In honor of sweeps month, the Department of Burnt Ends looked into a frightening phenomenon. Cue the scary music and the ominous-sounding voice-over: Why did our local newscasts run the same investigative stories during a two-week period? In a story you'll only see here, we go undercover with our own sting operation.
First, some background. During the week of January 28, KCTV Channel 5, Fox 4 News and KSHB Channel 41 aired nearly identical stories that involved hidden cameras in hotel rooms. Honestly, the Department of Burnt Ends didn't catch the Fox 4 version. (How much TV can we watch?) But the others both included tilted-camera-angle footage of housekeepers ignoring dirty drinking glasses planted by the stations, followed by science-wonk types talking about bacteria. (Channel 41 added regular people gasping dramatically at the thought of such disgustingness.)
It kind of looked as though somebody was copying someone else's sweeps-time sting. But according to Channel 41 News Director Rick Iler, the story about dirty hotel-room glasses first made its way through TV news circles nationwide early last year. The stations didn't know they were running identical stories until Channel 5 and Channel 41 started running promos, Iler figures.
But then came a shocking coincidence (cue more frightening music). During the 10 p.m. newscasts on February 7, both Channel 5 and Channel 41 broke out the pixelation machines for their "Hot Nubile Teachers" stories. Turns out, some local teachers had posted to MySpace scantily clad pictures of themselves partying it up. Didn't they think of the children? Thankfully, Channel 5's Ash-har Quraishi and Channel 41's Aaron Keller thought of the children — on the same night.
Iler claims that the Channel 5 version wasn't local; he guesses someone there saw Channel 41's promo, pulled a version of the story from an affiliate and had Quraishi record a voice-over. Iler says he didn't know Channel 5 was running a similar piece until the night before both stories aired. "Absolutely no idea," he says. "We happened to watch and saw it in their topical promotion. We were like, hmm. OK, that's interesting."
Naturally, we wanted to get Channel 5's side of the story, so we called News Director Tracy Brogden Miller. When we reached her the day after the MySpace story ran, she asked the angle of our story, then said she had to clear any interviews with the station. She never got back to us, so we left a message on her voice mail four days later. No response.
So we took a page from the Channel 5 playbook: We got a camera crew (OK, a staffer with a digital camera) and ambushed her at her office. Here's the timeline, with approximate times.
First Attempt: Valentine's Day
1:50 p.m.: We spend $13.51 at SunFresh for a mixed bouquet of flowers and a balloon to lure Miller to the station's front desk.
2:00:03: Position hidden camera behind the bouquet.
2:00:40: Approach Channel 5's front door.
2:00:43: Try to figure out whether we need to be buzzed in.
2:02:50: Walk through unlocked door.
2:03: V-Day trinkets elicit an "Oh, yay!" from a young woman.
2:03:45: Miller is paged; we find out she's in Des Moines.
Second Attempt: February 15, Bearing the Same Gifts
9:31:15 a.m.: Discover that the front door's locked.
9:31:25: Get buzzed in.
9:31:40: Inform receptionist that, no, we don't have an appointment, but we have a surprise for Miller.
9:32:09: The nice receptionist calls Miller: "She didn't ask [your names], and I didn't want to spoil the surprise," the receptionist says.
9:32:50: Miller approaches; we introduce ourselves as Pitch staffers and ask if she has a few seconds to talk. We offer her the presents. She looks wary. We ask, "How do you respond to allegations that you copied the MySpace story from KSHB?"
9:34:04: Miller gives us the hand. "This is uncool. That's really uncool. Uncool," she says as she flees back upstairs.
9:34:11: "I'm sorry, Tracy. I thought they knew you," the receptionist calls after her.
9:34:14: "No," Miller responds
9:34:20: "I'm sorry, I'm going to have to ask you folks to leave," the receptionist says.
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