it is Mendte and the rest of the crew at NBC-10 who seem to give TV news critics in Philadelphia the most ammunition. Take a recent Friday night. At about 9:40, NBC-10 interrupted Datelineapparently for the second time, judging from anchors Mendte and Chenault's remarksto air live footage of the Allentown-area chemical plant that had exploded earlier in the evening. This was a big story, granted, but there seemed to be little reason not to wait for the 11 o'clock broadcastexcept, perhaps, the chance to brag later that "you saw it here first."
Then, just minutes after Dateline resumed, viewers saw Mendte again, this time reading a routine, end-of-commercial-break teaser: "A pill that promises bigger breasts. News 10 at 11."
"Channel 10 probably gets criticized most often because they tend to be leading the charge toward [gimmicks and hype]," says the Daily News' Gray, who last year sarcastically suggested that NBC-10 "admit to themselves, and to us, that whatever it is that goes on for a half-hour each night between NBC's prime-time lineup and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, it ain't news."
But these criticisms aren't unique to Philadelphia.
"In a general sense, [local television news teams] could and should be doing a better jobI don't think anybody would argue with that," says Walter Dean, associate director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism in Washington, D.C., and a veteran of local and network broadcast operations.
"I think too many broadcast journalists are going through the motions because their news organization does not have a good sense of what they want to be, other than successful," Dean continues. "They tend to be the victims of events, running from one place to another; the common term is 'parachuting in.'
"It's gone on long enough that it all looks the same and it all just sort of washes over people. And when everything on the air looks the same and is done the same way, you do have to make a lot of noise to get viewers. And that's the problem."
Others are far more harsh, going so far as to blame television news for contributing to the chaos and conflict it so often covers. The Denver-based Rocky Mountain Media Watch uses the "Mayhem Index" to quantify the coverage of crimes, accidents, disasters and other tragic occurrences, which the group says dominate local news broadcasts. In a report released last summer, RMMW claimed that "a host of significant symptoms have been attributed to distorted TV news, including viewer alienation, cynicism, violent behavior (including copycat crimes), intimidation, passivity, ignorance, racial polarization and disempowerment.
"Together these constitute a toxic stew of pervasive negative influences in our culture."
Earlier this year, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ)a joint venture between the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and The Pew Charitable Trustsreleased "Local TV News: What Works, What Flops, and Why." While less alarmist than RMMW's statements, PEJ's report hits many of the same somber notes.
"The general picture of local TV news is superficial and reactivejournalism on the run," the authors write. (They studied 61 stations in 20 markets, not including Philadelphia). "Almost half (46 percent) of all stories were about commonplace events. Less than 10 percent originated from ideas in the newsroom. Of stories involving controversy, many (43 percent) gave only one side." Another nugget worth noting: Stations in major markets tended to score lower for quality than stations in smaller markets.
But the researchers also found signs of hopeand challenged a few widely held beliefs in the process.
The most significant finding was that quality sells. "The study soundly refutes the conventional wisdom that audiences will punish stations for producing quality local news," the report states. "The best stations as defined by local news professionals in the study were more likely to succeed commercially than fail."
Indeed, 60 percent of the stations judged by the researchers to be covering their communities well were rising in the ratings.
"The stations least likely to be rising in ratings were those in the middle, which were often hybridspart tabloid and part serious. This suggests that audiences are not schizophrenicthey are segmenting. There is a group that embraces news full of revelation, scandal and celebrity. There is another group that prefers a more sober, information-based approach."
Hmm so which group is pushing NBC-10 slowly but steadily closer to seemingly invincible Channel 6?
"When a thing is current, it creates a currency."
"CAU is naming snowstorms!"
This post in the phl.media newsgroup in early January prompted numerous responses, most of which poked fun at the intensity of weather coverage in generaland NBC-10's in particular.
"To follow their practice to the next logical step," wrote one poster, "WCAU should start naming the minor snowstorms, such as the one-inch dusting that's expected later this week. May I suggest appropriate names such as Junior, Midge, Dinky and Pee Wee. For even smaller snow 'events,' why not name each flake after signers of the Declaration of Independence, or more appropriately, participants in the Tom Capano trial Sorry, I have to go run now and buy a four-wheel drive utility vehicle and buy a skid of rock salt."
Mendte smiles when asked about his station's seeming obsession with precipitation. And wind. And heat. And the lack of them when one or more was expected.
"The feeling is, everybody cares about the weather, everybody's affected by the weather," he explains matter-of-factly. "There's numbers on this, and I might misquote, but it's close: When they ask people why they watch local news, 85 percent say it's because of the weather."
OK, but come onEarthwatch? Four updates in a single hour (during the 4 o'clock broadcast on Feb. 11)? Five meteorologists?
"There's not an obsession with weather," he insists. "John [Bolaris] will be the first one to tell you, when there's nothing going on, his time is cut."
And Mendte's not alone in defending what many view as weather hype. Dean, of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, calls weather reporting "an absolute natural for television, maybe the best thing they've done in the last 25 years."
"CBS [where Dean worked before joining the Pew Center] became the El Niño network," he recalls. "We did a lot with El Niño. And I found [the amount of coverage] kind of hard to argue against. It was a big story. It touched virtually everyone, with all kinds of implications."
The Project for Excellence in Journalism's report noted that stations that scored the highest for quality in its survey ran the highest percentages of stories "in which the facts were not disputablesuch as weather or traffic "
But does weather deserve the attention it gets?
"If you're putting all of your resources into weather, that's another matter," says Dean. But if a station has positioned itself as the weather authority, it had better deliver. A meteorologist at 6 and 11 Monday through Friday isn't enoughyou need folks with degrees for mornings and weekends as well.
Doerr, the former NBC-10 news director, questions whether perception jibes with reality. "Are they covering [weather] at the expense of other things, or are they promoting weather at the expense of other things?" he asks. "The people who do [station] promotions have a very different mission" than the news department's, he explains. "And a lot of critics tend to confuse promotions and product.
"What I always hear from [newspaper] reporters is, 'Hey, I didn't write the headline,'" he adds. "Well, the [station's] news department didn't come up with the promotion."
And whether it's the coverage or the promotion of the coverage, people are watching. Channel 6 remains the ratings king, defying even its network's sagging numbers, but NBC-10 has made some progress. In November, the station proudly boasted that viewership of News 10 at 11 was up 13 percent, while Channel 6's audience had shrunk by 21 percent. First at 4 rose steadily after its launch in September 1997, though the incomplete data for February 1999 show a slight slip. Mendte and Chenault co-anchor both shows.
"I may be wrong, but I'm never in doubt."
We are the most aggressive station in town," Mendte wrote in January in the phl.media newsgroup, at the end of yet another defense of the station's style. "The first to try new things. So, it just follows we'll take criticism. Stay with us though, we'll be fun to watch."
But should the news be fun? Mendte points out that questions like that are loaded, and imply that news must be prepared and packaged one way, regardless of the medium. Critics of television news want it to be more like newspapers and dismiss the obvious differences. So what critics see as an emphasis on style over substance, Mendte sees as the realities of disseminating information through a primarily visual medium.
"I'm proud of what I do," he says, "and I think sometimes people get upset because they feel we're the bastard sons, the mutations of journalism. I don't think we are. I think we provide a service, and I think we work hand in hand with print journalism, and radio as well. Because what we can do is show you, live, or show you after the fact, the things we're talking about And then you can go to the newspaper or the magazine and read more about it.
"You have rolls and rolls of paper. We don't have that. We have limitations of time so we can never be what you can be. But then again, you can never be what we can be."
Take that television news staple, dramatic footageimages so shocking, amusing or otherwise compelling that they justify their own use, whether or not the event has any bearing on the viewers' lives. "Does something become more newsworthy because it was caught on tape?" Mendte asks. "Yeah, it does."
"TV news is like a baseball pitcherit comes at you one story at a time," says Doerr. Viewers can't skip past reports that don't interest thembut they can turn the station. Therefore, it's imperative for television news reports to offer information with broad appeal, and to favor what the medium does well over what it does not.
The result is product that generally offers less depth than the print media. Whether that makes it less valuable is a matter of opinion.
"I have people here who are just as good journalists as people working at major metropolitan newspapers," says Richard Scott, news director at WPHL-17. "But the fact of the matter is I have a half-hour to tell people what happened in their world today. That doesn't mean the stories we do aren't journalistically sound. It just means there isn't as much detail as there would be in a two-page article."
And for that reason, Scott adds, "A single newscast shouldn't be your only source of information. You should be reading newspapers too."
"It would be nice [if the broadcast and print media] could work hand in hand, but that never seems to be the case," Mendte notes. "It seems like [print] journalism and broadcast journalism are always at odds, and I never quite understood that."
Part of the reason, he says, could be a dose of elitism. Look at newspaper television critics, he says: "They're the only critics that have a built-in disdain for what they criticize. Art critics love art, movie critics love movies, book critics love books. Television critics, almost as a prerequisite, hate what they're supposed to be telling you about. And they let it be known all the time."
Mendte says a local television critic (he won't say who) admitted as much to him, complaining that he or she is supposed to cover local TV news but "just can't stand it."
Daily News TV critic Gray has heard Mendte's contentions before, from the source. She says she loves televisionwhen it lives up to its potential. Local television news, however, deserves the abuse it takes: "I think it's widely criticized because it's really bad most of the time."
"It's no fun picking on people over and over again," she adds. "But I'm yet to be wowed."
Still, Mendte's theory about an anti-TV bias among at least some print reporters may not be so far-fetched. In a 1992 Inquirer op-ed piece, author and University of Pennsylvania professor Phyllis Kaniss accused print journalists of contributing to television news' shortcomings.
"Broadcast reporters often have so little time to put together stories that their idea of a briefing is to go up to their newspaper counterparts and ask what's happening," Kaniss wrote. "Every now and then, television news breaks out of this mold and the stations invest the time and resources for reporters to do the kind of leg work that actually leads to important revelations.
"Trouble is, when a genuine investigative breakthrough is offered up by television news, it is virtually ignored by the other media." And those scoops that aren't ignored are missed altogether, because so many print reporters and editors don't even pay attention to TV news: "Often the newspapers don't even know when the people they've been dismissing as lightweights have beat them to a story."
As a result, Kaniss adds, television reporters and producers who want to cover tougher stories have yet another obstacle to overcome when fighting for more resources. Quality reporting takes more timefor research as well as airtimeand therefore costs more. And if a lengthy investigation makes no real impact because the subject feels confident in ignoring the single voice that is one station's report, it gives those who control the station's purse strings another reason to ask, What's the point?
"The answers are always inside the problem, not outside."
We'd like to think our existence is driven purely by journalistic desires," notes Scott. "But the fact of the matter is, TV stations exist to make money."
"Without a doubt, there is pressure" to make the news broadcast a profitable part of the programming, says Roger LaMay, general manager of Fox-29 and former news director of its generally well-regarded 10 o'clock show. "The fact is that every incremental gain in audience share is worth a lot of money."
Ratings are the lifeblood and bane of every for-profit broadcaster.
As a news show's ratings rise, so too does the cost of advertising on that show. And unlike the situation with network programming and its predominantly national advertisers, the local stations sell airtime on their news shows themselves, and pocket the revenue.
The trick, then, is to produce a news show that is journalistically sound, but not boring; informative, but not hard to digest; deep enough to appeal to those who want to dive in, but shallow enough not to scare away those who can't swim.
Newspapers face the same dilemma, but to a lesser degree. Newspapers can cover, say, the weather, without forcing those who couldn't care less about yesterday's temperature to sit through the report. Television stations must shift directions constantly, as if trying to keep the attention of an easily distracted child, for 30 or 60 minutes at a time.
And at no time does the balance become more precarious than during the three sweeps monthsMay, November and February; these periods define ratings leadership, and therefore ad revenue, for the next several months. So just as the networks hype the hell out of the prime-time shows, local TV news outfits try every trick in the book to win the attention of even just one more of the 480 or so households in the Philadelphia market whose televisions are rigged with Nielsen ratings service monitors.
The ratings king for a generation, Channel 6 has the luxury of changing its format slowly, if at all. (It's not because of cheapness that the station has kept the same aggressively low-tech, kindergarten like weather map. Familiarity is priceless in broadcasting.) Elsewhere, however, the experimentation never ends.
In addition to hyping its weather coverage, NBC-10 has gone to great lengths to make its on-air staff more than just reporters. Co-anchor Renee Chenault's report on her own artificial insemination is a perfect example. Doerr, who was news director at the timeand, incidentally, is the baby's godfathersays this controversial and widely criticized story came about in part because Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky had gotten wind of Chenault's decision, and the station didn't want viewers getting their information about one of its highest-profile members from other sources. Especially not newspapers.
Still, the incident illustrates just how important viewers' feelings about the on-air talent are.
Whether by coincidence or design, Mendte has largely been left out of such efforts. He has, however, put himself into the stories he reports on occasion, such as last week's report on sleep deprivation. Mendte stayed awake for 54 hoursthe report was replete with shots of him yawning, rubbing his eyes and grinning drunkenly as he went about his daily routinethen took a driving test. He hit the cones every time.
Mendte takes exception to the suggestion that it was a sweeps stunt. The story focused on the perils of driving while sleep-deprived, he notes, and the plan is to follow it up soon with a report about the fact that drowsy driverswho are no less dangerous than drunk driversare rarely taken off the roads by police.
"It was just the time factor," he says, explaining why that angle wasn't part of the original report. "And that's OK, as long as we do the follow-up."
Besides, he asks, what's wrong with finding an offbeat way to deliver information? "My father was a great storyteller," he says, "and he always said, 'Your number one responsibility [as a storyteller] is to keep your audience's attention' And as long as you make an important point at the end, I don't have a problem with" inserting the reporter into the story.
"As a journalist, you kind of say, Oh my God, I hate that stuff," says Channel 17's Scott. "But you've got to get people to watch I don't have my anchorman stay awake to see how well he drives a car. But maybe that's why my audience isn't growing as fast as I'd like."
Doerr admits that stations judge their news in part based on the ratings their shows earn, but says it's simplistic to suggest that ratings matter and quality does not.
"News directors are and should be judged by a lot of things, ratings included," he says. "Ratings are important." But so is credibility. For more advertisers, a large audience isn't enough; they want audiences comprised largely of the folks most likely to buy their products and services. Those who want substantive news shows are more likely than those who watch, say, The Jerry Springer Show, to have homes and cars and kids and disposable income (or at least credit cards).
So ultimately, it's the viewers who determine what their local television news reports will give them. The ratings don't lie. And if the numbers say that NBC-10's viewership is rising, then the station must be giving significant numbers of people what they want.
Walter Dean, of the Pew Center, says viewers have far more power to effect change in broadcasting than they realize.
"[Viewers] shouldn't wait to be called by a ratings service," he says. "The only thing that has more importance than a ratings book is when 300 or 400 viewers call [a station] to say something was a good piece of journalism."
If that happened more often, new directors would have "more ammunition" when arguing for more reporters, more crews, more of whatever they need to be more thorough. "They need some ammunition besides ratings," Dean says, "and too often the only people they hear from are the media critics at the newspapers, and they have their own axes to grind."
That is not to say there isn't room for improvement. Doerr says television journalists should work harder to find ways to present important issues that don't lend themselves to compelling images. LaMay would like to see less obsession over the competition for ratings, and more willingness "to impose, to a certain extent, what we believe people need to know."
Mendte just wants more time. During the day, and on the air.
"The real problem is that news holes are getting bigger" as stations add more news shows throughout the day, he says. (The pressure to expand could increase, if two planned 24-hour local news stations become realityone on low-power Center City station WOCB Channel 7, which would be run by a group that includes attorney Richard Glanton; the other in South Jersey.) "And the staffs aren't really growing, and they're stretched too thin. So just covering the news of the day starts to be a burden."
Borrowing a line from sports reporter Al Meltzer, Mendte says, "All my life, all I wanted was 15 more seconds."
That, and a little recognition when his station does something worthwhile. NBC-10 has added an investigative unit, he says, and a Sunday morning issues show (Live@Issue, hosted by Mendte), and yet all the critics ever want to talk about is the style, not the substance.
"So I'll just keep banging the drum," he says, "and maybe somebody will notice that we're doing the best newscast in town."