An Open Letter to Current TV
Dear Vice President Gore, et al.
I’m concerned. More than concerned, in fact: deeply troubled.
How can I say this, diplomatically? Hmmm.
Your new news shows look like crap!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And by “look” I mean the physical plant that serves as a backdrop for your hosts.
They are an embarrassment, and, much as I’d like to be a fly on the wall for the sessions in which your “look” was rationalized, whoever made the decision was an idiot, no matter what high-falutin’ Manhattan “black canvas” artsy rationalizations were woven from threads of purest coruscating B.S.
I want to pick up on a thread from yesterday’s conclusion to the “Selling the New Nixon” series: staging matters. Command of your elements matters. How you dress MATTERS. In show business, in politics and yes, even on TV news and opinion shows.
What I’m trying to say is that your presentation looks about as awful as that old cable access (do they still have cable access?) crank who duct-taped the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag behind his coffee table every week as his set on every cable system in the USA. (It was different guys, of course, but eerily the same awful presentation).
Live! Hello from Al Gore’s garage …
There is a DIFFERENCE between cable news and cable access, and, at this moment, Current TV has this dreadful look of a former governor of Michigan (I watched the debut, last night, of THE WAR ROOM with Jennifer Granholm), a former vice president of the United States, and two former MSNBC hosts broadcasting from an abandoned fallout shelter somewhere in the tri-state region.
Much as I would like to take vorpal pen in hand and do some serious snicker-snacking, let me offer some constructive criticism, instead. The rant portion is more or less concluded and you can unstop the eyes of children and impressionable persons, now.
I lived and worked in Hollywood for fifteen years, and I know a little something about media and presentation. Here’s a tale to establish my bona fides and get us into the meat of the matter:
Once, when I was a film critic, I attended a screening at MGM down in Culver City (after they tore the back lot apart and sold off all their memorabilia). And, I don’t recall the film, which was fairly forgettable, but I recall the smallish screening room, which, like all the old screening rooms, had plush seats and ASHTRAYS on the back of the seats, and you could actually often SMOKE in them, even though smoking was illegal in all movie theaters in town (L.A.M.C. Pi R Squared).
Anyway, sitting a few rows away in an uncrowded, small, screening room, was Leonard Maltin, from Entertainment Tonight at the time, and innumerable TV Movie guides, a fancy art book on Walt Disney (I have a copy in the other room and am too lazy to get up and check), etcetera.
A slight, trim fellow, with a ghostly but not ghastly beard, owlish glasses and a pleasant face on a slim frame, as we’ve all seen on television, at one time or another.
The movie ended. As the lights came up, he was easy to spot in his satin Mickey Mouse jacket — probably a freebie from a grateful studio, and definitely a cool bit of apparel — if I might break with heterosexual male convention for a moment and actually acknowledge another man’s clothing.
And then Leonard stood up.
From the waist up, slim, trim fellow with shoulders as narrow as his smile was broad.
From the waist down: The U.S.S. Missouri.
The line from the musical came to mind: “She’s got a pair of hips/just like two battleships.”
But, though he’s been on camera for years, you never see that. He actually looked like one of the leftovers of the zodiac: two disparate creatures welded together at the waist: half a horse/half a man, or half a goat/half a fish.
Here, he was half a slight, bespectacled film critic, half Moby Dick.
BUT YOU NEVER SEE THAT.
That’s called the magic of television, and I will counterpoint that with the brick walls of the “Young Turks” and the “War Room” sets.
Much of the evening consisted of the host talking
to inanimate television sets scattered throughout
the National Guard Armory basement it was shot in
DO NOT SHOW ME BRICK WALLS that make it look like you’re a bunch of amateurs broadcasting from an abandoned tenement lobby.
This violates the first tenet of motion pictures — which TV news finally picked up from what has been classical animation technique from before the clown jumped out of the inkwell: background movement. A motion picture is just that: it MOVES.
Just having a drunk lurching around with a hand-held camera DOES not make that dead brick move. Nor does a brick wall communicate OTHER than poverty; it may be charming at a coffee shop in Soho, but on video it’s death. It’s every bit as intrusive and not nearly as pleasant as Naked News, where strippers read the news and take off their clothes.
Looks kind of like somebody broadcasting from a garage
At least with that, you watch. Seeing someone in blue jeans, set against a backdrop of a brick wall with a bunch of old political posters prancing between large-screen flat TVs isn’t cutting edge. It looks more like a burglary in progress at BEST BUY.
Keith Olbermann’s set has vanished entirely (rumors of consistent technical errors and malfunctions), but I can’t say that I care for the “Charlie Rose on PBS” black void. It’s far superior to the brickwork derelicts that serve as the other sets, but Keith is a professional, and he pulls it off with aplomb. But, again, losing the tie is a mistake.
(Why? I’ll tell you at the very end. Most of this criticism is aimed at The Young Turks and Granholm’s show.)
Let’s go back to Hollywood: Yesterday, I told you the story of Ronald Reagan and how to hold a phone for the camera. No matter how “authentic” it might look to the method actor to cover half their face by holding the phone as one would ACTUALLY hold the phone, it serves no purpose and is, in fact, counter-productive. The audience already knows what a telephone looks like. They didn’t pay for that. They paid to see Marilyn’s face.
And, in TV news — as in Leonard Maltin’s example — we don’t need to see you from the waist down.
Look: I’m not suggesting that you go the way of Faux Nooz™ by adopting the video equivalent of the old college debate dictum: if you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, baffle ’em with BS.
We don’t actually multitask — we just weave endless fugues, combining processes, as when someone knits, watches TV and carries on a conversation about what the lady up the block said — and all that frippery fragments consciousness, rather than focusing it. But a dead wall is dead space, and that draws my eye FROM the broadcast and gets in the way of my watching it.
Less CBS News than “Fernwood 2Nite“
TV news looks the same all over the world for a REASON: it imputes authority and gravitas to what is, inevitably, a narrator reading from either a paper script or a teleprompter and looking into the camera.
It’s not meant to be an exciting medium, but it is meant to be a communications medium. Wearing a TIE communicates an underlying ethos and gravitas; wearing a suit, sitting at a desk lend a specific trained credibility to the host.
You see, the FORM of communication is a communication, too. I learned that in typesetting (which I did between writing gigs, and paid a lot better than being a Kelly Girl® temporary typist).
You can set a serious message in a certain typeface and completely destroy the meaning of the message just by the type design. Here’s a sentence:
You never did “The Kenosha Kid.”
And here’s that sentence in three different typefaces (you’re reading this in Georgia, most likely):
What you see here are the three standard typefaces that you see in virtually all commercial printing:
- Fritz Quadrata Bold (usually called “Albertus Bold” on PCs) is popular for commercial logos, and you can see it in the KFC and Safeway logos just about anywhere. You’ll be surprised at how many places you’ll find it if you look.
- Souvenir is the standard typeface for ad and magazine copy and is utterly ubiquitous. ‘Nuff said.
- Helvetica (usually called “Swiss” or “Ariel”) is used in place of Souvenir, and is very popular in instruction manuals and technical documents.
If you have those three typefaces, you’ve pretty much got a typesetting shop. Very little “fancy” type ever gets used outside of those three, with their bold and italic corollaries.
But EACH one communicates a subtly DIFFERENT message. Each sentence is slightly different. Or consider this:
Now, instead of looking at the sentences, all you see are the different sorts of type, each repeating the same sentence, but in a subtly different way. Or, to make it even more explicit:
Right now, the video “typeface” that Current TV is using is the bottom typeface, which gives the impression of a ransom note or a mad bomber, just as the “news” sets gives the impression of somebody who’s snuck into the basement of the local high school.
Somebody in business attire behind a desk, with a green screen background is the Fritz Quadrata of news around the world. And that format and formula weren’t derived by accident. They are used because, after trial and error, they WORK.
And please don’t let me see the cables and wires. This is a no-no from time immemorial. They don’t make you look “cutting edge” they make you look like a bunch of amateurs. And, trust me, conveying the metamessage of “cheap,” “dirty,” and “amateurish,” is NOT the way to present news. The digerati of Manhattan may think it’s kewl, but it is a monumental turnoff AND distraction.
The point is communication, so why undercut your message with an underlying silent communication that you either don’t know what you’re doing, or else you just don’t give a crap. Neither mitigates towards credibility.
And if credibility weren’t an issue, why hire Keith Olbermann? Why hire Jennifer Granholm? Why have Al Gore on primary night analysis?
Serious news show or garage band?
If you want to play news, wear a suit and tie, and if you’re in jeans, fine, but do it behind a desk. Contrary to popular delusion, you don’t need to have a news staff prancing about aerobically to deliver credible, reliable, important news. Consider Leonard Maltin.
All you need, actually, is two faces of a desk (front and top), and a green screen wall behind the desk. I’ve GOT a can of green screen paint from my last video shoot, and you’re welcome to it, if you want it. Bought at the movie supply house on La Brea across the street from the old KCOP 13 studios, it’s industry standard and goes on with a standard roller and brush. You can slap it on anything you’d like for a flat surface.
JUST that much would improve your programs about 300% and, at a bare minimum, wouldn’t DETRACT from what you’re messaging in the news.
If you can’t afford sets, take the old Hippocratic Oath to heart: First, do no harm.
The story is told that Jimi Hendrix gave two concerts at one of the Fillmores (I forget which) on New Year’s Eve, and, after the first concert, with all the jumping and behind-the-back and playing with his teeth tricks, Bill Graham supposedly said “It sounded like crap, man! You don’t need all the circus tricks. Just play the music.”
And Jimi did the second set stock still, creating a legendary performance. Reportedly, no one in the audience registered offense or walked out because the musician wasn’t jumping around on stage like a cocker spaniel on Meth.
I would commend that approach to you, Current TV. Forget the circus tricks, the phony embrace of the everyman squalor and poverty of what looks like you’re broadcasting from inside the local National Guard armory.
Did they forget to pay their electric bill?
OK. I know this is a bit painful and perhaps kind of embarrassing, but dammit, it’s IMPORTANT that an alternative progressive cable channel succeed. For all the rightie howling about MSNBC, it’s still under the thumb of NBC news, and infiltrated through and through with Joe Scarboroughs and Michael Steeles (and other, impossible rare conservative Black Republicans, who seem to gravitate to MSNBC and CNN like unicorns to a magic spring) and, until he fell off the Kooky Klannish Kliff, Pat Buchanan.
The corporate media are almost COMPLETELY bought, and Comcast, who now controls all NBC and MSNBC content, is run by Brian L. Williams, whose political affiliations are murky. Comcast’s new head of NBC/Universal, however, is a Republican Über-contributor named Steve Burke.
So you HAVE to succeed, Current. Now, buck up, and take a little constructive criticism from someone who doesn’t want to watch you shoot yourself in the foot and then hop up and down squealing while the Sadists of the Reicht howl with guttural grunts and clicks of glee.
If you’re going to show TV screens, just HIDE the damned TVs. This is a perfect metaphor for what’s wrong.
1939 black and white TV
For seventy years or thereabouts, the Cathode Ray Tube television was the standard and only TV available, and became available everywhere.
Same thing seventy years later
But, aside from some weird nerds who built their own HeathKit® color TVs from a kit, nobody actually ever SAW a cathode-ray television.
This is a CRT TV:
Naked Lunch: this is what a TV actually is
We “know” it’s true. Somewhere, we actually saw that “real” TV, but we have always preferred the snazzy package with the magical screen floating in the middle. The REALITY of the CRT TV is ugly and disturbing. So we give it a pleasant or even a non-descript, nothing “set” in which to watch the magic, flicking of the 60 scan per second electron gun zapping rare earths.
Right now, you’re broadcasting shows that are that Naked Lunch cathode ray tube and electronic assembly bolted to a metal (or plastic) chassis.
Do what everybody has done from day one and let that magic screen float in a pleasant box. Heck, you might recall that for “The Situation Room” the big star is the giant modular TV screen. But it’s still an ugly assemblage of wires under that package. Hide them wires!
The star of the CNN program, and Wolf Blitzer
Now, one last little story and then I’ll let you get back to your garage for the next show.
Because, he said, he’d understood from Talma — a personal friend — that you have to ACT THE ROLE required of you. When Bonaparte was engaged with the Legislature, he DRESSED as a legislator. When engaged in war, he dressed as a general, and never confused the two. The clothing, believed Napoleon, was essential to playing the role properly. Any actor will tell you the same.
Or, as Ivan Markoda used to teach his acting students at the VANMAR Academy in Hollywood: If you go through the motions of anger, your body will find the emotion, without a bunch of fancy Stanislavsky of Boleslavsky emotional memory crap. Act out the physical manifestation of anger, and the anger will be there in the scene.
If you’re going to play newsman and newswoman, ACT like newsmen and newswomen.
And, if you’re going to play newsman and newswoman, DRESS like newsmen and newswomen.
You might recall the movie “Patton” when George C. Scott’s character arrives to take command of a US Army in North Africa that’s just suffered its first disaster of World War II at Kasserine Pass.
He immediately issues orders that the men are to be in regulation uniforms, shoes shined, ties on, or else:
Gentlemen, from this moment, any soldier without leggings, without a helmet, without a tie, any man with unshined shoes or a soiled uniform… is going to be skinned.
He imposes what might seem a martinet’s version of arbitrary discipline, but there is a deadly serious reason for it, as he explains:
You want to know why this outfit got the hell kicked out of it? A blind man could spot it. They don’t act like soldiers; they don’t look like soldiers; why should they be expected to fight like soldiers?
That is advice to take to heart, Current TV.
Act like credible newspersons and LOOK like credible newspersons, and everyone will expect that you ARE newspersons.
Hey, I love what you’re doing. Just get the Bohemian Rococo out of the picture and run some mildly animated backdrops on the green screen behind the desk. Less setting, more sentience, please.
Florida primary “War Room” — or is it Radio Free Piscataway?
Movies is magic, friends, and if you don’t make that magic your friend, it will surely be your enemy.
Which is, alas, where it currently stands.
Cordially, yer pal,
A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.
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