BROOKE GLADSTONE: And finally, who says local news has to be local-- or news? Certainly not the local news producers who realize nothing ends a broadcast better than a piece of fluff. OTM's Rex Doane reflects on that TV news staple affectionately known as "the kicker." [EXTRAVAGANT HERE-COMES-THE-NEWS MUSIC]
REX DOANE: It's 10:58 in Anytown USA, and the local evening news is coming to an end. You've had the headlines, the weather and the sports when you hear these words:
FEMALE ANCHOR: All right, finally tonight--
FEMALE ANCHOR: Finally tonight--
MALE ANCHOR: Finally tonight--
REX DOANE: It is the universal cue for the kicker -- that 60 second slice of feel-good fodder placed at the end of the newscast.
FEMALE ANCHOR: Finally tonight, who says pigs just like to roll around in the mud?
MALE ANCHOR: No, these pigs like taking a dip-- What is this in the pool?! They take the plunge by jumping into the water; the pigs have become the main attraction at a country fair near Chicago.
FEMALE ANCHOR: Amazing!
MALE ANCHOR: That'll do it for us tonight. I'm Harry...
FEMALE ANCHOR: I'm [...?...]...
REX DOANE: In terms of classic kickers, you can't do much better than swimming-pig footage. Michael Hill is president of News Broadcast Network which has been distributing video to TV stations across America for over 30 years. [UPBEAT KICKER MUSIC UP AND UNDER] For Hill, kicker content can be broken down into these basic groups.
MICHAEL HILL: Animals, kids, contests, people doing silly things, people, you know, making kind of fools of themselves [LAUGHS]--
FEMALE ANCHOR: It's that time of year again -- the time when crazy guys from all over the world run with the bulls in Pamplona.
MALE ANCHOR: [LAUGHS] They're wild and crazy, Mary, aren't they? [LAUGHTER]
REX DOANE: And CNN has recently promulgated "the crustacean kicker."
FEMALE ANCHOR: We've got a lobster tale for you now. We like to call it Free Wally -- The Liberation of a Lobster.
REX DOANE: Start studying kickers and you begin to see patterns emerge -- not only in content, but within kicker copy as well. Apparently there can never be enough alliteration.
MALE ANCHOR: With members of PETA's Lobster Liberation Force on hand to help, old Wally, once bound for the boiling pot was instead immersed in a cool pool where eventually he'd ride the tide to safe waters.
REX DOANE: Kickers became commonplace about 30 years ago, and according to Deborah Potter, director of the News Lab, the Washington, DC non-profit dedicated to quality local television, kickers have since become an integral part of the traditional TV newscast mix.
DEBORAH POTTER: I don't think that producers are going to put together a newscast that is all meat or all vegetables. They're going to want a little dessert. Maybe a little appetizer along the way. And kickers are dessert, and newscasts want them.
REX DOANE: Even academia has accepted them. Potter notes that kickers have become a standard part of the curriculum in most journalism schools.
DEBORAH POTTER: Oh, it's in text books, absolutely. You bet. And it's not only in text books. It's given a name. [LAUGHS] In instructing television students -- it's the water-skiing squirrels.
FEMALE ANCHOR: Finally this evening -- No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That is a purple bear on your screen, and no, she hasn't gone punk either. Polusa the Polar Bear has skin problems, and it looks like....
REX DOANE: Kickers persist for practical reasons. News producers can use them or lose them depending on their show clock, and for station managers, kickers have an even higher purpose. Again, Deborah Potter.
DEBORAH POTTER: Stations want to end a newscast with a story that will allow their viewer to turn the television off but stay on the same channel, because the goal is to keep them on that channel the next time they turn the television on so they'll be watching your news again.
FEMALE ANCHOR: Finally tonight the story of a 7 year old whose life is already full of ups and downs.
MALE ANCHOR: We would like you to meet Evan Nagao. He is the National 10-and-Under Yo-Yo Champ. Now, some kids are born with silver spoons in their mouths, but Evan apparently had a yo-yo in his hand ever since he was a year old....
REX DOANE: Those warm and fuzzy finales have also attracted corporations who often sponsor kicker-friendly events like contests or giveaways for free TV time. It's a system that seems to work for everyone -- stations get captivating video; corporations get plenty of exposure.
FEMALE ANCHOR: All right, finally tonight an orange juice that prides itself on being fresh is looking for a fresh new face tonight. Auditions began today in Times Square for that icon that will bear the name TropicAna, Regis Philbin....
REX DOANE: Thanks to high-tech advances, kickers, corporate-generated and otherwise, now do high-volume business. Streamlined satellite feeds and broadcast-quality downloads have revolutionized the way they're shot and sent. Again, News Broadcast Network's Michael Hill.
MICHAEL HILL: If the stations wanted to do kicker footage, say, even in the, in the late '70s or early '80s, it pretty much had to be footage that they went out and generated themselves. You know, tended to be local kinds of stuff, and now there's just a lot more things that are coming from all across the country. So, you know, you can see in New York or in Des Moines, Iowa for that matter, you can see kicker footage of somebody make--making a fool of themself up in Seattle, Washington if you want to. [LAUGHS]
REX DOANE: Like the local 10 o'clock news itself, kickers have become an institution, and over the decades they've remained constant while little else in TV news has. Deborah Potter.
DEBORAH POTTER: Back in the old days when television news was a serious enterprise, producers wanted something at the end of their newscast that could be a little uplifting. You know --break the trend. And now that so much of the news is inane, I suppose they've become a little redundant. [UPBEAT KICKER MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
FEMALE ANCHOR: That's really nice. That's going to do it for us tonight. I'm Kathleen....
REX DOANE: And I'm Rex Doane, in New York, for On the Media. [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Derek John, and edited by me. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Jessie Graham, Anne Kosseff and Mike Vuolo. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from NPR. Bob will be back with me next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.