"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Getting To Know You–Happy Talk And The Decline Of Hard News

I grew up in the dawn of television.  My earliest childhood memories were of The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, and Yankees baseball.  I was eight when the delivery man brought us our first TV set.  I met him at the door and told him that I had been waiting for weeks. “Why?”, he asked. “There’s nothing on it.”

He was right – lot’s of test patterns, old cowboy movies, and only a few hours of broadcasting; but it was exciting.  I still went to the Palace Theatre for Saturday matinee double features, still listened to Sunday night radio, but Saturday morning kids’ programming featuring Hopalong Cassidy, The Three Stooges, and cartoons soon ended my treks to the movies. I was hooked.

The TV was placed in the den, and became the centerpiece of our family life. We rushed to finish dinner before the evening programming started, and all watched until the Star Spangled Banner played.  Television was social, electronic wallpaper, and was the facilitator of our family’s interaction.  Before television, we all listened to radio.  Radio was a very personal medium.  Although we all might be sitting around the set together, the action was being played out individually in our heads.  Each one of us created our own  characters and our own settings.  The West of The Lone Ranger was made up of my Indians, my hitching posts, my tumbleweed range, and especially my hero.  

Television never demanded much. Even in its earliest days producers understood that there was an inattentiveness characteristic of television-viewing; and the fact that one could absorb images while doing other things was key  At a glance you could capture character, setting, and atmosphere.  Aside from the intellectual programs of the Fifties like Playhouse Ninety which were nothing more than stage dramas filmed for television, other shows took better advantage of the medium.  Television executives became aware that watching TV was more than anything a social gathering, one in which television was merely the focal point of the evening.  It was the family interaction which counted. Cerebral dramas which demanded attention and thought were not the way forward; and Playhouse Ninety soon disappeared in favor of The Honeymooners.

The Honeymooners was the perfect program for television.  The characters of Ralph, Norton, and Alice were stock, predictable, and familiar.  They always acted the same way although the week’s story was always different.  The viewer never had to figure out a complex plot, navigate a maze of characters, or sort through innuendos and suggestions.  Ralph Cramden was in your face and never changed.  We could laugh, talk, chat, eat popcorn without missing a beat.

Not much later, television executives and producers understood an even more fundamental fact – the purpose of television was to sell advertising; and shows had to be devised to complement the ads, not the other way around.  If a a drama about death or dying was interrupted by cheerful ads for toothpaste, it was Colgate which suffered. Happy people showing off their teeth was trite and silly next to the real-life story related in the program.

It was no surprise, then, that television lost whatever intellectual or artistic pretenses it might have had, and descended to the lowest common denominator. Offend no one, was the mantra, appeal to as many people as possible, and sell as much product as time and resources allowed.

TV news was no different.  Edward R. Murrow is revered among old-time liberals for his hardnosed reporting and his uncompromising honesty and courage.  Walter Cronkite, his successor, was less confrontational (as the medium demanded), more avuncular and reassuring; and during his regnum, news was just news.  It didn’t take long, however, for television to realize that the somberness of The Evening News would not cut it. Although it was respected and watched, it was the odd man out in a lineup of happy shows. Everyone at Black Rock knew that the old-style profoundly serious anchor format would have to go. It was The Today Show which debuted in 1952 which heralded the way of the future.  News and entertainment were mixed, and entertainment prevailed.  You could ‘watch’ Dave Garroway and friends while making breakfast or cleaning up. Happy Talk local evening news became the standard.

Since those early days, television executives in news departments have fought a losing battle to keep entertainment out; and they lost because they were unwilling to give in to public demand.  Viewers never really cared about news, per se, just the drama of events and the characters who featured in them.  The image of missiles pointed in our direction was all that viewers needed; or the grainy video of Khrushchev banging his shoe on the UN table.  Analysis of the complexity of the Cold War was for someone else.

Barbara Walters recently retired from a long career in broadcasting and in an article in the New York Times (5.15.13), Neal Gabler writes of her as a television revolutionary because she was able to completely merge news and entertainment.  She did this in two ways.  First, she focused on the personal and tried to humanize the newsmakers; and in so doing provided the simple, easily understandable ‘news’ that viewers wanted.  Second, she interspersed ‘news’ with entertainment in one show.  She could interview a foreign head of state and then do a feature on a Hollywood star.  She trivialized the head of state by addressing his personal life, and exaggerated the importance of the movie celebrity by asking serious questions.  It was brilliant.

Gabler recognizes the genius of Walters’ work, but is highly critical of it.  He is old-school and laments the demise of real news and the blurring of the distinction between news and entertainment.  He is a savvy enough observer of media and Hollywood (An Empire of Their Own – How the Jews Invented Hollywood is a classic) to understand the nature of television and accepts what Walters brought about:

Traditionalists sounded as if it were the end of the world. In fact, it was the end of their world. News would never be the same… “The View,” which Ms. Walters co-created, has become a destination for presidential contenders and even presidents amid the show’s gossip and blather. “There’s only one Barbara Walters,” said the head of ABC News, Ben Sherwood. But he’s wrong: it is a testament to Ms. Walters that there are now so many.

In fact, there is an entirely new generation of cross-dressers.  Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart now blend comedy, satire, and news in a talk show format, and many younger Americans get their news exclusively from them.  Fox News has created a news format where argumentativeness, emotion, and interruption combine in an entertaining free-for-all slugfest which trumps any rational analysis or judgment. Who cares? No one tuned in for real news anyway.

In the Age of the Internet when irrational conspiracy theories abound and go viral; and where micro-sites feed the need for visceral expression of feeling, not ideas; it is not surprising that ‘real’ news has been relegated to NPR and even that shows signs of wobbliness.  If there is any doubt about the feel-good, happy talk side of American Public Radio, just tune in to the BBC World Service radio – an insistently intellectual, demanding, high-quality serious network.

There is no turning back.  There is now an equilibrium among advertisers, viewers, and producers.  Entertainment rules, ads are becoming more entertaining, and news has become entertainment.  Everyone is happy.

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