Thursday, August 06, 2009

Industrial Snuff Film

Rarely has one industry's tipping point been so crystallized as in the above time capsule. In the 1983 documentary clip, Consultant in Chief Frank Magid and his minions descend on a certain station and do their best to spruce up the news. Though this particular instance was in MY neck of the woods, similar scenes have played out across the fruited plain since affiliate owners first began paying strangers for out of town advice. Perhaps it was the advent of videotape that convinced station owners they had to rethink all they knew. No longer did news photogs shoot with film; what had been a laborious processing lag evaporated almost overnight. Now field crews could turn their footage around on a dime, edit in the field and report LIVE(!) from the scene of the train wreck, bake sale or apartment fire. Whatever the underlying cause, focus groups and think tanks rose to the fore, convincing local broadcasters they had to all be the same if they were to to be taken seriously by the citizenry. I supposed it seemed like a good idea at the time...

In a way, I feel for the folks tasked with jazzing up the broadcasts. To them, those regional reports must have seemed awfully plodding, chock full of hokum and embarrassingly sincere. No matter that viewers cherished these touchstones or recognized themselves in the accents of their hometown narrators. No, what these yokels needed was a bit of big city branding. So they jacked up the pace, colored the lights and rubbed away the local soul of your neighborhood newscast. Soon dispatches from Newark resembled those in Nevada, toothy readers glimmered in shimmering split screens and the self-serving live shot was born. Shortly after, the human element was re-tooled as well. Main male anchors had to look like Fortune 500 executives, their invariably perky partners made to resemble their slightly sexy second wives. Before anyone could think to protest, local newscasts lost all their hometown flavor. No matter where you traveled, the six o clock dispatch was just another report. from the United States of Generica

Sure, the slows got slicker. But along with that sheen came acres of empty reflection. Not sure if the new reporter knows how the justice system works? Who cares, have you seen the way she uses her eyebrows? Don't know what that thumping sound is? It's just Edward R. Murrow spinning in his grave. Crank up the news open theme music and you can barely hear it. While you're at it, turn over to The Deuce, would ya? They've got a new logo I really trust. Okay, I'm being facetious. But it's hard not to be glib when I look back at 'the hinge' - that point in time when luster trumped integrity. Don't get me wrong, a little window dressing doesn't hurt. I mean, look at my wife; I appreciate pretty people! But when sheer artifice is the coin of the realm, you end up with second-rate thespians who can indeed 'tell you 'bout the plane crash with a gleam in their eye'. That said, news anchors aren't evil. Neither are they stupid. Hell, the one that turned me onto this clip insists on remaining a journalist! Others could learn from him, but in an industry that values flash over facts, looks over books, intonation over understanding - well, they really don't have to.

Thanks, Frank!


Roch101 said...

Ah, the good old days! I think I knew some of those kids at the end.

You should post this again with a different title for your local readers. It will blow some (older) minds.

P.S. Was Charlie Harvel always old?

in-gun-ear said...

How 70's! HHHMM, maybe on second thought, 'FMY needs to go BACK to some of that! Their newscasts sure do drag these days.

bill said...

No formula? ha! how many Magid stations became "Action News"? fast paced, pepper the copy with "tonight" (even on a story that happened at 10 a.m.) "now" even though everyone has gone home, etc.. fires, car crashes, eye candy. but there is NO formula. for better or worse, many are still using that formula today. even the fake live shots.

Chris said...

I am really glad you posted this. It was a blast looking back at FMY when thye were GOOD! Sybil Robson arrived soon after they went to the new look and REALLY jazzed things up.

It's interesting to note that when they did this... the ratings SKYrocketed. So... the geniuses at WXII decided to do the exact OPPOSITE. They dropped "NewsCenter 12" and went with "The News". No opening music, no fancy graphics. Bare bones. The result? Ratings tanked. The "experiment" lasted 6 months and they returned to NewsCenter 12 with a set almost identical to FMY's. Well... they THOUGHT it was almost identical.

FMY's music and image campaign was part of a package called "It's All Right Here". So that is when XII began using "Hello Piedmont". But the damage had been done and as I said it took them years to bring it out of the basement.

And as for your station Lens, they remained pretty steady during that whole battle. And thats not a bad thing. Number 2 doesn't always suck. That's when GHP was
"8 Country".

Ah the good ole days!

Thanks again.