Misreading the clear message about what the kids want


Expanded from the 8-19-2001 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

"Before you can preach, you must entertain." —Motion picture director Frank Capra

The recent "re-design" of Cable News Network's Headline News was undoubtedly deemed a success by management just because it created a lot of buzz. Countless electronic and print news stories were devoted to this innovative attempt to attract the youthful viewers so coveted by advertisers.

Critics raved about the ever-changing and intricate new TV screen and its similarity to a (gasp) web page, something supposedly quite familiar to teens and Generation X twenty-somethings.

BLUE ON BLUE. The network even hired ex-NYPD Blue actress Andrea Thompson away from her much-heralded stepdown from network stardom to journalistic hands-dirty humility in the backwaters of New Mexico. She swears she sent CNN an unsolicited tape. Yeah, right.

Might CNN have been mindful of the firestorm of guffaws suffered by ABC News when it sent actor Leonardo di Caprio to interview President Clinton? Better to avoid it by getting her a little experience up front.

Cynics, of course, pointed out that by hiring the former actress, CNN has admitted nine months' news experience is adequate preparation for the job. And it probably is more than enough. In England, news readers are called news readers because that's exactly what they do — read news copy written by someone else over video shot and edited by someone else again.

The buzz got even better when a website (tedsturnovers.com) run by pre-AOL merger CNN employees posted nude photos of Ms. Thompson. She admitted to no embarrassment, dismissing them as part of her quest for artistic creation in her previous dramatic incarnation.

She did not graduate from high school, but apparently has pretty solid credentials as an actress.

COPY CAT NEWS. The re-design itself was outright theft. Bloomberg Business News for years has employed an almost-identical hyper-cluttered screen.

Alas, after all this effort, embarrassment and media hype, the effort to attract younger viewers is doomed to failure. CNN is not the first network to add cosmetic youthful faces in an attempt to attract the increasingly detached young.

COMEDY CENTRAL. The answer to their problem lies in the Central American nation of Belize on the balmy Caribbean. Belize is an impoverished tropical paradise. It thus attracts a lot of U.S. retirees. Awhile back, U.S. officials expressed concern that Belizians were getting the wrong impression of the U.S. because they got their news from late night American TV talk shows.

Awful. Distortion. Imprecise. Blurring the line between news and entertainment. Sounds like just about any TV news show to me.

This is the exact "problem" CNN Headline News was trying to fix by baldfacedly hiring the barely qualified barenaked lady. (Actually, naked news anchors are right around the corner. The news rating leaders in some Russian and eastern European markets are those anchored by naked women. On one, the news reader slowly disrobes during the newscast until she's buttass naked by signoff.)

CNN had the answer but failed to use it. No cosmetics or uncomfortably hip language by over-30 anchors will change things after the early buzz has worn off. Network moguls apparently never asked why the Belizians and the Babybusters made late night comedy shows their principal news source.

I think it goes much deeper than the time block or the laugh track. I think these younger viewers invest the satirical sources with more credibility than the corporate anchors. Watch a few shows, see who's gettting mocked and you can get a pretty clear picture of who's doing what with which and to whom.

The irreverent critics have entertainment as their primary motivation. They must entertain before they can preach. They will thus concentrate on high profile stories and individuals so that they need not explain the premises of their jokes. That's good.

Television has been the glue holding us together as a nation for half a century. The erosion of the major networks and proliferation of media have fragmented the body politic at the same time. Without common daily experience we become isolated city-states, a large scale Balkan peninsula with an Idaho Militia in every backyard.

Corporatization breeds blandness and tuneout. The critics of CNN entirely missed the point — sarcasm of tone and comedic, irreverent intent promote credibility in and bonding by the audience. The precious line between news and entertainment is already so blurred that it's no longer worth trying to identify.

Let us learn from the great artists, not the technicians. Don't make me sleep, make me laugh and maybe I'll remember what you say.

Back in the 1960s, anthropologist Margaret Mead noted that we stood at a turning point in history, the beginning of an era when the old must learn from the young because the young are in much closer touch with the future.

The kids are telling us something with their TV remotes. The style exploiters, seeking the next Whassup?, have eyes but refuse to see. Mistrust of anyone over 30 remains a good rule of conduct for the young.

Address that mistrust through irreverence and good humor and you can reach them.

OOPS DEPT. This weeks burping media muckup awards go to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Oakland's KTVU TV-2 and moi.

In an editorial last week, the largest newspaper in the state trashed Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, for his recent fiasco with state workers' compensation insurance laws. Except they called him Maurice Williams. Perhaps it was a backdoor endorsement for re-election.

Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs recorded the shortest number one record in rock-n-roll history about 40 years ago. "Stay just a little bit longer" may currently be heard on Harvey's-Lake Tahoe TV commercials.

Last week, I wrote that the initials in the name of the Sparks Bethel A.M.E. Church stood for "American Methodist Episcopal." Actually, it's African Methodist Episcopal. I knew it and still blew it. Sorry.

The nationally noted Ten O'Clock News at KTVU in Oakland (telecast on KRXI TV-11 in these parts) screwed up too many times to count in a story on the history of Reno last Friday evening. Myron Land did not found the town. Myron Lake did. The Reno divorce attorney interviewed on the broadcast was not Harry Sassen but Harry Swanson. And Reno was definitely NOT chartered in 1903 and did NOT go on to become the area's rail hub. (For clues about the latter, check out the masthead on the front page of this paper.)

Be well. Raise hell.

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© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 32-year Nevadan, a member of the Reno-Sparks NAACP and Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of NevadaLabor.com and JoeNeal.org/ Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988 .

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