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The ABCs of Belo8 investigating a competitor's primary national news program

0531stings byronh

Dateline NBC is being stung hard by Belo8 investigator Byron Harris.

Belo8 investigative reporter Byron Harris keeps pounding away at Dateline NBC and the Perverted Justice web site in connection with last November's televised arrests of alleged sexual predators in Murphy, TX.

But would the ABC station's longtime gumshoe be as vigorous if the program were named Dateline ABC ?

It seems like a fair question, particularly when the network in Harris's crosshairs owns Belo8's arch rival for local news supremacy -- Fort Worth-based NBC5. Not a problem, Harris said in an email reply.

"I don't worry about the 'perception problem,' " he said. "I don't think anybody has it except you, frankly."

Harris subsequently answered the central question in a telephone interview Thursday while on the way to cover a bank hostage situation. Namely, "Could you devote this much time and energy to this story if it were an ABC News program?"

"I don't know. I would try," Harris said. "It wouldn't keep me from trying. It's not my decision. If someone were to tell me not to do the story, it wouldn't be me . . . I think it's less probable certainly (that he could investigate an ABC news program)."

Harris said he expects his investigation of Dateline to be picked up around the country, and noted that Belo Corp. owns NBC stations in other markets outside North Texas.

"You never know where a story's going to end up when you start it," he said. "I didn't know. But the more I get into it, the more blameworthy I think NBC is. We think it's a national story and I'm going to go ahead with it."

In his earlier email response, Harris said, "I don't read your column, so I don't know what you've done. On that note, did you ever apologize or retract your mistake on your comments regarding my first story?"

As a matter of fact, yes, of which Harris was informed after an unclebarky.com critique of his first Dateline NBC expose on May 8th. Harris took a third swing at Dateline and Perverted Justice last Friday (June 22nd), duly noting that "News 8 broke the story on the problems with that case."

In Harris's first story, he reported that "not one case has gone to court" since 24 arrests were made by Murphy police while the Dateline cameras rolled. Why? Because of "poorly gathered" evidence and "botched" paperwork, Harris said.

I initially reported, erroneously, that one arrest and conviction in fact had been made. But after Harris complained, I re-checked my information and saw that the man, Ali Vagefi of Tyler, had been arrested in July of 2006, four months before Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" sting operation began in Murphy.

Perverted Justice, but not Dateline, aided Murphy police in the bust of Vagefi, who was sentenced in April of this year to five years in prison for attempting to solicit sex from a decoy posing online as a 14-year-old girl.

"That'll be time that at least kids are safe from that one person," Murphy city manager Craig Sherwood was quoted as saying in an April 19th Dallas Morning News Story that was posted on Belo8's web site next to Harris's first expose.

All of this was noted in the correction to my initial critique. I then wrote, "So there at least was precedent -- and maybe even good reason -- for the Murphy police department partnering with Perverted Justice, and by extension, Dateline NBC."

Harris hasn't mentioned the Vagefi conviction in either of his two stories. Instead he's gone hard after Dateline NBC and Perverted Justice, which he says won't talk to him. Murphy police chief Billy Myrick lately won't talk to him either, Harris told viewers in Friday's second story on the sting operation.

He instead showcased "an exclusive interview" with Collin County District Attorney John Roach, who said of the Murphy police department, "If they had been in control of this situation we could have good cases to present. They're a professional organization and they know what they're doing. What they did instead though is abdicate completely to outsiders, frankly, who don't know diddly squat frankly about law enforcement."

Harris says he's not finished.

"I've got one more Dateline story coming up, so that will give you a new hook," he said in his email reply.

Let's be blunt. There's less than a scant chance that Harris would be allowed to do four separate investigations of an ABC news magazine program such as 20/20 or Prime Time Live. This is after all The Belo Corp., whose Dallas Morning News has been banned from critiquing local TV news operations since February 2000.

Harris is allowed to run wild, however, when the prey is a rival network. His overall reporting isn't necessarily at issue, although it would seem that outing would-be sexual predators on camera might be a deterrent in itself whether they're eventually convicted or not.

"We're in a situation now where reality television, journalism and fiction have melded into one stream of consciousness," Harris said. "Is what Dateline and Perverted Justice do journalism? No. Does it serve some public interest? It may. Is it legal? Probably not."

In Harris's view, though, the perception of what he's doing is a non-issue with just about everybody except the guy who used to be the TV critic at The Dallas Morning News through good times and bad.

Maybe he's right. But seriously, what if it were Dateline ABC ?

CBS11 bungles Dallas mayor's race


He who laughs last. Tom Leppert (left) defeated Ed Oakley to become Dallas' new mayor. Only one D-FW television station cared enough to pay much attention during Saturday's 10 p.m. newscasts.

OK, the voter turnout was lousy and the margin of victory turned out to be pretty lopsided despite an earlier poll forecasting a photo finish.

It is, however, a pretty big deal when Dallas elects a new mayor. All of our local TV stations once thought so, too. In fact it used to be a competitive badge of honor to get the first live interviews with both the winning and losing candidates.

Saturday's election coverage showed how little it matters any more. Among the three stations with 10 p.m. newscasts -- Fox4 had a network commitment to Mad TV -- Only Belo8 even bothered to snag live one-on-one interviews with victorious Tom Leppert and vanquished Ed Oakley.

The station also cared enough to send seasoned veterans Brad Watson and Chris Heinbaugh to the candidates' respective campaign headquarters. They had the added advantage of actually knowing what they were talking about.

CBS11 in contrast deployed relative newcomer Kimberly Ball, whose report from Leppert's victory party got more inept by the second.

Ball began by blowing the name of the anchor who introduced her report. "Well, Kaushal," she began, referring to CBS11's Kaushal Patel. But it was Ginger Allen back in the studio.

"The energy in this room is absolutely electric right now," Ball then told viewers before proceeding to talk over Leppert's opening words to his supporters.

She just kept going, oblivious to the candidate behind her. Instead viewers got this word jumble: "He (Leppert) said he is ready to shed -- shake Ed Oakley's hand, as that he did admit defeat to him already this evening."

Ball had only a few more seconds of air time, so never mind Leppert's ongoing live remarks. Instead she concluded, "Again tonight, with 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Tom Leppert is the victory (sic)."

Back in the studio, anchor Allen hesitated briefly, resisting what must have been an overwhelming urge to ask, "What the hell was that?" She then threw it to CBS11 vet Steve Pickett, who did an OK job of rehashing what Oakley earlier had told his supporters. The station also ran a brief clip of Oakley speaking for himself, in the end giving the loser about twice as much air time as Leppert.

NBC5 sent the seasoned Ken Kalthoff to Leppert's HQ. He had the good sense to say, "Let's listen," when the mayor-elect began his live remarks. Reporter David Quinlan handled the Oakley side of the story.

Neither CBS11 or the Peacock bothered to get any fresh live interviews with the candidates during their 10 p.m. newscasts. Dallas' mayoral election outcome got prominent but notably abbreviated play. The stations then quickly segued to crime, tragedy and comedian D.L. Hughley, whose Saturday night performance in Fort Worth drew protests after his pointed remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team on a May edition of The Tonight Show.

Belo8's Watson, accustomed to fighting for position on past election nights, had Leppert all to himself this time out. Ditto Heinbaugh with Oakley.

It didn't used to be this way. Not so long ago, all of the local TV stations took pride in trying hard on election nights. On Saturday only Belo8 came armed with much more than a popgun. CBS11 countered with Silly String.

Local Nielsen ratings snapshot (Thurs., June 14)

San Antonio's close-out of Cleveland, co-starring a very happy Michael Finley, also played like a champ in Thursday's D-FW ratings.

In fact, the NBA would kill for these kinds of numbers nationally. The game and its attendant trophy presentation averaged 254,660 homes, peaking at 395,080 from 10:30 to 10:45 p.m. It also dominated the advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-old ratings, predictably breaking sharply along gender lines. Here's a look at the disparity:

18-to-49-Year-Old Men -- 113,563
18-to-49-Year-Old Women -- 59,788

The pre-game 7 to 8 p.m. slot went to Fox's Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, which chalked up a nice-sized 178,500 homes in more than doubling the crowds for CBS' new Pirate Master reality series and ABC's parlay of Fast Cars & Superstars and a pre-game show.

Absent competition from Belo8 because of the game runover, NBC5's 10 p.m. news racked up wins in both total homes and with 25-to-54-year-olds, the main advertiser target audience for news programming.

Fox4 continued its strong run at 6 a.m., winning in both ratings measurements. CBS11's Scott Sams-led early show continued to run poorly, drawing less than one-fifth the crowd of Fox4, which had 107,100 homes. CBS11's 25-to-54-year-old numbers were equally dismal.

Belo8 won at 6 p.m. in both homes and among 25-to-54-year-olds. NBC5 finished first in homes at 5 p.m., but Belo8 had the edge with 25-to-54-year-olds.

Local Nielsen ratings snapshot (Tues., June 12)

ABC's Game 3 of the NBA Finals hit another double-digit ratings jackpot in D-FW, again performing far better here than nationally.

San Antonio's last-minute win over Cleveland peaked at a 15.6 rating (371,280 homes) in its closing quarter-hour, pushing Belo8's 10 p.m. newscast 45 minutes past its regular start time. Overall, the game averaged 246,870 homes from 8 to 10:45 p.m. But it placed second in the 8 to 9 p.m. time period to NBC's competing America's Got Talent (237,405 homes). The game tallied 229,670 homes in that hour.

Fox's amateur film competition, On the Lot, continued to do very little. It drew just 35,700 homes from 7 to 8 p.m., again running behind TXA21's local newscast and a host of other competing programs.

Charles Gibson's ABC World News continued to dominate in D-FW in both homes and with 25-to-54-year-olds, the main advertiser target audience for news programming.

It's a close contest nationally, with World News moving slightly past Brian Williams' NBC Nightly News in recent months. But World News is a world-beater here, drawing 166,600 homes Tuesday to rout Nightly News (88,060 homes) and Katie Couric's CBS Evening News (71,400 homes).

The gap is bigger among 25-to-54-year-olds, where World News (83,230 of 'em) more than doubled Nightly News (37,310). The CBS Evening News limped in seventh overall with a mere 17,220 viewers in the 25-to-54 demo.

On the local newscast front, NBC5 had twin wins at 10 p.m. absent competition from Belo8. Fox4 won in both ratings measurements at 6 a.m. And Belo8 had another easy time of it at 5 and 6 p.m., winning across the board.

Local Nielsen ratings snapshot (Fri.-Sun., June 8-10)

D-FW ratings for The Sopranos' Sunday finale aren't available yet, but Tony and company almost certainly came up no better than second to ABC's Game 2 of the NBA Finals.

San Antonio's easy win over Cleveland averaged 226,100 homes in trouncing CBS' competing Tony Awards ceremony (90,440 homes). The gap only increased with advertiser-craved younger viewers. Here's a telescoped look:

Spurs-Cavaliers -- 158,100
Tonys -- 24,800

Spurs-Cavaliers -- 75,506
Tonys -- 8,033

ABC's new Fast Cars & Superstars, preempted Thursday by Belo8's locally produced pre-Finals special, conked out with just 57,120 total homes for its second episode.

On Saturday afternoon, a thrilling Belmont Stakes lured only 59,500 homes, which is a shame. That finish was everything that The Sopranos wasn't, with Rags to Riches out-gutting favorite Curlin to become the first filly to win the Belmont since 1905.

Friday's prime-time ratings again showed that most D-FWians are otherwise occupied. The top network draw, a repeat of CBS' Numb3rs, drew a less than robust 126,140 homes.

Univision23's Noticias 23 local newscast had a bigger turnout than that, finishing second to Belo8 in homes with 133,280. But here's the bigger news. Noticias 23 was the No. 1 newscast among 25-to-54-year-olds, the main advertiser target audience for news programming. In fact it wasn't even close. Here's the Friday night breakdown with that key audience demographic:

Noticias 23 -- 132,020
Belo8 -- 77,490
NBC5 -- 68,880
CBS11 -- 54,530
Fox4 -- 48,790

Fox4 carried the day at 6 a.m., though, winning in both ratings measurements. Belo8 once again did likewise at 5 and 6 p.m.

Local Nielsen ratings snapshot (Thurs., June 7)

ABC's Game 1 of the NBA Finals between San Antonio and Cleveland dunked the competition Thursday night. Belo8's locally produced pre-game special did not.

The Spurs-Cavaliers matchup, which pushed Belo8's 10 p.m. newscast to 10:40 p.m., drew a league-leading 254,660 homes in D-FW. The station's 7 p.m. production, which preempted the premiere of ABC's Fast Cars & Superstars, lured just 76,160 homes to place fourth from 7 to 7:30 p.m.

Anchored by Dale Hansen, Belo8's hoops special preceded ABC's own pre-game show. That would have been OK had the Dallas Mavericks made the Finals. But they're long gone from the playoff scene, so really, what was the point?

Fox's 7 p.m. edition of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? won in both homes and among advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-olds before the NBA took over.

In the local news derby, CBS11 held onto most of its Shark repeat lead-in to score a rare win in total homes at 10 p.m. But NBC5 won easily with 25-to-54-year-olds, the main advertiser target audience for news programming. As noted, it was a downsized field, with the NBA spillover occupying Belo8's time at that hour.

Fox4 romped to comfortable wins in both measurements at 6 a.m. while Belo8 did likewise at 5 and 6 p.m.