Happy talk instead of news


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.