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Despite some complaints, viewers watch in high numbers

By Ryan Davis, Globe Correspondent, 07/23/99

Like many Americans, Brant Locklier remembers where he was when President Kennedy was shot: sitting in his third-grade classroom in Ohio.

''The teacher came in, told us, and shortly later we were going home,'' said Locklier, 43.

He also remembers where he was when he heard the plane flown by John F. Kennedy Jr. was missing: on his couch in Enterprise, Ala., set to watch the British Open golf tournament on TV.

Coverage of the Kennedy story was on every channel. Almost a week later, it has not stopped.

Most stations carried live coverage of Kennedy's burial at sea yesterday, interrupting programming for most of the day.

Those taking a break from the television in sunny Boston Common earlier this week said they are fed up with the seemingly nonstop network and cable babble, but many of them can't seem to turn it off.

Last year, from July 17 to July 21, 35 percent of Boston-area houses had their televisions on at 5 p.m. That number climbed to 41 percent during the Kennedy coverage, according to WBZ-TV (Ch. 4).

MSNBC, the all-news cable channel, had its two highest viewership days ever last weekend. New England Cable News tripled its regular weekend audience.

On average, the local network affiliates - WBZ-TV, WCVB-TV (Ch. 5), and WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) - averaged a 10 percent increase in audience size.

During crucial points of the search and recovery this week, audience sizes were double and triple their usual size.

''Once you get into it, you want to know the new information,'' said Sara McRoberts, 17, of Merrimack, N.H. ''It's addicting.''

Like others in his generation, Locklier said the tragedy instantly brought back memories of Nov. 22, 1963.

Live television journalism was still in its infancy, Locklier said, but the news of Kennedy's assassination was on every channel, all the time.

''Then, it was just the networks,'' he said. ''Now you can go from CNN to CNBC.''

Now, news stations give titles to such events, including JFK Jr.'s disappearance: ''Tragedy at Sea,'' ''The Kennedy Tragedy,'' and ''An American Tragedy.''

Saturday, when the news broke of Kennedy's disappearance, Michael Cohen, 31, who works in Boston, was ready to watch the British Open, too. Instead, he saw Coast Guard boats off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.

''I figured it would be on for maybe 15 minutes, but it was on all day and night,'' he said. ''It's the same people saying the same thing.''

But he watched.

Other viewers complained that the networks' eagerness to report new information often led to speculation. One station reported the Coast Guard had found Kennedy's plane Saturday. Others intially reported a flight instructor was on board.

Even when they did get it right, viewers complained that most reporters focused on Kennedy at the expense of his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette.

''All they do is talk about him,'' said Michael Cabral, 37, of the South End. ''They're just as dead as he is.''

Yet most kept watching.

Seeking refuge from the oppressive weekend heat, many took to the couch in their air-conditioned homes, with a channel changer in hand.

Several said they turned off the coverage of Kennedy's disappearance after the first two days, merely checking in this week to catch any new developments.

Two women visiting Boston from Northern Ireland said it reminded them of the coverage in Britain after the tragic death two years ago of Diana, princess of Wales. But the Kennedy coverage was more intense, they said.

''We didn't have 24 hours; just special programs at different times,'' said Olive Craig, 41, of Portstewart. ''You could get away from it, whereas we find you can't here.''

In Enterprise, Locklier said, TV news coverage of Kennedy's disappearance was intense at first, but wound down as the search wore on.

But when he arrived in Boston on Tuesday for a vacation with his wife, the story was on almost every television.

''The people of Massachusetts,'' he said, ''seem to be very protective of their people, their baseball, and their Kennedys.''

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 07/23/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.


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