Live from the Operating Room, It's NBC's Today Show

NBC's Today has managed to make real-life surgery seem as schmaltzy as the hit show Grey's Anatomy.

Plucky, telegenic patients are filmed while receiving all sorts of procedures on NBC Chief Medical Correspondent Nancy Snyderman's "Inside the O.R." series being shown this week on Today. The series kicked off with heart surgery, only to be followed by a live birth on Tuesday and brain surgery (yes, brain surgery) on Wednesday.Each segment opens with the theme from NBC's classic medical drama ER, making one wonder whether the network wishes it could replicate the once runaway success of that show, which ran for 15 years and earned more than 120 Emmy Award nominations. It's hard not to think of the televised surgeries as a publicity stunt -- and the timing couldn't have been more apropos given that the February sweeps period starts tomorrow and runs to March 3. Networks air their most flashy program during "sweeps season" to attract the highest number of viewers. As a general rule of thumb, the higher the ratings, the more a network can charge for commercial time.

Morning television shows tend to be especially profitable -- and NBC could use the boost. Parent company General Electric (GE), which is in the process of unloading a controlling interest in NBC Universal to Comcast Corp. (CMCSA), reported that profit at its media and entertainment business fell 28% last year to $2.26 billion. And while Today has been number one for years, NBC's overall ratings have plunged 13% since the start of the season. ABC, owned by the Walt Disney Co. (DIS) recently reported that its Good Morning Americahas gained viewers.Today attracts about 5.73 million viewers to Good Morning America's 4.34 million. CBS's (CBS) Early Show remains a distant third with 2.92 million viewers.

Update: In an email to DailyFinance, Today Show Executive Producer Jim Bell disputed my earlier characterization that the program's ratings lead appeared to be diminishing, saying, "The Today show's lead has increased this season, not diminished." NBC did not respond to requests for comment before this article appeared.

Broadcasting Brain Surgeries

On Wednesday's segment of "Inside the O.R.," an 81-year-old man had brain surgery to quell the tremors in his hands and arms. In an amazing feat, doctors at New York's Mt. Sinai Medical Center were able to stop the trembling, but Today's conduct was far less extraordinary.

The segment included an interview with the man who, of course, was eager to get the help. "It was very hard to be upbeat when this is with you 24 hours a day," he said as maudlin music began playing in the background. The soundtrack continued to play as the patient explained how much he was looking forward to hugging his "darling" grandchild and using a computer following the procedure.

The other segments on the General Electric's network are more of the same.

Snyderman's story on heart surgery earned the ire of journalist Larry Husten, who edits the CardioBrief blog.

"The 6-minute segment was relentlessly upbeat," he wrote. "The TV producers pulled every trick in the book to overcome the inherent difficulty of portraying a hard-to-explain disease like AF (Atrial Fibrillation) and an even harder-to-explain procedure like catheter ablation. Instead of making any effort to truly educate their viewers, the producers took the easy route. "

Then there was the birth of Brody Rock Johnson. The spunky, 10-pound newborn was born Tuesday under the hot, glaring lights of the Today cameras at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The Cesarean section that was aired was much less bloody than the one I saw when my son Jacob was born three years ago. Brody's birth was no muss, no fuss. I was glad that, unlike NBC's prime time dramas, baby Brody -- who was decked out in Today gear -- seemed to be fine. Yet, I found the whole story puzzling.

When my son was born, the hospital did not even allow me to snap pictures with a digital camera, a common rule because of the fear of malpractice lawsuits. The baby was born practically on cue as the televised drama unfolded. All that viewers could hear was a sucking sound from the machine being used by the surgeons and Snyderman's excited play-by-play.

On-Air Surgeries Draw Mixed Reactions

Not everyone was so overjoyed, however.The International Ceserian Awareness Network, which seeks to prevent unnecessary procedures, accused Snyderman of downplaying the risks involved. On Twitter, a writer who calls himself "Freakshow Mikey" was mad at Today for showing "birth juices before 8 am = not cool." Of course, there were others who were supportive of the birth story.

Snyderman picked a telegenic patient, who was a trooper. Today is showing medical procedures on patients its audience can not help but like. Real life medicine is far more complex and often does not make great television.

The Snyderman series underscores the weaknesses of TV heath care news, which is increasingly reliant on doctors who also serve as reporters. Coverage is far too focused on breakthroughs and miracles as opposed to costs and outcomes, according to Gary Schweitzer, who used too oversee CNN's health news coverage and now edits a blog called HealthNewsReview that is critical of how the media covers health care.

"I wonder when are we going to have a series on primary care but that's too dull and ordinary," says Schwitzer, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "We are delivering a very skewed message of expensive high-tech surgery that presents a rose-colored picture of health-care. Television news does this over and over again."

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