TV networks, beware hype

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"And now the news. . ." Remember the days when those four words were prelude to reports on Mideast peace talks, presidential races, global warming, wholesale prices, cancer research, fire, floods and famines?

Nowadays, the "news" is a matter of who qualifies -- and disqualifies -- as a "survivor" and why "Big Brother" is something to watch rather than someone who does the watching.

Morning news shows, already notorious for padding out the hour with lighter fare than Chechen rebels and Sierra Leone peacekeepers, are bombarding viewers with commercials disguised as news segments. And steering the bandwagon is CBS, where "The Early Show" has been looking more like "The Early [Look at Tonight's Game] Show." On a typical morning, "Early Show" viewers might sip their first cup of coffee while watching a segment on the latest outcast from "Survivor" and finish their second cup while viewing a separate segment on how it takes 28 cameras to put "Big Brother" on the air.

Networks have long used fluff-time during the news to promote entertainment fare. And local news broadcasts are expert at promoting segments tailored to tie in with that evening's made-for-TV movie.

But what was once common practice is now standard. The double-edge rationale: Hype the hit on the news, and the news ratings will get a hit from all the hype. The trouble is, overkill can only hurt a news organization's credibility.

It can also backfire in prime time. Between running popular shows on multiple evenings and then promoting them to death on the morning news, networks may find that even their hottest shows can't survive so much publicity.

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