COMMENTS: Houses Are Worth Less--Gasoline Costs More

Negative economic statistics dominated the headlines. ABC led with the increasing price of gasoline. CBS and NBC led with the Story of the Day, the falling value of homes. A quarterly survey by Standard & Poors of the 20 largest metropolitan areas found that houses sold for 14% less in the first three months of 2008 than a year previously. That was the steepest overall reduction in real estate values in two decades, with 19 out of the 20 markets suffering downturns. Las Vegas was worst; Charlotte the single city staying above water.

"The downward slide for home prices is only picking up speed," warned CBS' Anthony Mason while ABC's Chris Bury (embargoed link) declared that "the housing downbeat goes on." Bury's rule of thumb was that a healthy housing market has a six-moth supply of unsold property. The excess inventory now stands at ten months. NBC had Carl Quintanilla of CNBC, its sibling financial news cable channel, outline the ripple effect of "the worst housing market in a generation." Those falling sales along with high gasoline prices, food inflation, a shaky job market and cutbacks for small business find the current index of consumer confidence at its "lowest in 16 years."

In eleven of the 50 states, ABC's Sharyn Alfonsi told us, the average cost of a gallon of gasoline has already surpassed $4. The 15c week-over-week increase in the national average to $3.94 is the biggest jump ever "except for after a hurricane." NBC sent Tom Costello off on a weeklong series dubbed Running on Empty to illustrate the impact of costly oil. His first stop was a General Motors testing track for the new Volt hybrid outside Detroit: "GM is gambling billions that an enormous cellphone battery can power a car." The Volt would run 40 miles on 80c worth of electricity, 40c off peak, before its reserve gas tank kicked in. The car would cost $45,000--a bargain, GM hopes, if gasoline were to cost between $5 and $6 a gallon.

Because economic developments usually consist of abstract statistics, television news finds itself in a continual quest to put an anecdotal human face on hard times. CBS' effort has consisted of an occasional series dubbed Hitting Home. Ben Tracy filed the latest entry from Los Angeles, where he tried to illustrate the ripple effect of belt tightening. He started with an event planner who has had to cut the budget for his parties…so he buys less expensive flowers…and has fewer events for his hostess to work…so she has canceled her gym membership…and goes to the movies less often…and no longer has her eyebrows trimmed at the salon…so the beautician earns lower tips…meaning that she no longer buys coffee when she gets to work…and packs her lunch at home…

NBC presented similar anecdotes of belt-tightening with a First Person feature, which invited viewers to share e-mail examples for anchor Brian Williams to read of skimping on Memorial Day fun and CBS anchor Katie Couric announced that her newscast would add an occasional vox pop feature dubbed We The People--its first collection of soundbites, naturally, concerned the high price of gasoline.


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