I love November. The summer heat relents. Daylight shortens. Leaves turn (not here, but somewhere). Football season heads toward its climax. The weeks of vacation I've hoarded lie just around the corner.
But that's not all. November offers an almost perverse thrill for watchers of local television news. It's sweeps month, the period during which advertising rates are set based on viewer numbers. So, more than any other time of year, local TV news stations pull out all the stops to grab your attention.
We get investigations into local polticos, dire warnings about sex offenders, stories about bad drivers and poisonous bugs, tales of non-profit chicanery, scads of criminals doing naughty things, more sex offenders and endless earnest voices urging you, imploring you, practically freakin' begging you to watch the news because your kids are in danger!
The channels trot out their investigative reporters and tag their stories as "exclusive" investigations (even when they're not, as Local 6 did in 2003 when it ripped off a story I wrote about Orkin Pest Control and claimed it as their own not that I'm bitter or anything). You get "The Problem Solvers," "The I-Team" and "Action 9" in full blossom. You get stills of broadcast journalists posing aggressively, sleeves rolled up, to convey the idea that they are not about to take any shit from some lowlife who refuses to pay his parking tickets. No way, bub, not in November.
Sometimes, the stories are legitimate, even important; other times, they're silly ratings stunts. Either way, they're universally over-hyped. And I love every minute of it.
What follows is my own personal collection of the best and worst moments of November 2005 sweeps in the Orlando market. I tried to be comprehensive, but since my boss refused to spring for Tivo, there's a chance I overlooked something. What I missed on TV, I took from the transcripts and online versions of the reports the stations put on their Internet sites. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
These are the stories that made a difference, or at least required some real reporting. There's some sensationalism here, but you can let that slide when there's substance behind the style.
WKMG-TV Local 6, Nov. 5
Tony Pipitone investigated whether state Rep. Ralph Poppell had improperly steered hundreds of thousands of dollars toward a company he owns. Apparently, Poppell the state's wealthiest lawmaker used his influence to convince the Fish and Wildlife Commission to give his company a $300,000 contract that seemed headed for a competitor before Poppell intervened. And the lawmaker seems to have no problem voting on bills that might help his own pocketbook, according to Pipitone's report. This is good journalism, people.
WESH-TV, Channel 2, Nov. 9
Everyone knows that FEMA is a mess, but Channel 2 still did an excellent report explaining how the agency doled out $25 million in housing assistance to counties that were hardly touched by last year's hurricanes. FEMA wouldn't answer questions about who it gave the money to specifically, saying only that 5,000 of the 15,000 residents of Marion County who asked for money got it. Meanwhile, Channel 2 spoke to hurricane victims who got little or no help from FEMA.
WFTV Channel 9, Nov. 11
It's common knowledge that Eatonville Mayor Anthony Grant is, shall we say, ethically challenged. Still, Channel 9 did a nice job dissecting some of his financial dealings and code enforcement problems. The mayor, true to form, blamed everyone else for his problems. Well-reported? Yes. Groundbreaking? No.
WFTV Channel 9, Nov. 14
This investigation found that some of Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary's secretaries make more than his deputies, even though he's always complaining that the county doesn't give him enough money to put more cops on the street. Not that Beary will change anything. Ever. TV has a way of making these stories seem just a little more outrageous than they really are.
WKMG-TV Local 6, Nov. 17
Another get on Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary, this time courtesy of the Problem Solvers. Herein, Tony Pipitone found that Florida Metropolitan University was paying Beary $200 a class to teach twice-weekly criminal-justice courses. But Beary didn't always show up, and often sent underlings to take his place. Beary said he paid the folks who actually did the teaching; the underlings themselves said otherwise. Pipitone interviewed two guys from the sheriff's PR team, both incredibly loyal. One said that Beary offered to pay him but he refused; the other said first that Beary never paid him, and then after consulting the boss that Beary paid him $50. As Pipitone pointed out, this is just the latest in a series of ethical gaffes for the Orange County sheriff.
WESH-TV Channel 2, Nov. 29
Stories about scumbag cops are truly evergreen. This one was no different. Herein, two deputies in Lake County accidentally left a profanity-laced voicemail on a woman's phone; accidentally, because they called her and she didn't answer, but the duo didn't realize that their subsequent conversation regarding a possible restraining order against her was caught on tape. The cops talked about trying to get her with an injunction, but seemed upset that it wouldn't be criminal. Then they talked about hitting her male friend up with an obstruction of justice charge because he called to let her know they were coming, even though they knew the charge wouldn't stick. "You may BLEEP beat the rap but you ain't going to beat the ride," one of the cops proclaimed. (This was, of course, edited for TV.) "The ride's all the fun. So, I mean, BLEEP him." Ladies and gentlemen, Lake County's finest.
WKMG-TV Local 6, Nov. 30
I'm loathe to include any story about sex offenders among my best because this topic invites scare tactics of the worst order, usually designed to frighten the crap out of overprotective parents. But this story was different. It focused on the Florida Department of Children and Families ineptitude. Again, not really news, but evergreen.
Local 6 busted the DCF for allowing a family to adopt children even though previous foster kids were removed from the home because of alleged mistreatment. The adoptive father was allegedly into kiddie porn, and within a year of the last adoption he was charged with 70 counts of sexual battery on a child. Previously, DCF had yanked his foster license because he allegedly locked a young girl in a room and forced her to pee on the carpet as some sort of weird punishment. Thus, DCF staffers weren't keen on allowing this guy to adopt, but their bosses overruled them. Now he's in jail and the kids have been removed.
And here we have the obvious rating stunts, stories that really aren't stories, despite the somber voiceover on the promos.
WFTV Channel 9, Nov. 7
This one got conservatives riled up. Channel 9 ran a story on the fact that one in 40 Central Floridians has a concealed weapons permit, the sweeps-errific point being that anywhere you go, someone's packing and is probably itching to put a cap in your ass. To balance things out, the story did interview some gun owners, all of whom said that the prevalence of hidden weapons was a good thing. A pointless story, but fine, whatever.
Then Channel 9 put a database of everyone with gun permits on its website. That database is public record, but that didn't stop right-wing radio host Bud Hedinger from going apoplectic and demanding that Channel 9 take the database down, which it did. So you've got a wussy stance taken by the station on a pointless story, and that adds up to garbage in my book.
WKMG-TV Local 6, Nov. 10
The lamest story I saw all month. Promoted as a story about a killer bug, this "Problem Solvers Exclusive Investigation" focused on a 17-year-old who is suing Jet Blue Airlines after being bitten by a brown recluse spider while onboard, which he says caused a rare infection that threatens not just his foot, but his life. Then we learn the infection probably didn't come from the bite, but rather was a staph infection. Made you look.
WKMG-TV Local 6, Nov. 11
Lame-o report No. 2 from the Problem Solvers. A woman claimed the Halifax Humane Society sold her a sick cat, which then proceeded to infect her other cats. Cats spreading diseases … among other cats! Egads, it's our very own feline flu! The Halifax Humane Society told Local 6 it was one cat, this isn't a typical occurrence and they vaccinate for parvo, the illness in question. Sure, that's what they say … (Sorry, got carried away in the muckraking spirit.) At the end of the segment, reporter Tarik Minor looked deeply into the camera and intoned, "Of course, she's hoping her cats do not die."
WKMG-TV Local 6, Nov. 14
I feel for George Trapper. I really do. His daughter was murdered 18 years ago and this sickly old man is trying to hang on long enough to see her killer executed. But this was such a non-story. There wasn't any "news" here; just the exploitation of a grisly crime and the man who's had to live with it.
The killer, John Bruce Vining, isn't facing execution in the foreseeable future, and in fact may face two more murder trials before his date with the needle. In the course of an understandably sympathetic interview, Mike Holfeld let Trapper give this policy suggestion: "Why can't they make it five years and then be mandatory execution? If you can't be innocent within the five-year period, too bad." Just slightly unconstitutional, but it sure made for sensational TV.
WESH-TV Channel 2, Nov. 15
Sex offenders are everywhere! Channel 2 uncovered a "loophole" in the sex offender registry law that, as far as I can tell, applies to any sex offender who sleeps at one residence but spends time elsewhere, as was the case with one registered sex offender Channel 2 followed around for months. This guy's secondary address doesn't show up on the state's list of registered sex offenders.
Stephen Stock demanded answers from the sex offender, who explained that he was doing everything legally. But that should never get in the way of a good sweeps story.
WKMG-TV Local 6, Nov. 20
Preteens playing poker with their lunch money? Sinful! Scandalous! Dangerous! Very, very bad! Don't worry, though, Problem Solver Nancy Alvarez is on the case. "Is it just fun and games?" Alvarez intones ominously, as Local 6 shows video of kids engaging in a card game. Of course not it will lead to addiction, and by the time they're 30 these kids will be holding up liquor stores to pay for their gambling habits. OK, so she didn't exactly say all that, but the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling guy with whom Alvarez spoke did say that kids playing poker early might lead to addiction later. Might not, too.
WKMG-TV Local 6, Nov. 21
What's that you say? Fast-food restaurants aren't paragons of sanitation? Alert the media! (Wait, someone already did that.)
Local 6 has the undercover video to prove what everyone already knows is true: Workers at Taco Bell don't wear gloves, and other chains usually aren't that much better. Later, Problem Solver Steven Cooper reported that food-borne illness complaints are down statewide, but here again we simply cannot let the facts get in the way of a sweeps month blockbuster. What would they do with all that cool undercover footage?
WKMG-TV Local 6, Nov. 29
As sweeps neared its end, Local 6 and the rest of its brethren were struggling for anything to snag your attention. This Problem Solvers report declared, essentially, that roller coasters produce G-forces, but all fall within safe parameters because the human body isn't as weak as the fun police would have us believe. The only thing approaching a problem was Disney's Mission: Space ride; but even then, not so much. It pulled low G-forces, but did it for longer bursts than other rides. Should we be scared?
WKMG-TV Local 6, Nov. 29
I just don't get this story. I'm not puzzled by the fact that Local 6 reported it, because it's right up their alley. What's strange is the subject, an anonymous 19-year-old who served as the channel's prime witness against a Longwood massage parlor that allegedly gave hand jobs on the side. According to the story, this kid took his allowance and bought himself a happy ending. Then went back. And back. And back. And back. Ten times, in fact. Then he ratted them out to the Problem Solvers. Steven Cooper responded by sending in his own two staffers, who reported that their wee-wees were touched too, but they did the right thing and stopped the naughtiness before it got out of hand, so to speak. Cooper then went to the Longwood cops, who have a station down the street from this parlor Longwood Massage and Spa and pledged an investigation. Yeah, if this is true, it's illegal. But I have to wonder what was so bad about hand job No. 10 that it incurred this kid's wrath.
WFTV Channel, Nov. 29
Damn those Quickie-Marts! Those contemptible havens of gas and late-night beer runs might be charging you sales tax for tax-exempt items! It's a conspiracy, I tell you! Or maybe the stores aren't all that familiar with Florida tax code, which can be complicated. Or maybe no one cares if you're charged an extra 7 cents for a candy bar.
There are those sweeps month stories that are neither good nor bad, they just are.
WFTV Channel, Nov. 3
Action 9 reporter Todd Ulrich busts a museum in Titusville that is supposed to raise money for the families of dead cops, but the two non-profits that run it spend more on payroll than they give out to families. A fine story. But what impressed me more was the story that aired before this one, one that didn't get the big promos or the "exclusive investigation" tag. Reporter Kathi Belich took Orlando city commissioner Ernest Page to task for all sorts of improprieties related to his non-profit. It didn't get the hype of Ulrich's story, which is disappointing. It seems to me the alleged corruption of an elected official is more newsworthy than an inconsequential Titusville museum.
WKMG-TV Local 6, Nov. 3
Problem Solver Mike Holfeld found that an Orange County jail inmate was posing as a Ph.D. and running a shady diploma mill. Holfeld investigated and told the authorities, who also investigated and figured out this was a scam. The inmate, Gerald Stiggons, was ultimately released on Sept. 28, with Holfeld and the Local 6 cameras dogging him as he tried to leave the jail premises. "You said you were working for the school," Holfeld demanded. "Are you trying to tell me you lied to the county again?" The story was over Sept. 28. Was there any reason to hold it a month? Oh yeah, sweeps.