A news junkie’s confessions

by MORTON BRYER

Larry Michie’s recently-posted Simesite piece “Happy Talk Instead of the News”, jogged my memory of what tv news was like in ancient times, meaning before the Second World War. I scraped away the cobwebs and I actually remembered seeing my very first tv news program, which I caught in the lounge of the Trans-Lux Newsreel theater, at Broadway and 72nd street, on the evening of September 3, 1939. I went to the theater with my father to see the latest newsreels from Europe, since that very morning the Brits and French had declared war on Hitler’s Germany. There was no footage yet on the actual fighting, since in those days it took about a week to get film over the Atlantic, usually, I think, via the Pan Am clipper from Lisbon, but there was background material and photos.

At that time, there were either two or three tv stations broadcasting in New York. According to Google, there were only about 1,000 tv sets in the whole metropolitan area. These were scattered around a few wealthy homes, bars and theater lobbies.

I still remember that the anchor man that night in ’39 was seated at a plain regular desk and merely read off the latest bulletins, probably from the Associated Press or the United Press wire services. But the announcer did hold up blow-ups of the photos that they had received from overseas showing Germans advancing rapidly through Poland and the Poles speedily retreating. You could see photos of bombs hitting Warsaw and pictures of Chamberlain making his famous declaration of war speech. It was a fascinating experience to actually see all this on a screen, instead of just hearing a voice telling it to you on the radio or reading it in a newspaper.

To fast forward to 2007 and Larry’s story, which in my opinion was right on, I’ve been watching the same network news program in the mornings for over three decades and am now ready to pack it in. Two giggling gals do the anchor job and, as though that weren’t annoying enough, they then switch from a cackle to a very serious puss at the drop of a body. And there have been lotsa bodies dropping lately.

Nowadays, I frequently switch to Fox, which is always lively, if not objective, and also CNN. These two cable operations remind me of the Hearst vs. Pulitzer feud during the years of yellow journalism in the late 19th century.

My local burg, Norwalk, Connecticut, has its own station, with a complete news staff, anchor person, weatherman and even a sportscaster, though I have a sneaking suspicion, at the end of day, they all get handed brooms to clean the station. Said anchor person looks like his suit was picked up at our local Wal-Mart, but it is a conservative stack of threads. Excellent for local news and commercials for neighborhood emporiums.

However, being an incorrible news freak, I try to watch all the channels I’m fed by cable service, including the BBC, French news, Deutsche Welle, Polish news, RAI, Spanish language stations (lotsa them around nowadays), and if I need a snooze, PBS, a sure cure for insomnia.

I find the Beeb fairly objective, and their half hour news program or “programme” well produced, courtesy of the U.K. taxpayer.

French news, also on for a half hour at 7 pm, with subtitles in English, is my favorite news program for the past few years. Very mature, objective. I find some of the local news quite interesting. Typically of the French, there are frequent programs on Gallic grub. Last week, they interviewed some French troops stationed in Kosovo, and they shot the program during a chowdown. The camera focused for a few seconds on the food, which looked quite tasty, especially compared to the swill served to our brave lads and lasses in the armed services. In my second life, I want to serve in the Boy Scouts, otherwise, the French army. Moreover, the troops were drinking WINE, though one wimp insisted on chug-a-lugging beer. Doubtless he hailed from Alsace. If you served wine or beer to our brave warriors in Iraq, I bet there would probably be a congressional investigation. Booze is just for officers and politicos! At home, I usually try to organize it so that I’m about to sit down to dinner before French news starts. Sort of an aperitif.

Alas, RAI Italian news and Polish news do not have translations, but both look quite interesting and the commercials on Polish news, advertising local New York sawbones, dentists and beaneries, I find amusing, and occasionally prompts from me a guffaw. Stash, pass the kelbosi!

Spanish language news programs, also no translations (I understand a bit of pigeon Spanish) can also be amusing, especially the commercials. “Un gran Mac”, “Bebe Coca Cola” or one for “Boogerking” are a gas. Lotsa more blood and guts on their shows, than on OUR newscasts, by the way.

Deutsche Welle, German, but for some odd reason, broadcast out of Brussels, is very well done, in my opinion, with their anchor Herren speaking perfect English. The other night, they did a piece on a German sub, deep sixed off the Norwegian coast in ’45 and now leaking mercury, much to the alarm of the locals. And with still the bodies of over 70 swabbies aboard.

Finally, if you live in the States and have problems catching your forty winks, I suggest you tape one of the PBS news programs and watch it at bedtime. I predict you’ll be in the arms of Morpheus posthaste.

As a postscript, let me add that I was in Virginia about ten days ago and a local station in Hampton Roads covered the massacre of the students at Virginia Tech. The anchor fellow, an immense hulk of a guy, said with a drawl: “Those students are now upstairs”. That to me was a new way of describing splitting for St. Pete’s gate.

Love the news, the more, the merrier! Next trip south, I must check out the local station in Picayune, Mississippi!

We are on your side

by FRANK SEGERS

We have received this feedback on Larry Michie’s observations on the state of TV broadcasting in the US

Just read Larry Michie’s piece on Simesite. Very well done as usual. I think what Larry is getting at here is the complete trivialization of tv news carried on local o&os and indie stations. That is certainly true on the local Tucson (Arizona) tv stations. Unwatchable, although they do provide handy updates on local traffic conditions and weather (a big concern here).
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Happy talk instead of news

by LARRY MICHIE

Former Variety TV editor, Larry Michie, contributed this piece after watching the tube on a recent trip to Boston. Alas, I suspect many of us in and out of the US have the same reaction when watching American news programs, though the “happy talk” is more impalatable in some of the channels than in others.

We welcome any comments, amplifications, negations or different takes that you’d like to send us on the subject Larry has raked up. Or just your own views on new programs on TV.

I turned on the television set in our Boston hotel room one morning to catch up on the news. Virginia and I had been there for just one night. I wanted to know what the major headlines were and to find out if the weather would be good for our drive back to western Massachusetts. Flipping around from one channel to the next, I got snippets of the weather. I never did get the headlines.

Each of the local channels featured a pair of anchors – I think a federal law must have been passed requiring that there be one male and one female anchoring each local TV news show – and each set of chirping sopranos and polished baritones said essentially the same thing, to wit, nothing. They did produce a lot of cheerful chatter back and forth, and when the weatherman or weatherwoman was introduced, there was a fresh barrage of chuckles and light-hearted banter. I kept clicking the dial hither and yon until we were ready to check out and never did hear or see anything that interested me. In fact, I can’t really remember if those were men and women anchors or Jessica and Roger Rabbit.

To slightly twist the title of something famously beautiful but bad, today’s television news might be called The Triumph of the Nil. There just ain’t much there.

The Boston experience put me in mind of the series of startling stories filed by the late Bill Greeley during the 1970s about the conquest of local news by consultants who preached the doctrine of “happy talk.” Bill’s stories drove people in the television industry nuts, and they complained mightily. Naturally they complained. The stories made them look like terrified nitwits. But the consultants definitely won the day, particularly, I suppose, in the morning news slots, and that’s when I want my TV news. Despite all the choices of cable, the best I can do is BBC America, and even that leaves me unsatisfied. Don’t bother to mention the so-called news shows where pig-headed idiots shout opinions at each other.

For years, I was a tolerably happy morning news watcher. Before I retired, I had my bowl of cereal at 7:45 or so and watched CNN Headline News until I left for work at 8. Perfect. Headline News was my ideal – no chatter, no crap, just a news reader giving me the top stories with little interpretation and no bloviation.

Somewhere along the line, however, CNN must have decided that competitive forces demanded happy talk, and now there is cheerful giggling back and forth orchestrated by a glamorous “personality” and, of course, a tremendous emphasis on Hollywood and whatever celebrity gossip is currently enthralling the nation. It’s enough to make my cereal taste bad, even with the reinforcement of banana slices.

There are plenty of specialized news channels on cable, of course, and I sometimes spend thirty seconds with The Weather Channel (much more time than that when we still had a winter house in the hurricane zone of the Gulf Coast) and I like to check in with CNBC to see what new interpretations they can possibly come up with to explain why the stock market went up or down and what it all means. Those business news shows are so heavily laden with people pimping their own stocks and strategies, however, that it’s more like going to a convention of used car salesmen than tuning in the news.

I’m still devoted to newspapers, but the same forces that panic TV news directors have all but paralyzed editors and publishers. People, especially young people, rely more and more on the Internet, advertising is migrating to the Internet, and so on and so forth. The response of the print media has been to cut editorial staff and to force the remaining reporters to spend less and less time reporting and more and more time updating breaking stories on their newspaper web sites. Almost all web sites are free, and their advertising seems less than lush. Oops, time to offer early retirement to another fifty reporters.

Although I still buy my newspapers every day, and linger over them with a good deal of pleasure, there’s no television news I want to watch for more than two minutes, with the exception of times of severe crisis such as 9/11. Even then, television news is a kind of default setting, just because the cameras are there.

The evening network news shows apparently still try to be serious about journalism, but they don’t fit into my schedule of television watching. I made an exception following the earth-shattering promotion of Katie Couric as the new CBS News anchor. I watched the first show, then watched another show a week or two later. Nothing against Ms. Couric, but both the shows I saw were horrible. How about if she sits behind a desk and looks directly into the camera and when the little light goes on she says, “There were at least fifty people killed by yet another explosion in central Baghdad today, a leader has emerged in the contest to become the next president of France, and the latest medical research suggests the possibility of virtually eliminating one form of cancer. First, the latest from Baghdad.” And on from there. Colorful sets, swirling lights and clowns juggling dachshunds are not necessary.

Meanwhile, bring back the real CNN Headline News. Please. Real news, delivered straight, around the clock, whenever I want to tune in. No frills, no giggles. It’s even okay with me if the news readers are ugly and don’t wear clothes well. Just give me the news and forget all the other stuff.

It’ll never happen.

Happy talk instead of news

by LARRY MICHIE

Former Variety TV editor, Larry Michie, contributed this piece after watching the tube on a recent trip to Boston. Alas, I suspect many of us in and out of the US have the same reaction when watching American news programs, though the “happy talk” is more impalatable in some of the channels than in others.
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Norma Nannini, Sue Wolf and ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’

by RON HOLLOWAY

Last August, when Norma Nannini passed on to her reward, I got the news a bit late to pen a fitting eulogy.

All I could say in any case was to repeat what every other mugg had already said about her work-strewn office on the fourth floor of the Variety enclave. Plus her nimble ability to produce two tickets to a hot Broadway show for Dorothea and myself whenever I stopped by on 46th Street.
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