I, Claudia

Claudia DiFolco isn't really a ditz. She just plays one on TV.

"Because I may not like the way a woman dresses," she continues, "I'm not gonna call her a slut." She pauses, then adds softly, "That's a really strong word.

". . . I would rather have 40 percent of the people totally adore me and remember my name, and have 60 percent of the people totally hate me and remember my name. If you are good at what you do, you are gonna divide people."

If prudes are turning off the television in disgust at DiFolco's umbilicus, younger, wide-eyed kids are flipping it right back on. The ratings for the NewShow are on par with the more traditional newscast it replaced last September. But, significantly, a shift in NewShow's demographics shows a rising accent on youth, while viewers of Channel 12's top-rated newscast have gotten older.

But the little girls understand: DiFolco and fans.
Paolo Vescia
But the little girls understand: DiFolco and fans.

In May, comparisons of local 10 p.m. newscasts showed NewShow inscreased 60 percent in rating and 50 percent in share among 18- to 34-year-olds but lost 31 percent of its 65-and-older audience to KPNX Channel 12 since May 1999. NewShow is ranked second to KPNX in the 18-to-49 demographic.

TV news is getting younger. Stations are going for youth; glossed graphics, long bits celebrating the trivial, hard news stories made terse and angular.

KTVK news director Dennis O'Neil points out that older people are traditionally more interested in conventional news, that to secure a younger audience a station must reflect the interests of youth. Viewership equals ratings equals advertisers. It's a simple lifeblood formula for contemporary media.

"[Other stations] hire young people," says O'Neil. "But what they immediately do is put them in three-piece suits and they teach them how to write and act and cover all the same traditional things that every reporter has ever done. So they turn 25-year-olds into 40-year-olds. So all of a sudden there's no voice for a 25-year-old. And what we really wanted to do was reflect her age in the newscast in the interest of the people who are her age and younger and a little bit older."

Alvidrez sums up DiFolco's mission: "What we really wanted to do was capture Phoenix at night. Depending upon whether you like it, hate it, or fall someplace in between, we've done it with varying degrees of success."

The genesis for the NewShow came from KTVK news execs who simply wanted to challenge the standard newscast formula. They were intent on putting across what they considered a protean look at Phoenix life.

KTVK sports a news staff heaving with accomplished reporters, some with ink-stained journalistic backgrounds. It was the only local newscast, for example, that didn't simply gloss over Joe Arpaio's and Fife Symington's bungles in recent years. A TV newscast that, as far as newscasts go, garnered respectability.

What of the gadflies who chimed "fluff" and "sellout" when NewShow hit the air last September?

"I don't think that's selling out, I think that's broadening," retorts O'Neil. "Our opinion was the same thing going in as it was today. And, quite simply, it's that there's a lot of different kinds of information.

"People are going on the Internet now more and more trying to figure out what information best suits their life. So how do we try and reach those folks and how do we try and compete with that? We need to broaden our audience, not narrow it."

Alvidrez says at first there were a lot of people "who tried to judge it by the same standards that late newscasts had been judged historically. We thought it [NewShow] was a pretty spiffy newscast. It was No. 2 to Channel 12, which had this huge NBC lead-in. What was really hurtful was you were only hearing from people saying, 'I love you guys, but I hate your show.' So the personal comments about Liz or Claudia or other aspects of the NewShow, I think those were more hurtful because they were coming from our fans."

Frederic "Fritz" Leigh, deputy director at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, says this type of entertainment-driven newscast is becoming more commonplace nationwide, with the line between journalist and entertainer increasingly blurred.

"Channel 3, for the past few years," he says, "since they lost their network affiliation, have focused more on news but very much on a kind of local, folksy kind of presentation which has been very successful for them."

Success of entertainment-driven news programming mirrors the rise of journalism students aspiring to become "entertainment reporters."

"We're having more students come to us," Leigh continues, "coming into the program and saying, 'My goal is to become an entertainment reporter.' We've had that just over the last couple of years where we've never had that before. And they consider it a legitimate part of journalism, whether we do or not.

"And that tells me that the general public, the viewers, are interested in that type of reporting and information. Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and Inside Edition, those kinds of programs are very popular. And that's what they do. I think Channel 3 puts more emphasis on these people as personalities.

"In many ways, these folks have become entertainers themselves."

Does he find this sort of journalistic "dumbing down" an insult to the intelligence of the viewer?

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