"The TV Tabs’ New Tone" by Frank Houston, in Columbia Journalism Review (Jan.-Feb. 1996), 700 Journalism Bldg., Columbia University, New York, N.Y. 10027.
Something almost as strange as an Elvis sighting has been happening at TV’s sleazy "tabloid" news programs, reports Houston, an editor at Columbia Journalism Review. As a recent commercial for A Current Affair— showing a dump truck rumbling through a suburban neighborhood, then plunging off a cliff—explains, "We took out the trash."
Syndicated shows such as A Current Affair, American Journal, and Inside Edition have shifted their focus from gossip to investigative journalism, Houston says. While Hollywood gossip is still doled out by Extra and Entertainment Tonight, and Viacom’s top-rated Hard Copy is sticking with its entertainment-and-sensation recipe, the other TV tabloids have begun "digging up consumer fraud and rooting out political misdeeds with the same zeal they once applied to stories about topless donut shops and Joey Buttafuoco." A Current Affair, which is a decade old and the original TV tab, has lured a new anchor away from Dateline NBC, established a Washington bureau, hired 20 new investigative staff members, and (television being television) launched a $4 million marketing campaign to introduce its new look. King World’s Inside Edition, begun in 1988, always presented some investigative pieces, but in recent years it has had a lot more of them, and some—notably a series about a flaw in the rear-door latch of Chrysler minivans— have had an impact.
The shift to investigative reporting, Houston says, has to do with ratings and demographics. A Current Affair began remaking its image after finishing a distant third in the ratings race last year. The syndicated TV tabloids are seen by an estimated audience of more than 20 million people, but advertisers, who want to target affluent viewers likely to purchase their products, "are increasingly looking beyond pure ratings numbers." So—for the moment at least—the TV tabs have found "religion."
130 WQ Spring 1996