BOB GARFIELD: A new TV show launched in New Jersey this week, called Chasing NJ. It’s a bid to revolutionize local TV news, apparently by modeling it after syndicated celebrity gossip show, TMZ.
[CHASING NJ CLIPS]:
REPORTER: I’m chasing New Jersey's Bermuda Triangle, also known as Round Valley Reservoir. Do you think it’s just crazy weather making people vanish, or is there something more?
REPORTER: A New Jersey woman had her children seized because she moved her family into a storage locker in the middle of difficult times. Now she's trying to children back. Tell me what you think. Should she get them?
REPORTER: We’re here with Bayonne’s own super hero of fitness, Captain Bayonne.
CAPTAIN BAYONNE: How you doin'?
REPORTER: Is he a superhero and a god-send to an overweight, over-fat City of Bayonne? Is he just nuts?
BOB GARFIELD: Chasing NJ is the latest potential fix for Northern New Jersey's long-running TV news problem. The region is historically under-covered because it's sandwiched between two enormous media markets, New York and Philadelphia. In fact, New Jersey legislators say that the old news show that Chasing NJ replaced also didn't serve New Jerseyans particularly well. New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter says this problem goes back so far that WWOR's broadcast license includes a special instruction.
BRIAN STELTER: There was language included in the license for WWOR many, many years ago that said it would be required to pay special attention to the people of Northern New Jersey. The late Senator Frank Lautenberg for many years was able to point to that special condition in this license as a way to nudge WWOR to cover New Jersey more often.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] A public affairs show, explicitly fashioned after gossip TV would, on the face of it, seem to be horrifying. But does it do a better or worse job than the previous broadcast of getting New Jersey issues in front of New Jerseyans?
BRIAN STELTER: I’m gonna try not to review it in its first week, but I do think that will be the argument that WWOR will make. In fact, they already are making that argument, that local news is badly in need of a makeover, of an overhaul, of a redo, of innovation. What is debatable and what will be debated is whether this is the kind of innovation that will actually satisfy viewers. From the first night, one of the stories was about a father who was in hot water because he named had his son Adolf as in Adolf Hitler. Quite a sensational story for day one, of course.
But there are all sorts of stories that these chasers could be covering in the state capital of Trenton, where the show is based. Maybe they’re going to make stars out of the local lawmakers and politicians. But on day one, we didn't quite see that.
BOB GARFIELD: Now Brian, this show is heard coast-to-coast and perhaps some listeners are wondering what the hell do they care [LAUGHS] about a programming change at a fairly obscure New Jersey TV station, but this story does not necessarily end in New Jersey.
BRIAN STELTER: [LAUGHS] That's right and that’s for a couple of reasons. First of all, the FCC almost never, ever revokes a license. If they were to do it in this case, it would have other stations wondering whether they are performing to the standards that they need to perform at in order to keep their license.
One of the interesting undertones of all this is that here we have a number of Democrats, including Senator Menendez, saying the station’s not living up to its obligations. WWOR is owned by Rupert Murdoch, one of this nation's best-known conservative-minded media moguls. And so, the possibility that we have Democrats here trying to stick it to Rupert Murdoch by going after this station is something that I think also makes it stand out.
BOB GARFIELD: And yeah, one more thing. Twentieth Century Fox has gone out seeking - trademarks on Chasing -
BRIAN STELTER: Chasing Texas, Chasing Florida and Chasing a number of other markets, where Fox owns television stations, and actually, a couple of markets where it doesn't, which has led to some assumptions that if this goes well in New Jersey, we will see this format spread across the country.
BOB GARFIELD: Once again, you’re not prepared quite yet to say whether this would be catastrophic or maybe just evolution?
BRIAN STELTER: Well, that’s the word they’re using for it, evolution. I watched it and I came away thinking the same thing that a reviewer for TV News Check said earlier this week. They said the format is so - almost blinding that it, it becomes the star, not the host, not the content, but the format, that’s so in your face that it becomes a distraction from the news they’re trying to convey.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, on that subject, the demographics of local TV news skew very, very geriatric. Will suddenly younger people be attracted to the 10 p.m. broadcast, or will they simply [LAUGHS] just alienate the few people still watching?
BRIAN STELTER: Well, the challenge for a show like this is to not come across as a parody of something that young people want to watch. [LAUGHS] They've cast relatively young reporters and, for that reason, the show may avoid appearing to be a parody of sorts. But when shows try to attract a younger audience, they do end up alienating their core audience. And that will be a big risk, because they’ve had viewers coming to them at 10 p.m. for a long time, not – granted, not a big audience but they did have a loyal audience. And it’s partly why some people were surprised they didn't put this new show on, in addition to the late local newscast they were already doing.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Brian, thank you. And - good chasing.
BRIAN STELTER: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Brian Stelter covers television for the New York Times.