Thursday, July 08, 2004

All Ted Baxter, All the Time
I quit regularly watching local TV news more than 10 years ago. Even before the Internet, the typical mix--crime stories, features about cute kids and cute elderly people, drug-company press releases dressed up as medical news, whiz-bang weather gadgetry, and highlights of games 24 hours old--seemed like a lot to sit through in order to get two or three nuggets that meant something to my life. Now it's just irrelevant, except as a source for mockery.

Here in Madison, we have four local news operations. The CBS affiliate has the least-photogenic anchors you'll ever see in a market this size. It also produces a five-minute 10PM newscast for its co-owned UPN affiliate, which it markets as "all the news you need to know before you go." (Anyone who finds that sufficient reason to watch should have their voter registration revoked.) The ABC affiliate apparently hires its anchors through a temp agency because they never stay long. It also produces a cheap-looking 9PM newscast for the Fox affiliate, always leaving room for Sinclair Broadcasting's wingnut commentaries at the end. The NBC affiliate had the market's most popular anchor team for several years--until they fired the anchorwoman for being too old and replaced her with somebody who looked almost exactly the same. Meanwhile, the anchorman lost a lot of weight and everybody though he looked great--until he revealed he has cancer. The WB affiliate is trying something new--bringing a morning-news sensibility to a prime-time newscast, talking to the Boy Scout troop doing a fundraiser or the woman from the Humane Society who brings pets on for adoption. (I said it was a new idea; I didn't say it was a good one.) As for the field reporters at all of the affiliates, they're utterly interchangeable--mid 20s, perky and earnest, and passable as long as they're scripted, but if they ever have to ad lib, the whole thing starts looking like public access.

I suspect that my description could apply in many, if not most, TV markets across the country, big and small. Salon's Charles Taylor did some research in major markets and found that the state of local news--what they're reporting and how they are reporting it--is pretty dire. His story is funny in a painful way--especially if you have media experience or know media people well--as are the flub clips in an accompanying story. (The one with Fox News' self-righteous Shepard Smith is worth the click all by itself, in which his withering condescension turns around and bites him in a thorougly satisfying way.) Painful or not, it's a fun topic to explore, especially now that local TV airheads will be getting their just desserts in the new movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, starring Will Ferrell as a pompous San Diego news anchor in the 1970s. It opens tomorrow, and the reviews I've read so far are pretty good.

(This post has been edited since it first appeared.)

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