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.