What Happened After Local Fox Stations Told to 'Shake Up TV News'

11:02 PM PST 10/24/2010 by Paul Bond

Fox Stations Group president named Keith Olbermann's 'Worst Person in the World,' but so far few signs of Glenn Beck-type agenda in radically altered news format.

Local news is losing viewers at an alarming rate, so News Corp. executives during the summer directed the company's owned-and-operated stations to try something different: roundtable discussions, guests, analysis -- the sort of thing Fox News Channel does.

Left-wing bloggers reacted immediately, saying that the directive -- which came from Fox Stations Group president Dennis Swanson -- was a nefarious attempt to demand that O&Os mimic the likes of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck on a local level.

Keith Olbermann at MSNBC led the charge, crowning Swanson his Worst Person in the World and throwing in News Corp. head honcho Rupert Murdoch.

"For a long time, the one saving grace of the 'Fixed News' propaganda machine was that it did not extend to the local stations Murdoch owns," Olbermann said before informing his audience of the dastardly "content directives" the O&Os had received from on high.

Their purpose, Olbermann said, was "to make the local news on Fox broadcast stations around the country look and sound just as shaded, just as biased as that on Fox News Channel."

Olbermann's rant got liberal bloggers working overtime bashing the plan.

But fast-forward three months, and it's hard to find progressive politicos who even remember the controversy, let alone care about it anymore. That's because the news broadcasts of the Fox O&Os are following the directive, but audiences haven't noticed any sort of new political slant to their local news.

"There wasn't a lot of guidance," an executive at one of the O&Os said. "The stations are on their own to figure it out, but there's no political agenda behind it. They just want us to be different because there's no denying that viewership is dropping."

Indeed. In some big cities -- for example, New York -- the audience for local news has dropped 50% during the past decade.

"We're expanding on particular stories and bringing in analysts and experts," talent at one O&O said. "We were told to shake up TV news."

In Los Angeles, the Fox 11 newscaster delivered a recent story about budget cuts forcing community colleges to tighten their belts. He described the problem and threw in footage of protesting students and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about budget cuts.

Normally, the item might have ended there, but it went on for an additional four minutes with a discussion among the newscaster and three guests, including a couple of college students complaining about overcrowded classes.

There was no hint of conservatism in the presentation: None of the four, for example, suggested that the state is correct to try spending within its means or that students ought to be asked to pay more for their education and rely less on taxpayers.

Fox refused to discuss its content directives to local news broadcasters, but insiders said it sees sporadic improvements, especially in terms of maintaining its audience throughout telecasts.

"It's kind of interesting -- exciting, even," one insider said.

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