MEMBERS ONLY: TV News Knows the One Thing You WILL NOT Look Away From

It took all of maybe two days after arriving at my new job at KCBS in Los Angeles to experience my first car chase — and it was one hell of a nasty one. It was February of ’96 and I was training with the noon producer, a guy named Andy, and had spent the morning shadowing him, watching him meticulously build his show step-by-step. Everything was fine until about 20 minutes before air, when a single-word shout from the news-desk blew almost everything he’d done up until that second out of the water. That word was something I’d become very familiar with over the next few years: “Pursuit!” An EP took the initial stages of the chase, with our chopper following a speeding SUV along surface streets in Orange County, as Andy rearranged the top of the newscast. When we arrived in the booth, police from several agencies had cornered the driver in a mall parking lot and as we rolled the intro animation, there were cops out of their cars trying to surround him.

Then it happened. Literally the second after the prerecorded announce bellowed, “This is the CBS 2 News at Noon,” and we wiped to the live picture from the air, the SUV lurched forward at the police in front of it — and they opened fire. There, live on our air at the very start of our show, was a vehicle being riddled with bullets, the explosion of a windshield and safety glass, and a driver being shot and killed by police. The family of that driver, 27-year-old Hong Il Kim, went on to file a wrongful death suit against the officers involved in the shooting — claiming they overreacted — but that suit was tossed by a judge. As for our live coverage that day, everyone involved got a pat on the back. Welcome to TV news.

I bring this up because on Monday evening a police pursuit took place in Los Angeles that really did qualify as GTA V-level insane; it thrilled and terrified even by the impressive standards of a city that sees these things happen all the time. It all started around 5pm when the LAPD got a call about a stolen vehicle. From there, the chase unfolded through the streets of East L.A. and eventually onto the freeway, with the driver at one point abandoning his vehicle and carjacking another at gunpoint. Along the way, he drove the wrong way down a series of streets, crashed into four separate cars, and was finally shot by police when he abandoned his vehicle and attempted to grab yet another one. He survived the shooting and is now hospitalized.

My explaining what happened during a chase or even the act of watching a video replay of it just doesn’t begin to have the same impact as seeing a chase unfold live on television. There’s a reason every single local station in Los Angeles will cut out of regular programming to take you live to a police pursuit and why national networks like Fox News will often cover them when they happen during dayside broadcasts, even though they’re hyper-local stories that have zero impact on the lives of 99.9% of the people who happen to be watching. There is, quite simply, nothing more exciting than a high-speed chase. It’s the holy grail of live news events because an audience can’t take its eyes off of it, since that audience understands that anything can happen. A live police pursuit represents the promise of sheer mayhem. And while we may not want to admit that we’re riveted by that kind of thing — that it’s somehow beneath us — we are on a primal level. I’ve sat through more meetings where the news value of covering police pursuits has been discussed and every single time it’s come back to that thing not everyone wants to admit: police pursuits are TV — and TV ratings — gold.

During the brief period I worked as an executive producer at KCAL in L.A., we had a pursuit that took up most of the afternoon and ended on a freeway with a van that had run out of gas. Since the police didn’t know whether the driver had taken a hostage, they couldn’t simply storm the vehicle. So it sat there. For hours. Throughout almost every minute of the three hours that made up KCAL’s primetime news, we focused on a van that wasn’t moving. It was almost post-modern. Anti-news. And yet the overnights the next day showed that it was apparently the highest-rated night for KCAL in years. People tuned into not to watch something happening but on the chance that it might, because, since the scene was out of our control and was completely in the hands of someone who’d spent the afternoon leading police all over the city, anything was possible and they wanted to be around to see it. The probability and even likelihood of disappointment hardly mattered — the whole thing eventually ended quietly — when placed against the promise of the unthinkable unfolding right in front of their eyes.

In September of 2012, an Arizona man named Jordan Romero carjacked two people and then led police on a wild pursuit down a busy highway. Eventually, he jumped out of the vehicle and took off on foot through the desert brush. Fox News was carrying all of this live to a national audience, with Shepard Smith narrating the action. For the record, Shep Smith is very likely the single best news personality in the country when it comes to carrying breaking news coverage; when the two of us came up together through WSVN in Miami in the early 90s, the staff used to say that he could smartly ad lib about a blade of grass for two hours if you needed him to. On this day in 2012, though, Shep seemed to have an idea what might be coming — as he’d handled so many chases before and understood that what made them so exciting was what also made them dangerous from an editorial perspective — and as Romero finally stumbled, then pulled out a gun and put it to his head, Shep shouted on-air to the producer, “Get off it! Get off it!” Too late — Romero killed himself live on television.

Shep offered a somber mea culpa, claiming that the signal from Phoenix was supposed to be on a taped delay that would’ve prevented the public from seeing anything too horrific. But that entirely defeats the purpose of airing — and watching — a police pursuit in the first place. As a TV news producer, I would spend hours each day trying to engineer excitement. My goal was always to keep you watching, which I’d try to achieve through a relentless, sometimes hallucinatory barrage of flashy graphics, dramatic music and breathless teasing and promotion. Believe it or not, it took skill to accomplish this — or at the very least a mastery of some kind of dark arts. (If we could’ve figure out a way to use the Ludovico Technique on viewers, we would have.) But a police pursuit offered, without any effort on our part, the very excitement we spent our days desperately trying to manufacture. It was pure adrenaline, pure drama — something an audience willingly wouldn’t look away from. And it still is.

As long as you keep watching, news outlets will keep bringing you police pursuits like the one that tore up the streets of East L.A. on Monday. And face it — there’s no way you’re not going to keep watching.

By the way, Andy eventually took home an Emmy for our coverage of that chase back in ’96, the one that ended with the death of a man live on our air. The business gives out awards for that sort of thing.

Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.