Stations brace for BTK hearings

03/27/2012 2:10 PM

03/27/2012 2:10 PM

Television stations this week will carry the sentencing hearing for Dennis Rader, including all but the most graphic details and language.

The testimony in the case, which starts Wednesday, is expected to provide details of Rader's deeds as the BTK serial killer. It will be carried mostly uncensored on broadcast television, cable TV, radio and the Internet.

Everyone will carry viewer and listener warnings. No one recommends the programming for children.

Court TV News will carry the proceedings live nationwide on cable television from the Sedgwick County Courthouse beginning Wednesday morning. Wichita's three major network affiliates will preempt regular programming to air the hearings, which could last into Friday.

KFTI 1070-AM will carry the audio portion.

Prosecutors are expecting to put on testimony from at least 10 investigators who worked the case of Wichita's infamous BTK serial killer. It could include exhibits of crime scenes, autopsies and descriptions of the killings of 10 people between 1974 and 1991.

"Philosophically our position is: It's a live news event, and the people should hear it and see it the way the people in the courtroom hear it and see it," said Tim Sullivan, vice president of Court TV News. "Now we do keep an eye on it, if things get especially graphic."

Producers can shift to anchors' comments if the testimony becomes particularly harsh.

"Basically the producers in the control room are experienced, because we do this all the time," Sullivan said. "They know generally that if the producers are getting grossed out, then the viewers are going to get grossed out, too. But it's got to get pretty extreme for us to do that."

The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that graphic photos and testimony are allowed because they accurately depict the levels of violence often found in murders. Gruesome crimes, the court said, produce gruesome photos.

"This is what happens inside the courtrooms of America, and our job is to show people what happens inside those courtrooms," Sullivan said.

Local outlets could cut material out, but news directors for Wichita's television and radio stations say they will try to show the proceeding as completely as possible.

"If this thing runs through 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon, there will be no Dr. Phil or Oprah," said Don North, news director at KWCH.

All of Wichita's stations plan to run the hearing on delay, giving them time to edit.

"Basically we're responsible for our viewers, and if we think it's too much, we will intercede," North said. "But we're going to pay attention to it, even more closely than in the past."

KWCH will also stream the video and audio live at KWCH.com.

"Our sister station in Jackson, Miss., did this with a murder trial, and thousands of people all over the world were able to pick it up," North said. "It looks like it does on your TV, if you have a high-speed Internet connection."

North said his station has been assured by its lawyers that if graphic content is news as a part of the court hearing, the station should not run afoul of the Federal Communications Commission.

KAKE will run the hearings live on Channel 10 and Kansas Now 22 on cable.

But all broadcasters have become leery of the FCC's controls in light of recent fines — most notably for the Janet Jackson incident at the 2004 Super Bowl.

"Certainly we're aware of that, and we have to keep that in mind, and we'll be watching for it," said Glen Horn, news director of KAKE. "But when you're talking about a delay of only a few seconds, you've got to make a split-second decision."

Because of the Jackson debacle, FCC guidelines have changed since stations broadcast the 2002 multiple murder trial of Jonathan and Reginald Carr.

"Some of what aired in the Carr trial would not have been allowed under the new guidelines," said Beverlee Brannigan, operations manager for KFTI and KFDI 101.3-FM radio. "We are running a delay for language. But that does not mean that some of the graphic content is not going to be offensive."

Even if they have to break away, the stations will stay with their coverage and return to the courtroom after they have determined that the offensive portions have concluded.

"We'll stay with our coverage but come back to the set and do some analysis and then dump back into it," said Todd Spessard, news director at KSNW, Channel 3. "A lot of it is play-it-by-ear, really."

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