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Once given her headand the clout of rising ratingsChristenson cannot be stopped. She turns the news into a variety show, with a soothsayer and a gossip columnist and, for what she calls The Mao Tse-tung Hour, hires terrorists from the Ecumenical Liberation Army to rob banks and do other fun things for her cameras. Eventually, however, Beale becomes a bore and his ratings plummet. To save the show Christenson writes him out of the scriptpermanently: Her Mao Tse-tung terrorists calmly assassinate him on-camera.
Macabre Underlining. Half the TV world huffs and puffs and says such a takeover of TV news by the entertainment types cannot happen here. The other half says it not only can happen but often has. "People say there will never be such a show business approach to the news," declares George Schlatter. "But think back to the Symbionese Liberation Army Shootout in Los Angeles, where there was live camera coverage and a carnival atmosphere as a group of people were burning to death. Try to separate show business from broadcast journalism in that instance." In a macabre underlining of Schlatter's words, TV newsmen were already begging Utah prison officials last week to be allowed to film the execution of Convicted Killer Gary Gilmore. If prison authorities refuse, said a Salt Lake City TV man, seemingly desperate for blood, "we are considering using paragliders, long lenses, helicoptersmaybe even a dirigible."
NBC Correspondent Douglas Kiker thinks the walls separating the news and entertainment have not yet been breached, but he sees them coming under ever heavier attack. Says he: "Right now we try to put on as good a news show as possible, without any effort to titillate the viewers. But our monster in the closet is the programmers, the Diana Christensons of this world." Adds CBS's Morley Safer: "The movie is a fantasy, but there is really not much of a step from the 'happy talk' news many local stations put on to the crazy talk of Network.'"
Indeed, with few exceptions local TV news shows have fallen under the ratings spell. Instead of letting their newsmen judge what is news, the stations have hired consultants to tell them what kinds of stories they should cover, how long they should be, how they should be presented and even what the anchormen should wear. The result has either been the fun and games of the "happy news," where the anchorman jokes with the weatherman, or the sensationalism of what is known in the broadcasting business as "blood, guts and orgasms."
At WNBC in New York, says former Executive News Editor Stuart Loorynow managing editor at the Chicago Sun-Times"we watched all three monitors at night to see which station had the best fire footage and which had the best blood. If a man was stabbed in the subway and the cameraman was smart enough to track the blood, he got good marks." Five years ago, San Francisco's KGO, in its more sensationalist days, led off the news with the report that a human penis had been found in the Oakland railroad yards.