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Editorial: Viral Infections

Local news folks figured their collective image hit rock bottom when Will Ferrell played dilettante doofus Ron Burgundy in the 2004 comedy ‘Anchorman’. 

Alas, that was a year before a little video-sharing Website was born. These days, thanks to YouTube’s prodigious reach, videos of local news anchors having laughing spasms, swallowing bugs, throwing temper tantrums or being doused with water on live TV go viral—and well beyond the limits of their DMA.

One of these bloopers ends up in our inbox every few days, often with the sender writing, “Did you see this?” in the subject line. Typically, we have…a year or two before, which proves that—as any young lady who thought posing for Girls Gone Wild was a good idea will tell you—online video lives forever. Last week, a clip of then-WVLT Knoxville reporter Gordon Boyd having a meltdown in March 2010 ended up on a bunch of popular sites, including Huffington Post.

These news flubs are, in modern media parlance, eminently snackable—short, funny, safe for work. Perhaps it’s naïve to wonder why a clip of KHOU Houston’s exposé of a local puppy mill that saved 80 dogs, and got a new law enacted; or WBMA Birmingham weather wiz James Spann’s lifesaving tornado coverage; or WYFF Greenville’s (S.C.) primetime special on children in need of organ transplants; don’t go viral—while an anchor with momentary brain freeze uttering something about doing unsavory things to a chicken garners millions of views.

YouTube is no enemy to local TV. Hearst TV and LIN stations are among the Top 25 YouTube destinations, according to a recent Ad Age study. But anchor goofs are devastating to local news and play into the perception of TV reporters as mannequins with perfect hair and teeth and air where the brain is supposed to go—that local news is, in a word, laughable. Does a college student want to go into a profession that friends mock every time one of these clips is circulated? Does the FCC feel obligated to preserve broadcasters’ spectrum when much of what they see from stations is a weather guy squealing like a schoolgirl when a cockroach crawls onto the set?

It’s live television. Mistakes are unavoidable, curses slip out. Staffers lose it, same as they do in boardrooms and teachers’ lounges and grocery stores. No one knows exactly how to harness YouTube’s considerable might, but it’s up to local television to figure out how to get their corruption-busting investigative ace in front of the digital masses—not their reporter who got pooped on by a pigeon.