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From the Field

In Pursuit of Car News
By Steve Parker

The way I see it, station managers and sales departments are scared to death of offending that group which is often their largest advertiser, the local car dealers. I've been reporting about the auto industry for over 25 years. I started out writing for the "buff books", the influential enthusiast magazines, where seldom is heard a discouraging word about any vehicle with an engine and wheels.

Why are the various "Car of the Year" awards almost universally disrespected within the auto industry itself? The same reason you'll rarely read a negative review about a car in one of those magazines: The major advertisers (aside from cigarettes and liquor) are the car and motorcycle manufacturers. It's easy to understand why Motor Trend, Automobile, Car and Driver, Road & Track (both owned by Hachette Filipacchi, which is 15% owned by Saddam Hussein…which is why, they say, you'll never read a story about a Hummer in either of those books) are positive about the industry which feeds them.

These are "enthusiast" books, after all, and most people can figure out how these magazines make their zillions. TV doesn't have the "journalistic" relationship with Detroit which the magazines have, but it sure has the advertising relationship.

The very first televised commercial in Los Angeles, on the inaugural show by what was to become KTLA (where I eventually worked for some time), was done by show host Bob Hope and was for a local Lincoln dealer. And so it began. In every market in the world where there is TV, automotive is either the #1, 2, or 3 advertiser, right up there with retail and foodstuffs. So other than the kind of pandering press which the industry buys itself in the magazines they essentially control, TV didn't have much to offer their local car dealers and national manufacturers except an outlet to the public.

There has been some "honest" automotive reporting done, but it has been so little and infrequent that many of us can remember most of the reports. NBC and the exploding Chevrolet gas tanks come to mind. But for the most part it has been newspapers and one magazine, Consumer Reports, which have broken most of the major auto industry stories which affected consumers. Even a "How to Buy a Car" segment will be shot down by the majority of TV ND's once they run it by their Sales Managers. And no matter what they claim, they will run it by them.

You simply can't do a segment like that without pointing out that most, if not all, car dealers are apparently genetically compelled to try and screw their customers. But I was on KTLA MORNING NEWS since the first week it went on the air for a period of some 8 or so years. And for the final 2 years of that time I was on every Friday evening on KTLA NEWS AT TEN. How did we get away with it? Luck and timing, as most things are in this business.

I had no TV experience other than having watched a lot of it, but I did have local and national radio experience. So when I read about KTLA starting a morning program which they wanted focused on LA, I visited them about 3 weeks before they went on the air and told them if they were really honest about their commitment, they had to have a regular car feature. LA, if nothing else, is all about what you drive.

Amazingly, they agreed. It turned out to be a tough assignment, but of course a lot of fun. The pay stunk but there was prestige and the fun of being on what was then the #1 local morning show and a program which became kind of national phenomenon at its height, too. And some of the people at KTLA became and remain good friends…one was Best Man at my wedding!

The chance to work with Local TV Legends like Joel Tator, Hal Fishman, Warren Wilson, Stan Chambers and all the rest (and new legends like Ron Olsen) was an education you couldn't buy (though if KTLA Sales had figured out a way to do that, they would have charged me). After all, this is a station that bills somewhere around (I understand) $150 million annually, and for their 50th anniversary staff party does a trade-out with a local chicken joint for the food, and the "entertainment" consists of having a Polaroid photo taken with you and Stan Chambers.

But there is amazing history there. KTLA had the first "telecopter" and the first live truck in the nation. Hell, they were the first TV station anywhere to broadcast a live atom bomb blast (from the Nevada Test Site, with Stan Chambers, of course, hosting). Stan also headed coverage of the now-infamous Kathy Fiscus kid-falling-into-the-well-in-San Marino story, which showed the potential of live on-the-scene TV news coverage.

I also got to work for some time at KMPC radio, so I was on-the-air at both LA electronic outlets once owned by Gene Autry. And believe me, there are some great stories about The Cowboy and Johnny Grant which I'll never repeat. Well, maybe someday.

And, yes, when they mis-spelled Johnny's name on HIS star on Hollywood Blvd., I was the guy who taped over the letters on his KTLA lot parking spot to match the mis-spelling. How often do you get a chance like that?!?! But Johnny is cool…he then drove a Q45! Power, Tiger! And I got an Emmy there (and later at KCBS/TV2) so if the money had been better, it would have been worth fighting to try and hang around longer. But I digress.

Several times I was approached by KTLA salespeople asking me to do a positive report on some car being sold by one of their client agencies. These were the guys at lunch when they were teaching "journalistic ethics". And for the most part, management stuck up for me when I went to them to bitch about this.

The key to the entire CAR DUDE operation was (and remains on my radio shows and print work) BALANCE. If I said something negative, I had to balance it with more positives. If a car was really bad, I simply would not review it on the air. If there were recalls on a particular car, rather than report that, I might do a more general report on "What to do If Your Car is Recalled". These concessions were necessary because otherwise, there would have been NO CHANCE of remaining on the air. Any slight negativity in the reports were dutifully complained about to management by various dealers and dealer groups, and I heard about it. So if report would have had more negatives than positives, that report simply wouldn't be done at all. So there are absolutely trade-offs, and in most markets, station managers and sales departments aren't even going to take the chance of pissing off their biggest advertisers. I don't blame them. They're in business to make money.

Even a show on PBS like MotorWeek has to toe the line. Sure, their public TV show has no advertising, but they do rely on the car companies to send their reporters and crews to auto shows around the world and to "long leads" of new models, which are almost always held in exotic locales. Some print journalists (USA Today, LA Times, NY Times, Chicago Tribune) also participate in these junkets, which are very similar to the movie junkets entertainment "reporters" do, but in many cases the newspapers pay their own way and rely on the car companies to make the reservations and other travel arrangements.

I don't know if MotorWeek works this way, but knowing a PBS-type budget, I doubt if they pay their own way. If they do, I apologize. So it's not unlike the trade-off a White House correspondent makes. Who is going to endanger their WH credential by asking the tough questions? Judging by what I see on TV, now daily, none of them. Interestingly, all the pressure comes from dealers. I have never had a manufacturer complain about a report with negatives as long as it was honest and balanced. So now I am in the Palm Springs area, with a radio show, weekly newspaper column, writing for a number of airline in-flights each month, and getting the TV thing together again. Also making more money than I ever made in LA. Bought a home which would easily cost a minimum of $750,000 in LA, for so much less it's embarrassing to say.

But the lessons I learned in LA are what have enabled me to flourish in this much smaller (and much more enjoyable and friendly) marketplace. I have no doubt I will live longer out here in the desert, and have more fun doing it. Probably most important, I have my own AFTRA signatory production company, am my own boss, and am in a much stronger position to do battle with management if necessary...because I know exactly how much I make for them! Which means a MUCH better and honest product for my listeners, readers and viewers. And isn't that what we're all trying to deliver?

So you want to report on cars for your local TV station? Go for it. But don't expect to be able to speak your mind. And if you do report negatives, you better be able to back-up your claims. If you cost the station $1 more than you make them, you're gone, dude. No matter how much you value honesty.

About the Author
Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist living in Palm Springs, CA, where he produces and hosts automotive-related radio and TV shows) Steve Parker THE CAR NUT / THE CAR DUDE. Over 30 Years of Emmy-Award Winning Automotive Journalism on TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines.