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Unprompted: The Ridiculous Sweeps Week Story Hall of Fame 

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The month of May might not mean much to you, unless it’s when your third wife left you for a vacuum cleaner salesman. But in television, May is extremely important. It’s one of four so-called sweeps months. You know, ratings.

Ratings are everything. The better the ratings, the more that TV stations charge for mattress commercials or ambulance-chasing lawyers. So look for really strange behavior on your local news tonight. The TV stations will do almost anything to get you to watch — no, make that, they will do anything.

Some may offer you money. The old Dialing for Dollars concept is still around. That may be cheesy, but it’s better than kidnapping you and forcing you to watch television in a motel room off Jeff Davis Highway. Or maybe not.

Through the years we — I mean when I was one of them — would sit around in sweeps meetings to come up with stupid ideas to get viewers to tune in. We were told that one of the best ways was to threaten our viewers. Tell them that something’s lurking in the shadows ready to wipe them out. Scare the hell out of your audience and it’ll pay attention.

A few years ago our villain of choice was radon. Viewers, especially in Chesterfield County, were warned that deadly radon was lurking under their houses ready to kill them for sure. Visions of an invisible pair of hands ready to reach out from the basement eager to choke you … no, no, that was just a graphic. It’s not really like that.

Radon is a colorless, odorless, invisible but vicious killer easy to call on because it is colorless, odorless and invisible. We interviewed experts, crawled under houses and did everything except interview victims. That was because radon victims are difficult to find. We did our best to encourage a radon panic, but in time viewers had enough and decided to worry about something else. So we invented something else to worry about.

Bacteria. Deadly bacteria, of course, were lurking all over our kitchens. Like radon, bacteria aren’t easy to find, so we hired people whose profession it is to look for germs and brought them into an average kitchen for testing. Sure enough, on every occasion the germ busters found the little critters on pots and pans, counter tops, knives and forks — everything that populates an average kitchen. Bacteria were all over the place. Time to panic — but wait, we’ll have more on the late news. Don’t forget to tune in for the rest of the story.

Well, as best I can recall, although there was another bacteria story on the 11 p.m. news, the rest of the story was never told. And why not? Because the rest of the story is boring. It is, briefly, that bacteria are everywhere, they always have been. We live with them. There’s good bacteria and bad bacteria and both are just about everywhere. All new houses come with built-in bacteria, no extra charge. If you buy a new mattress for no money down and a thousand years to pay, it will come with bacteria embedded, so to speak.

At this point it might be useful to make a list of your friends and relatives who have died of kitchen or mattress bacteria. The truth is, you could wash your dishes with acetone and there still would be bacterial on them. The bacteria panic reminds one of the ebola scare in the United States. A deadly disease for sure, but the facts are that more Americans have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died from ebola.

Meanwhile across town, another station was doing a series of reports on prostitution on Jeff Davis Highway, or any of a number of locations where prostitution has always been. Guess what, there are hookers in our town! No kidding!

So here we are again the midst of a television ratings period watching reports on mostly imaginary stuff so TV stations can charge car dealers and mattress salesmen more for their commercials.

Highly paid consultants will be back in town next week to tell stations how they can do it even better for the July books.

Sooner or later something is going to get us all, but TV news wants to get us first. S

Gene Cox is an author and inventor who recently retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at letters@styleweekly.com, or on Twitter at genecoxrva.

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