Booster Shot

A proposed Medical Center project gets big, big play

In case you were curious, Houston Chronicle readers, that was not an issue of the Texas Medical Center newsletter that was delivered to your home February 17 and 18.

You might be forgiven for thinking so, though. The Chron that weekend was absolutely gaga over a proposed new biotechnology development near TMC.

Not one but two stories were bannered across the top of the front page February 17 announcing the proposal. The front of the business section featured another. The next day, the Metropolitan front had a story, and there was a column on the front of the business section.

All criticized the proposal as just another pie-in-the-sky plan that would never come close to being the $633 million, 15-building campus covering 64 acres that was being touted.

Well, maybe in another world. The coverage instead went out of its way -- even by the high boosterism standards of the Chronicle -- to paint this development as a visionary gift to the city by the movers and shakers who have already done so much for us.

"Project's Spirit of Cooperation Once Seemed an Impossibility," read the headline on one of the bannered front-page stories. The lead on the other: "A group of Texas' brightest scientists and a well-heeled cadre of Houston's business elite will unveil plans today for an ambitious $633 million biotechnology park next to the Texas Medical Center."

The "business elite" included the usual giants: Enron, Reliant Energy, Trammell Crow. "There is the possibility that some of the companies could benefit from [the proposed development]….But partners in the coalition said the group is more interested in helping Houston," the Chronicle reported.

The next day we learned of even more benefits: The development "would also go a long way toward restoring Houston's image as a world-class city after the battering it took in political ads during last year's presidential election, said Jim Royer, immediate past chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership." Well hell, if the Chamber of Commerce thinks it's gonna be great…

(And hey, what's this about restoring a world-class city reputation in the wake of the November election? The Chron had a news story November 2 on the basketball arena referendum that said this: "Backers of the arena say it would spur downtown development, strengthen the economy, boost good feelings about the city and cement Houston's position as a world-class city." The arena passed, but we guess the cement didn't stick.)

Why all the incredible fuss about the proposed biotech park? Perhaps a map of the area could have answered that question. The Chron did print a map, but it wasn't large enough to include Richard J.V. Johnson Avenue in the Medical Center. That's Richard J.V. Johnson, as in the chairman of the Houston Chronicle, and that's Richard J.V. Johnson Avenue, as in a heartfelt thank-you from the Medical Center for years and years of support.

Ratings Wrangling

Let's establish two things: One, Rod Hooks, the KPRC-TV chopper pilot who was found dead February 18, was by all accounts a great guy. And two, the television news industry is pretty damn cynical.

Hooks, 55, was found dead from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on a Sunday morning. He'd been Channel 2's helicopter pilot for a decade, earning the respect and good feelings of, it seems, just about everyone who worked with him. He was a Vietnam vet who was shot down four times in the war and was a champion rider in horse shows.

No one begrudged Channel 2 its stories on staffers fondly remembering Hooks, but eyebrows were raised and grumbles were heard -- all decidedly not for publication with the grumblers' names attached -- as the stories went on and on.

What caused the most reaction? Channel 2's decision to air a 15-minute tribute to Hooks on Tuesday, February 20. According to the most cynical theory going around, KPRC decided to air the show on that day -- cutting the regular 10 p.m. news down to 15 minutes -- so that the newscast wouldn't be included in the sweeps-month Nielsen ratings. Tuesday is one of the weaker nights for NBC, with the show Ed providing much less of a lead-in for the news than ER or Law & Order.

Such a move wouldn't be unique to KPRC. Miami stations are bitching that the city's ABC affiliate has chosen to preempt two Monday-night 10 p.m. newscasts this month in favor of specials. Non-football Monday nights are dismal for ABC's prime-time schedule.

Matt Tatham, a communications analyst with Nielsen, says that cutting the regular 10 p.m. newscast to 15 minutes won't mean that Nielsen won't provide a rating for the show. But it's up to the local station to decide whether the shortened show should be included in the monthlong average for the 10 p.m. news, or taken out because of its unique length. And obviously, KPRC's competitors could decide the opposite way and come out with their own version of the broadcast's monthlong average rating.

KPRC boss Steve Wasserman says it's "unfortunate that people are questioning our motives….The notion that we did the Rod Hooks special to dodge bad ratings is hogwash and insulting."

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