“TV report on breast self-exam bares all.”* The shame of using breast cancer to improve ratings.

Friday, October 30, 2009

*Headline to the Washington Post article by Paul Farhi, Thursday, October 29, 2009.

According to the article in yesterday’s Washington Post which led me to write this piece, 1 in 8 American women will have invasive breast cancer at some time in her life, 1 in 35 American women will die from it. I have a wife, a daughter, a sister and women who are friends. Breast cancer is very, very serious business, an horrific disease which is attacking half our population in epidemic numbers. Nothing I say in this piece should be construed as diminishing the critical nature of this disease or the need to do absolutely everything we can to fight it.

So here comes WJLA, Channel 7, the ABC affiliate in Washington, DC. In a four part series which began last night, WJLA public service programming on the subject of breast cancer awareness will be featuring the fully exposed breasts of two women who have volunteered as subjects to demonstrate self-examination techniques. Let me encourage you to read the entire Post article for yourselves, and then view the first installment in the series through the link at the end of this post.

The series is timed to coincide with National Breast Cancer Awareness month which ends Saturday. It’s also being aired during the first two days of “Sweeps Week,” the month during which the drawing power of specific shows will be measured and advertising rates set for the year ahead.

What a coinkydink. Or, if you prefer, you can imagine me pretending to sneeze while uttering a certain 8 letter word in the process, “Ahhhhhh bul…” Either way, you get the point.

WJLA management, while admitting that they’re in a business in which ratings count, claims the station is trying to get people to watch because it’s that important a story. It’s an important story alright, which is precisely why it shouldn’t be exploited as a tool for increasing viewership.

News broadcasts are exempt from FCC indecency rules which is how the station gets away with it. Fine, but why is nudity, however tastefully presented and however noble the cause, essential to accomplish the station’s public service objective? Who are the additional viewers these segments will attract and why will they be watching? And perhaps most telling, why wait until now? National Breast Cancer Awareness month is just that, a month long. Why not run the series at the beginning of the month or at any other time during the month? Why now? Ratings.

Not to be cute, but will WJLA – which, as far as anyone knows, is the only television news program in the United States using nudity to discuss breast cancer – give equal time for other cancers and disorders involving body parts that wouldn’t otherwise be exposed on prime time and late night broadcast television? I doubt it – at least not until Sweeps Week 2010.

No question, this stunt – the nudity part of their series – at WJLA is all about ratings. We can only hope it doesn’t diminish the power of the all-important message which is the legitimate story they should be telling.

Judge for yourself. Here’s the link to last night’s segment on WJLA… “Touch of Life: The Guide to Self-Breast Examination

-wf

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