THE RACE FOR RATINGS CAN SOMETIMES BE FATAL

What happens when broadcast stunts go wrong

The news that one of Kate Middleton's nurses committed suicide after being the butt of a prank phone call by a pair of morning disc jockeys in Australia has demonstrated once more the hypocrisy of big-money broadcasting, not only in the United States, but everywhere as well.

Hypocrisy because as soon as one of these "jokes" goes terribly wrong, broadcast executives start wringing their hands, apologizing profusely, and decreeing how shocked they are that something like this could happen.

Give me a break. The top dogs are usually the ones to blame. They set the tone for how their stations and networks are run, especially when the ratings periods begin. High-level meetings start weeks earlier, with outlandish ideas and suggestions becoming the norm, and woe be to anyone who suggests putting the brakes on.

The Federal Communications Commission regulates local television and radio stations in the United States. After the actors from Orson Welles' Mercury Theater scared the bejesus out of the entire country with its take on H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds on radio in 1938--the whole country thought the U. S. was being invaded by Mars--the FCC started taking a dim view of on-air hoaxes that could put people's lives in danger.

The Welles broadcast was especially effective because it did not identify itself as an entertainment program. The play was presented as a series of news bulletins that sounded legitimate. From then on, the FCC forced broadcasters to clearly identify what was entertainment, advertising, and news. The agency also dictated that little on-air jokes were okay, as long as the public health was not endangered.

That's why a station in Florida was fined $25,000 when the afternoon drive-time dj encouraged people to hurry to the station as quickly as possible. The 3rd person to walk through the door would win a CD. The FCC said that by encouraging speeding, the station was endangering public safety. The same judgment was applied to another station after the morning jock played a trick on his boss by pretending he was having a heart attack on air. Local hospitals heard the broadcast and sent paramedics to the station within minutes--emergency workers tied up for a trick.

But the worst case before the Middleton meltdown was a ratings stunt by a station in Sacramento, California, just a few years ago. "Hold your wee for a Wii." The executives there had the bright idea to sign their listeners up for a water-drinking contest. The person who could hold it the longest would win a Wii. A single mother of two thought she could complete her kids' Christmas wish. She won, all right, but died of water intoxication later that night. The FCC was the least of the station's problems, after the woman's family wound up winning millions of dollars in wrongful death judgments.

The London nurse's family will likely follow the same path through the courts. Of course, no amount of money will bring their loved one back, and the broadcasters will argue, perhaps successfully, that they shouldn't be held accountable for the emotional reaction, however tragic, of one of their on-air targets--intended or not.

But while the gnashing of teeth continues and the fingers of guilt are pointed all around the room, let's not kid ourselves that certain broadcast executives are totally blameless, that it is all the fault of their on-air talent or a poor unstable soul. TV and radio are powerful tools; it's helpful to take a good hard look at the powers behind the throne, where ratings and advertising revenue are always king.

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