Vintage Television

Vintage TV: ABC’s AM America and Monty Python

A post from 2008, retold.

What would happen if Monty Python hosted a morning television news program?

MontyPythonAMAmerica

It actually happened once. In 1975, ABC debuted AM America, its first morning news show. At about the same time, Monty Python released their seminal film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and were, I’m sure, looking for promotional opportunities. Somebody at ABC thought it might be amusing to have Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam sit at the anchor desk for an hour. Here it is, with all the pesky news bits clipped out for maximum Pythonage.

I think the best parts of this clip are the looks on Peter Jennings’ face and at the end when Eric, Michael, and Graham carry host Stephanie Edwards away and then dismantle the set.

If you don’t remember AM America, it’s because it was canned after ten months. Clearly, Monty Python’s antics did not help AM America catch on.

 

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History, Stories Told

Breaking the news of Space Shuttle Challenger

It was my generation’s “I remember where I was when I heard the news” moment: the day Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the air after launch. It happened 30 years ago today.

My “where was I” story is a little unusual — I was on the radio, and I broke the news to our listeners.

CBS News photo

CBS News photo

That makes it sound like so much more than it was. I was a freshman in college playing records on the campus radio station. WMHD broadcast at 160 watts from the eastern edge of Terre Haute, Indiana. Our signal could be heard well only up to about two miles away. I figure our listenership at that time of day was in the dozens.

My friend Michael burst into the studio carrying a portable television. He said, “The space shuttle just blew up,” as he plugged the TV in and turned it on. ABC News was already replaying the explosion over and over.

We watched silently, in disbelief, for several minutes. And then I realized I had a certain responsibility to tell our listeners, however few.

I let the song play out, and then I played our news sounder. I shook as I stood at the mic; my voice shook as I began to speak. I don’t remember just what I said, but I do remember tripping over my tongue. At least I got the word out.

And then I felt useless. WMHD had no real news department, just a couple students who rewrote stories out of the paper and off the UPI wire and read them on the air. All I could do, just like anybody else, was to keep watching TV. I went on the air after every record to update the story, but eventually told our listeners to find a TV and follow the story there.

I finished my shift playing records, I’m sure, for nobody.

Where were you when you heard the news about Challenger? Tell the story in the comments, or on your own blog (and please link back here)!

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Essay

Why local news is no longer appointment TV for me

The drunk police officer plowed his squad car into two motorcycles stopped at a red light. One rider was killed; two others were injured. A bungled and compromised investigation, continued bad behavior by the officer, and the slow wheels of justice kept this story at the top of the news for three years. At last, the officer was convicted of drunk driving, criminal recklessness, and reckless homicide.

wrtv_cap

WRTV photo

On the day of the verdict, I turned to local television news for the story. I hoped for reporting and analysis that would help me understand the conviction in the context of the investigation and the trial. Instead, the station I chose led with — and heavily promoted — the emotional reaction of one dead rider’s mother as the verdict was read.

Then the newscast cut to an early weather report, and made no more mention of a top local story of this decade.

It’s not like most viewers didn’t know of this story, which was heavily reported over the three years between accident and conviction. But there was so much more to tell that evening: to recount the story’s timeline, to summarize the trial, to connect the dots that led to the guilty verdict, and to share the day’s courtroom drama. The mother’s tears were rightly part of that story. But they were not the story.

To be fair: a good television news program shows the news as much as it tells it. Without action video, all that’s left is talking heads. When I was a boy 40 years ago, local TV news was balding men in gray suits, sitting at a desk, droning on about city-council meetings. Yecch; who wants to watch that? Unless those council members were throwing punches at each other, there was nothing to see.

Also, many stories would benefit from explanation and analysis that television doesn’t have time for. Even if it did, television news is by its nature a short-attention-span theater. People watch the news while living their lives: getting ready for work, sending kids off to school, making dinner.

But even within these realities, an average TV newscast was once a good enough summary of a day’s events. I don’t find that to be true anymore. Instead, I find TV news trying to keep me on the hook by driving strong emotions.

I’m no industry insider, but here’s what I think is going on. Thanks to hundred-channel cable and the Internet, viewers have more choices and any single news outlet has to compete harder than ever for viewers. Younger viewers favor these other choices so overwhelmingly that the TV newscast viewer’s average age has risen sharply away from the younger viewers advertisers want — and the remaining audience that remains. And the large corporations that own most television stations today have shareholders to please and/or enormous debt loads to shoulder, so they cut costs to the bone.

It’s driven TV news to rely increasingly on young, pretty, and presumably inexpensive talent, and to focus on dramatic stories they can tell easily and quickly. Bus crashes, police standoffs, drive-by shootings, train derailments, shackled felons shuffling into jail — these stories create compelling video and generate a dramatic, fast-paced news program.

I live in the 27th largest television market in the United States, which I would think would have a glut of experienced reporters to choose from. But in the last ten years or so, I’ve watched many middle-aged, experienced reporters disappear to be replaced by good-looking youngsters. They can’t possibly have their predecessors’ experience or contacts.

I don’t know whether it’s their thin experience or corporate edict, but their reporting often shuns depth and context in favor of immediacy and drama. A reporter stands live at the scene, even when the story happened eight hours ago and the place is empty and quiet now. She reports what she sees and perhaps what a police spokesman told her. She asks a man on the street for his opinion or gets a teary-eyed victim to emote for the camera, and then tosses back to the anchor. I come away knowing only that the thing happened and someone was upset about it.

And then there are the fear-inducing health and safety stories and the ambush-style “tough questions” that masquerade as investigative journalism. It’s all wrapped in a shiny package of needless, endless swoosh sounds and “Breaking News” banners.

Well, I’m repelled by it all. The 6:00 news used to be appointment television for me. But over the past ten years or so I’ve watched less and less of it. I catch it when I happen to, and when the weather is bad.

I’m not suggesting that local TV news return to 40 years ago with the middle-aged men and the droning. The things I mentioned above are not all inherently a problem. The over-reliance on them is.

So TV news: To win me back, dig deeper into your stories and tell them straight up, without only playing on my emotions. And when a mother cries as her son’s killer is convicted, go ahead and show her tears. Just wrap them in the bigger story that shows those tears’ context.

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Personal

To the New York Times: You’re too expensive

I get most of my news on my phone. Over the years it’s edged out the more traditional news sources I used to rely on. I gave up on my local paper almost a decade ago. I never watch cable news and almost never watch network or local TV news. I catch an occasional NPR newscast during my commute. Other than that, it’s my phone all the way.

nytI started to rely on The New York Times back when I had my Palm Pre. It’s easy to say that theirs was the best Pre news app; there were few apps for that forlorn platform. When The Times erected its paywall in 2010, they never got around to updating their Pre app to require paid login. At last, an advantage to being on an abandoned mobile operating system! For two years I had free run of The Times while everybody else could read only so many free articles before the paywall insisted they pony up.

In those years I came to really value The Times’ reporting. I felt better informed than I had with any of the sources I followed before – achieved just by scanning the headlines and reading maybe five articles each day.

About a year ago The Times finally got wise to us freeloading Pre users and killed the app. I went through withdrawal! Shortly afterward I upgraded to a shiny new iPhone 5, and the first thing I did was download The Times app. I could read only stories among the day’s top headlines – limited access, to be sure, but it was surprisingly satisfying. I could only have wished for greater access to their business and technology coverage. But they changed the rules a few weeks ago. Now I can read articles from any section, not just the day’s top headlines – but I’m limited to just three articles a day. I found this to be crippling. Every day I burned through my three articles in no time and was left hungry for more.

The New York Times’ reporting has value and deserves customers who pay. I’d be happy to pay in line with the value I think I get from The Times. But given how few articles I read each day, their entry-level digital subscription is too expensive at $195 each year. If they offered a limited-access subscription for $50 or $75 a year, I’d bite. I would probably even bite at $100 a year, though I’d grumble a little.

reutersIn frustration, I deleted The Times’ app from my phone last week and downloaded the Thomson Reuters app, which gives free access to a huge number of articles. The app is slick and easy to use; it’s better designed than The Times’ app. Reuters brings good coverage of national and world stories, and their technology and business beats are pretty good. Content is updated continuously, often while I’m in the app, so there’s always something new to read.

But I miss The Times’ voice, and keep hoping they’ll offer a less-expensive entry-level subscription. I’d come right back.

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Hummable television news themes

Did you know that all over the country, local TV news viewership is down?

It’s way down in every demographic except people older than 60. The older crowd remains stalwart: they watch local TV news. Trouble is, advertisers don’t care about you after you turn 40. If you’re a senior citizen, you’re not making your local TV station any money. And making money is what it’s all about.

I think I know what TV news’s trouble is.

It’s not that the stories they cover are long on drama and short on substance.

It’s not that stations got rid of all the older, experienced reporters and replaced them with fresh college grads (at a third the salary). Beauty pageant winners especially welcome!

It’s not that stations cover Dancing With the Stars and American Idol as if these shows were actual news.

It’s not that if a single snowflake is sighted anywhere in the metropolitan area, the station goes wall-to-wall weather, pre-empting your favorite prime-time shows.

It’s not that they go live to the scene even when whatever happened there happened six hours ago (and they probably slap a Breaking News banner across the screen, too).

It’s not that it’s so much easier to just get your news on the Internet.

No, I think the real problem with local television news today – the real reason viewership is in the toilet – is the theme music. Seriously. If you still actually watch TV news, quick: can you hum your favorite news program’s current theme? Of course you can’t. Not only have news themes been squeezed out in favor of more commercials, the tiny bits of music that remain are throbbing, stabbing sturm und drang designed to make you think something Really, Really Important Is Happening Right Now So Whatever You Do Don’t Change the Channel!!!!!!!!!!! It’s exhausting! Nobody likes it!

So. TV stations everywhere, I’m taking you to school. You want your ratings to improve? Take a lesson from these stations and their melodious, catchy, hummable news themes from the 1970s and 1980s. People heard this music and they immediately thought of your station. They were drawn in, like the rats following the Pied Piper. With the right theme music, it doesn’t matter what you cover!

(Did you notice how many of these shows were called Eyewitness News? It was probably the most popular name for local news shows in the 1970s and 1980s.)

Seriously now: TV news themes have been serious business since about the early 1970s. All but two of the themes in that video were composed and orchestrated by companies whose business is to make themes for television. (The WJW theme was cribbed from a recording of MacArthur Park by Hugo Montenegro, and the KABC theme is from the famous tar sequence in the film Cool Hand Luke.) Several of those companies are still at it today.

If news music interests you, go right away to the SouthernMedia News Music Search Archive, which is cataloging the news music used on every station everywhere for all time, complete with audio clips.

I’ve covered news themes before. Check out
the Classical Gas and Hello News themes!

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Personal, Stories Told

Why New Jersey’s anti-bullying law is both too much and not enough

A few boys started to pick on me a little when I was in the fifth grade. I was never a fighter; I always wanted to get along, and so I always tried to just laugh it away. Sometimes they were a little belligerent, and I tried to keep the peace by appeasing them. When that didn’t work I withdrew, often in tears, which only encouraged them.

There had been maybe 60 sixth graders in my elementary school, where the pecking orders had long been established. When we moved up to the middle school, our seventh grade class numbered more than 400. We boys had to figure out hierarchies anew, with all the one-upsmanship, displays of toughness, and putdowns that implies – made fierce by a puberty-fueled desire to impress the girls. But I was a late bloomer – boyish, scrawny, not chasing the girls yet. I was not tough and I still wouldn’t fight. So I was a frequent stooge for boys trying to impress others or salve their own feelings of inadequacy.

This boy was miserable.

The least of it was the taunting and name calling. If you drop the r sound from my last name it sounds like “gay,” so naturally I was routinely called James Gay. A few boys lisped the s. One boy even made up a little singsong taunt from it. Some boys cut right to the chase and called me a faggot.

The many times my books and folders were knocked sprawling from my hands for me to retrieve from under other students’ feet were not the worst of it either.

No, the worst was the physical abuse.

On the bus, several boys liked to flick their index fingers hard into my ear. My complaints to the driver got me nowhere. Sometimes I’d get lucky and get the seat behind the driver. The boys wouldn’t mess with me there.

At school, teachers and staff seldom visited one dim back hallway. After being deliberately tripped three times and then outright assaulted twice back there, I complained to the shop teacher whose classroom was around the corner. He said that he couldn’t help me unless he saw someone hurting me. I wanted to say, “Then come out of your dang classroom and look!” I finally gave up using that hallway and went the long way, which involved going outside and around the building.

The gym teachers had looking the other way down to a science as the bigger boys would deliberately pass the basketball right into my face, spike the volleyball into my head, pitch the baseball at my gut, run me down on the track, and so on. After showering one day, several boys forced me into the adjacent restroom, all of us still naked, and tried to shove my head into the toilet. I hollered loud enough that the teachers couldn’t ignore it, but when they came into the restroom they only told us to break it up. I refused to shower after that.

I dreaded going to school. I grew depressed and fearful, and withdrew deeply. It was bad enough that my dad, who is not the most emotionally astute man in the world, noticed that I wasn’t myself. I told him what was going on, and he said that it would continue until I fought back. He tightly duct-taped a roll of pennies and told me to carry it for the day it came to blows, as the weight of the pennies in my fist would make my punch hurt more. The pennies in my pocket actually made me feel a little better, which might have been Dad’s purpose all along. An assistant principal discovered my penny roll one day, called it a concealed weapon, and threatened to suspend me if I kept carrying it. Dad said that if I were suspended he would visit that assistant principal to find out why he allowed such bullying to go on in his school. I wondered why he didn’t just go visit the assistant principal anyway.

I needed more help than I got.

There seems to be greater awareness of the bullying problem in schools today. Many schools have anti-bullying programs. In particular, New Jersey is trying to address the problem by passing a sweeping and complex law called the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which took effect Sept. 1. After reading my story, you may be surprised to learn that I have mixed feelings about this law. I applaud that it prescribes training for students, teachers, administrators, and even school board members in recognizing bullying and in their responsibility to try to stop it and report it when they see it. But it is too complicated to administer, defines bullying too broadly, fails to recognize bullying’s pernicious nature, and doesn’t offer any meaningful help directly to the victim.

The law starts to go sideways when it tells teachers they risk their licenses when they fail to report bullying. It adds layers of bureaucracy when it mandates that any report of bullying must be escalated to the principal, who must begin an investigation within one day and complete it within ten, and report all investigations to state government twice yearly. It also fails to fund the additional staff it requires – anti-bullying coordinators at the school-system level and an anti-bullying specialist and “safety team” at each school. Pity the existing guidance counselors and social workers whose workload just increased. I fear all of this will lead overworked staff to comply just enough to avoid the law’s penalties.

The law labels bullying as any act one student does to another that causes emotional or physical harm, but ignores bullying’s inherent imbalance of power. By the law’s definition a simple insult can be considered bullying, as can a straight up fight between two angry students. This could flood school officials with reports that aren’t really bullying, but that they have to investigate and handle as such anyway.

Meanwhile, a determined bully will quickly learn when and where to deal out abuse to avoid detection, and may instill such fear in victims that they will not speak up for fear of retaliation. No law is powerful enough to reach into every dark corner in which a bully can lurk.

In the end, victims need direct help that this law does not offer. They may need counseling to work through the depression and fear they feel. They may need help in setting and defending their personal boundaries. They may benefit from training in self defense, because fighting back may sometimes be their only recourse when their back is against the wall. Through these things they can start to feel more personally powerful, which will make them a less likely target in the future.

I wish my dad had enrolled me in martial arts in the seventh grade, or at least taught me how to fight. I would have benefited from seeing a therapist to help me work through my emotional pain, deal with my depression, and help me build my confidence. The middle school owed me teachers and administrators who took me seriously when I complained. Fortunately that’s just what I found when I escaped to the high school two years later. One day in the ninth grade one of my tormentors shoved me into my locker and shut the door. A custodian popped the lock when he heard me yelling and banging frantically. The teachers in the adjacent classrooms came to investigate and told an assistant principal what happened. I’m not sure what the assistant principal did to the boy, but he gave me a wide berth for a long time after that and never harmed me again. I got some of the help I needed, and nobody needed a law to compel it.

I’m still not tough, but I will stand up for myself today. It all started when I came to accept myself for who I am. Read that story.

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