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We're not content any more to be amused by the news. We want solid news, solid facts, now. We want wisdom and judgment.

Titillation TV

I suppose what has irritated me most of all about broadcast news in the past two months is those cute little question-teasers, the quick blurbs that are designed to encourage us to stay tuned.

One that truly set my teeth on edge aired during a prime-time series last week: "Is another attack on the way?" And the announcer, her voice all aquiver with portentousness, promised that the details would be coming up soon.

Now, let's get real. Is that the kind of question any of us wants hanging in the air between our ears for 10 minutes, or 15, or 20? No. That's the kind of question we want an answer to right now, right this minute, right this very second. Broadcasters do us no service at all by asking and not answering. To be blunt, it borders on the irresponsible.

There was another one not 12 hours later during one of the network morning news shows. "Could the horror of September 11 have been averted?"

Granted, it wasn't as egregious as the first, but it's sadly indicative of the trend.

In addition to irritating the heck out of me, the first cute little teaser-question had the opposite effect from what was intended. The assistant associate producer — whatever — who wrote it thought I'd be glued to the channel while I waited for the answer. It didn't work. Instead, I flipped over to one of the all-news channels to see what was up. I didn't want to wait for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes. I figured if "another attack" was "on the way," I wanted to know about it sooner than "soon."

Cute little question-teaser No.2, the next morning, aggravated me because the interview that followed the commercial break didn't really answer the question. "Could the horror of September 11 have been averted?" Sure, I suppose it could have, some way, somehow. Anybody can offer an opinion on that. But even after watching the interview, I couldn't say I'd heard anything more than idle speculation, water-cooler stuff at best.

I know why they do it, and so do you. Because broadcast news is big bucks now. Whereas when Walter Cronkite was king of the airwaves and TV execs liked to brag about losing money on their news operations because it looked good at license-renewal time, nowadays the bottom line rules. Today, a TV exec who loses money on news soon loses his job. It's an if-it-bleeds-it-leads world, and respect for viewers' needs — not to mention their intelligence — was one of the early victims of the move from public service to the money trough.

And for what is probably the first time in the professional life of that associate assistant producer — whatever — we viewers do need television. In fact, we may need it now as we've never needed it before — not since the Greatest Generation gathered around their radios during World War II.

Too many broadcasters haven't figured that out yet. They're still playing the game by the rules that prevailed back in the '90s when we were all getting rich (or less poor) and the livin' was easy. They haven't kept up with the audience. We are watching now. In fact we're glued to our TVs and radios. And newscasters don't need to insult us with cute little teaser-questions in an attempt to hold our attention.

"Is another attack on the way?" They're scaring us, and we know they're doing it to make money. And that makes us mad. The world is too much with us nowadays, and there's no room for that kind of trifling, boy-who-cried-wolf foolishness.

The way I watch television and listen to the radio has changed dramatically since Sept. 11. Before, I listened to and watched specific programs.

Now, I keep a radio playing somewhere in my vicinity every hour I'm awake. I keep it on a station that plays music. If the music stops and voices start, I turn it up to see what's happening. I'm using radio as a Distant Early Warning System, to alert me.

When I watch TV, I flip to one of the all-news channels every time a commercial comes on. Again, I want to be sure I'm not missing something I need to know.

What I want from broadcasters now is reassurance, not alarmist teaser questions. "Is another attack on the way?" That's hardly comforting to hear, especially when the answer isn't forthcoming for another 10 or 15 or 20 minutes.

Colleagues and friends tell me that their viewing patterns have changed, too. Some have become news junkies, addicted to CNN or MSNBC or the Fox News Channel. Others have turned to comfort TV, like "Friends" and Nick at Night reruns. But, like me, they all say they're tired of watching broadcasters try to frighten us in order to keep us watching so they can sell us to advertisers. We're not content any more to be amused by the news, or to be talked to like children. We want solid news, solid facts, now. We want wisdom and judgment. We want reassurance and prudence. And we'll keep looking until we find it.

There's a funny thing about an industry that purports to want to amuse and inform us. They don't make any money unless we participate. Because what they're selling to advertisers is ... us.

And we're all about two months past titillation. We're not in any mood to go along with somebody who tries to jerk our chain and insult our intelligence.

The rules have changed, because we make the rules and we vote with our remotes.

Broadcasting has rarely taken a leadership role. TV execs are always a step behind us because they're trying to figure out what we want after we decide we want it, never before we decide we want it.

Getting ahead of the audience is too risky. Instead, broadcasters follow.

They'll probably catch up with us soon. Meanwhile, it sure is infuriating.

Don Dale is Style Weekly's television critic, and a former news director for WTVR TV-6 and American Forces Television, Germany, during the Vietnam War.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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