Dissecting 24 Hours of Detroit TV News

May 17, 2012, 6:46 AM

Metro Detroit TV stations produce about 24 hours of news programming every day. Yesterday, I ventured to watch as much of it as possible. Several newscasts overlap, but with the DVR’s help, I was able to watch at least some of virtually every one. It’s the kind of thing that makes one grateful for books.

The early shift

The day began at the uncivilized hour of 4:29 AM with Guy Gordon and WDIV’s earliest broadcast of the day.

Gordon leads off with a story about a deadly crash in Trenton. Good morning to you, as well. Things instantly took a perky turn as Gordon and Andrew Humphries talk about the super awesome weather. The third story? Oh, just that Warren Buffett bought 10 million shares of GM stock.

Not to start this thing on a rant, but I’m going to start this thing on a rant: How does a perfectly ordinary weather forecast get priority over Buffett’s GM stock play, which is easily the biggest local business story since GM went bankrupt?

I really, really don’t understand TV news viewers’ obsession with weather. It’s like that Zooey Deschanel iPhone commercial, look out a window if you want to know if it’s raining.

Anyway, over on Channel 7, they’re giving a rundown of off-beat national news stories: A Mississippi fake cop murderer, O.J. Simpson’s legal appeal, and accidently cheap gas in Wisconsin. Anchor Alicia Smith promises that at 6:20 AM, the Action News team will finally blow the lid off the controversial issue that few have, until know, addressed head on—sibling rivalries.

Time to check out Fox 2, and wow. I don’t know what just happened, two blond lady anchors are acting befuddled about Buffett’s stock play. They couldn’t figure out—not making this up—if the billionaire investor bought 10,000 or 10 million shares. We were dangerously close to: Oh, who knows? We’re just silly girls! Thinking about math and business might cause wrinkles. BTW, it is 10 million shares. Please make a note of it.

Andrea Isom then reports about a police officer injured in a hit-and-run accident to kick off the 5:00 AM ‘cast. It includes a montage of witnesses saying, “It was crazy.” Also, the gritty never-say-die neighbors bravely cleaned up debris after the accident. Nice to know Isom was able to spin a heartwarming ending for a story about a car thief injuring a cop. Go Detroit spirit!

From 5:00 AM – 7:00 AM all three stations (plus WWJ-TV) basically run the same playbook with traffic and weather every ten minutes. It’s kind of bizarre to actually watch because it’s not meant to be watched the way one normally watches the news. It’s really the all-news radio format for TV.

It would be easy to dismiss this as superficial and repetitive, but this format probably makes sense for people half-watching TV while getting ready for work.

That said, I can’t tell the difference between the traffic reporters. This is the worst thing I can confess. They all have blond hair and quintessentially flat Midwestern accents. A machine the TV stations keep hidden on the east side must manufacture them all.

Did you know WWJ-TV (channel 62) had local news? Honestly, I didn’t. Of course, I’m about 40 years younger than the average CBS viewer. The morning broadcast is entitled “First Forecast Mornings.” According to Comcast’s program guide, First Forecast Mornings offers “weather, traffic, and news.” Which it did. Weather first, traffic second, and then some news as a kind of after thought. Let us never speak of First Forecast Mornings ever again.

Top morning stories are a house explosion, Warren Buffett’s GM play, GM ditching Facebook, and Bob Bashara’s mother-in-law. I’m surprised the car thief injuring a Detroit cop isn’t getting more coverage, but maybe that was played out from the night before. Also, Al Allen was reporting from inclement weather.


WDIV and WXYZ wrap-up their morning news at 7:00 AM and turn things over to Today and Good Morning, America. Fox 2 goes all the way to noon. At 9:00 AM they change-up their format with “The Nine.”

Anchors Cam Cameron, Jason Carr, and Anqunette Jamison chat on a couch. We learned that Ryan Seacrest bought Ellen DeGeneres’ old Beverly Hills house for $49M. The anchors are debating the potential mortgage interest tax benefits on a spread like that. Someone must have brought a word-of-the-day calendar to the office because they’re tossing around the words gauche and vapid. They’re also discussing Paul Giamatti for some reason and Jamison said he was in the one “HBO documentary…Adams.” Oh my God, this is freaking brutal.

Carr came across as the Ron Swanson of local media with a bizarrely dry interview with Sasha Baron Cohen—how is that possible?—but he redeems himself by mocking Sister Sister Tia and/or Tamera Mowry’s book about pregnancy as a lame cash grab. This comment immediately followed Jamison’s interview with the c-lister.

I mean after how many years of human reproduction, I’m pretty sure expectant mothers don’t need a second-tier 1990s sitcom star to help them make babies.


At 11:00 AM Fox 2 goes back to the desk and does a traditional “noon” newscast. There were several weather segments, and a “Good Health” feature about buying sunscreen. They used b-roll that looks like it’s from 1987.

Hall of Shame! Rob Wolchek catches a shady real estate investor being shady. This guy convinces people looking to flip houses to flip cars to fund the house-flipping venture. Good rule of thumb: If you’ve never heard of someone making money with a given investment (say “investing” in used cars) then it’s probably a scam.

They also have security camera footage of a naked man doing things on someone’s car in Allen Park. #Kony2012!

And Jason Carr suggested a future project to Richard Linkater. This guy is out of control. I totally want to buy Jason Carr a beer and discuss arcane GenX pop culture.

WDIV and WXYZ still do their noon newscasts at noon.

WDIV apparently begins every newscast with a “Breaking News Alert.” It doesn’t even matter if news is actually breaking. This noon, it was a busted water main in Brownstown that, based on Fox 2’s reporting, happened a couple hours before noon. At 12:02 WDIV does their first of two weather segments in this half-hour ‘cast.

They also did a sunscreen story. Was there a memo on this?

Thanks to DVR technology, I watched WXYZ’s noon news after watching WDIV’s news. The problem with watching three midday newscasts in a row is the news starts to get repetitive.

Channel 7 waited until 12:04 before doing weather, but they did three weather segments in the hour newscast.

They also aired a Detroit 20/20 report about the impact of blighted property on the safety of Detroit schoolchildren. Detroit 20/20 is a fantastic series. If every TV newscast looked like the 20/20 series, well, one can dream. More Detroit 20/20, less weather.


WDIV kicks off the afternoon news with a 4:00 PM half-hour ‘cast (naturally) with a “Breaking News Alert.” This time it’s a non-fatal car/tanker crash in southwest Detroit. Funny thing how there’s always breaking news just as Channel 4 newscasts are about to go on the air. By “just as” I mean several hours earlier. Steve Garagiola, reporting from the scene, said this “breaking news” took place two hours earlier.

Channel 4’s 5:00 PM also began with a “Breaking News Alert.” Police arrested the alleged murderer of an 84-year-old church security guard. Technically, according to Carmen Harlen, the arrest took place “hours ago.”

You know what they did at 6:00? Yeah. Breaking News! Marvin Winans was carjacked in Detroit. Harlan says they “first reported” this “breaking news” during the 5:00 cast. This is true. And WXYZ had the story at 5:15.

The way the anchors and reporters constantly acknowledge a story isn’t actually breaking in the conventional sense seems like their way of telling viewers: “We know it’s marketing bullshit too.”

During the 5:00 news, Devin Scillian reported on the emergency manager petition case. If Brian Williams were to abandon 30 Rock for a Tibetan spiritual quest, you could drop Scillian at that NBC News desk and the franchise wouldn’t miss a beat. The same could be said about former WDIVer Emery King.

That’s enough sunshine pumping for right now, let’s see what’s on 2 and 7.

As I said, WXYZ had the Marvin Winans story first. Tom Waits did a live interview with the pastor at the gas station where the carjacking went down. That’s how you do breaking news.

Then Carolyn Clifford covers yesterday’s “God told us to come to Detroit and open a coffee shop” viral video thing. Hi Curbed Detroit! Clifford wants you to know these kids are “passionate” so, you know, cut them some slack about calling Detroit a slum. Maybe everyone should read Philip Caputo’s novel “Acts of Faith.” It’s about what happens when good intentions go awry.

WHOA! Diana Lewis says Joey Lawrence is going to be a Chip’n’Dale. Talk about three proper nouns I never want to hear in the same sentence. Let’s check out Fox 2.

LeDuff! Yes, please. He’s covering the emergency manager petition controversy. Al Garrett says the petition font size was, in fact, 14 point. Now they’re forward promoting before a break: Jersey Shore, a groom who may have killed his new bride, and weather.

Mercifully, LeDuff returns for the 6:00 ‘cast. While wearing some bitching Wayfarer’s, LeDuff busts apart Bob Ficano story about his Livonia house’s deed. Say what you will about the guy, but he knows how to cover a farce as a farce.

Lest you think otherwise, the afternoon ‘casts also contained too many weather segments to count and plenty of crashes and crime. Also forward promotion. A lot of time in every newscast is devoted to promoting what’s ahead on the next one. It’s like at some undetermined point in the future, there will be this magical, perfect newscast. Stay tuned…

Late Night

The evening line-up began with WADL’s 9:00 News. It’s the first time I’ve ever watch WADL’s news. Usually, I tune into WADL for Rockford Files reruns, infomercials, and the unintentional comedy that is Creflo Dollar.

My first impression is I’m not sure why anyone should watch WADL news. It has some superficial national news that’s not as good as a network newscast and some superficial local news that’s not as good as the traditional stations. They aren’t trying to appeal to any particular niche demographic either. This is as plain vanilla as it gets.

Don’t get me wrong; they’re covering legitimate news. The on-air talent does a good job. But it’s underproduced and unfocused. This feels like a very small market or student newscast.

Channel 20 has a 10:00 newscast that (sigh) begins with a weather forecast. Begins! Are Detroit viewers really storming the ramparts for more meteorological data? Sonny Eliot, the greatest weatherman in TV history, managed to deliver both the weather and a nightclub act and he did it at an appropriate point in a broadcast. When would Sonny forecast? WWSF. That’s all I’m saying.

TV 20 redeemed themselves with a fantastic story about an ex-Metro Airport air traffic controller who claims he was unfairly blamed for near-midair collision because he’s a whistleblower. It may be the most original and best-reported enterprise story of the day.

Over on Fox 2, they lead off with the Winans carjacking. Ron Savage calls the incidenet “most unholy.” Would it be more holy if carjackers assaulted and robbed a mere layman? Maybe, considering Fox 2 spent almost five minutes on this story.

They also have a story about Detroit’s EMS union basically telling their members to look for better jobs because Detroit is hopeless.

Otherwise, this is more than the same and weather. In fairness, repetition probably isn’t an issue for most viewers because they didn’t spend the entire day watching as much local news as possible. Still, this newscast could use more Charlies—Langton and LeDuff. If I ever do this again, I’m scheduling it around Let It Rip’s schedule.

At 11:00, WDIV leads off the Winans but they had the good sense to not pretend it’s a “Breaking News” story this time. Small victories.

Mara McDonald reports that two Wayne County Sheriff’s deputies have been pressured to take a leave of absence because they’re running against Sheriff Benny Napoleon. He and Ficano pass the buck as to who is responsible for that shady bit of electoral arm-twisting.

Kevin Dietz is totally buying tipster “Bob” Oakland County Child Killer story. Or, wait, no. He kind of buried the lede. I think he, like everyone else, thinks “Bob” is full of it. WXYZ’s Heather Catalo did a nice job earlier in the evening breaking down the whole canard. Bob says the killings were part of some kind of satanic cult. Hi, 1987 called and it wants its baseless hysteria back.

Hopefully, Dietz can get back to strippers on golf course stories. Those were always awesome.

At this point, my brain is shutting off during weather segments and after 19 hours of television, I’m in no place to deal with tonight’s Tiger game. I think this is what Hunter S. Thompson was talking about when he talked about The Fear. Really, Ryan Raburn, really? Good God, man, you can’t throw from second to first? Help us, Ramon Santiago. You’re our only hope.

Anyway, after finishing with WDIV’s 11:00 News, I plan to wrap up this noble experiment with WXYZ’s late ‘cast on the DVR. Sadly, DVRs only work if you program them. So, I’ve failed you dear readers. My own dumb human error prevented me from watching as much local news as was technically possible. Sad.

But at least it’s over. Frankly, I’m not sure how much more of this I could take. Local TV news spends a lot of time on murder and mayhem. That’s going to have an impact, psychologically.

If TV is someone’s primary news source, then they might think people are always lurking around every corner to rob them or crash into their car with a semi or pilfer their bank account with some diabolical scam. Yet, any rational person knows the world isn’t quite so treacherous. At least, it isn’t for most American TV viewers. 

Paradoxically, it’s surprising how much first-rate reporting was buried in the midst of bleeds/ledes coverage and marathon weather forecasts. Sometimes it’s easy to miss substance when you’re distracted by “Breaking News Alerts” about non-fatal tanker crashes that actually happened several hours earlier. Paddy Chayefsky was ahead of his time and all of that.

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