Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Katie Couric's Attempt to Change TV News

Katie Couric's premiere as the solo anchor of the CBS Evening News was not a failure, but it was a poorly-executed attempt to shape the suppertime news in her image. All of the new colors and segments was an attempt to turn the traditional news program into a morning show. It also was filled with weak journalism that was an embarrassment to the CBS news tradition. Some of the changes worked, others were instant failures.

The biggest nod to mornings was the new set design and color scheme. The orange/yellow/blue are the typical morning show hues. It's nice to see less harsh evening colors but the place looked like she walked into the set of the CBS morning show. It didn't work because it made her look "soft" and upheld her perky image.

Analysis it piece by piece:

The opening was pre-taped and Katie's outfit was just plain terrible. TV 101 teaches you don't wear white on television, much less on the typically darkened evening news. Her white jacket was totally out of place and the outfit made her look frumpy. She also had a quiver in her voice and was visibly nervous.

The first piece on Afghanistan seemed dated and didn't really contain much news. Then an edited, pre-taped interview with a New York Times reporter followed. So within minutes of starting her show, she was sitting in a chair with her legs showing, just like on her morning show. The guest was fiery but the whole piece was stilted--an attempt to appeal to Eastern liberals who would appreciate that she brought on someone with the Times pedigree.

The actual "news" of the day was not only delayed but quickly abridged into a few short clips. There wasn't much "news" on the CBS Evening News that night.

Katie introduced as "free speech" segment, which is probably the best idea of the new show. The choice of Morgan Spurlock as the segment's first guest was another nod to East Coast liberals--Spurlock is the Hollywood version of the "balanced" perspective. Yet anyone who has seen his material knows that the documentarian skews his material to attempt to show conservatives in a bad light and uses his TV show "30 Days" to try to convert right wingers into "moderates" (his term for himself). The segment from Spurlock said nothing new and was mediocre time-filler. But when it finished, Katie assured the audience that on Thursday show Rush Limbaugh would give his view. THAT'S going to be interesting!

The worst segment was the final piece which started with a clip from the '50s in which anchorman Douglas Edwards held up a photo of Prince Charles as a baby. That is what Couric used to justify airing the first TV photo of Tom Cruise's daughter Suri. It was laugh-out-loud absurd. This is what CBS thinks is news?

Then she asked for America's help in coming up with a sign-off phrase. Is this her idea of a joke? Does Couric not have the guts to step up and try something original? Or just plain say "good night" without having her own signature phrase. It was obviously an attempt to make her look open to outside opinions, but anyone who has studied Couric knows that she's stubborn and independent. She is putting on a "show" by getting the public involved in suggesting catch phrases and it was a disappointing ending because it made her look weak.

On a scale of one to ten, the journalistic value of this first episode was about a one. Little news. Overly rehearsed and scripted. Too much kissing up to the public.

Not that it was a total failure. Couric looked like she fit, but that's because they changed the serious evening news show into a fluffy feature-oriented morning-style show. And the free speech segment has some real potential. But there was nothing on this show that was better than what was done by Bob Schieffer. After the initial ratings spurt due to curiosity, the prediction is that the public will tire of the soft Couric approach and gravitate to the solid, strong male anchors on competing networks.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Lying Reality Show Pastor

"Treasure Hunters" premiered with the predictable teams of people, ranging from the "Miss USA"'s (which really weren't Miss USA's after all!) to the "geniuses" who almost lost the first challenge. But the highlight of the first episode had to be the Fogal Family. While EVERY other team on the race had a special name, the Fogals were just the "Fogal Family." Maybe because if they had a team name it would be "Hypocritical Christians."

Now before we get too down on the lying pastor who stole another team's item, we'll admit that reality shows DISTORT THE TRUTH--so we can only judge based on what we saw. But in a "confessional" moment the pastor (Brad) told the cameras that he would lie if he had to in order to win and worry about the consequences later. Just the kind of guy you want to lead a group of believers, right?

But when he admittedly took something from another team at "strategy" that was another offense against the Ten Commandments. So by the end of the first episode the ONLY bad guy was the Christian pastor!

Producers love to set up caricatures of people but this was particularly shocking. While the other teams worried about working with each other, the Fogals seemed to the be ones with the most "game strategy," namely the most willing to cheat and lie. What a disappointment for Christian characters.

Now I've met many reality stars and know that YOU CAN'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU SEE ON TV, especially on reality shows. Jerri Manthey from Survivor told us at the reality convention a couple weeks ago that the people who are portrayed as evil on shows are usually the good people in real life, and the people who are shown as the heroes on reality shows are usually the bad guys in real life. So if her theory is through, the Fogals are getting shafted by producers.

However, all reality stars admit that producers use material given to them by the contestants--so Pastor Fogal DID say he would lie if he had to and he DID steal something from another team. Now there may be much more to those stories, but he certainly gave them enough evidence to convict him of being the evil character on the first episode of Treasure Hunters.

So there are two lessons: first, if you are a believer then live your life that way whether you are pastoring a church or playing a game; and second, don't ever trust the camera's of reality shows to reveal truth!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Christian at Entertainment Weekly

It was a little line in an easy-to-miss paragraph in the middle of the story about the "25 Most Controversial Movies of All Time" in the June 16 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Writer Jeff Jensen came "out of the closet" by confessing, "I also happen to be a Christian."

It was an absolute shock. Here, in the middle of a story that featured nudity and R-rated movies, was a pop culture writer admitting that he has faith in Christ. And defending his right as a Christian to get hooked on the trashy material he is reviewing. He says he is attracted to anything society tells him he shouldn't see. "Whenever I hear a director say something like 'If you don't want to be offended, then don't go,' I totally want to go."

He wrote, "My more permissive tolerance for pop culture has put me at awkward odds with my religious peers."

I don't know why--Jensen represents everything in American Christianity today. He should be congratulated for taking the risk of announcing his faith in a publication that is not known for moral values and will probably get a wide response, from liberal hecklers to fellow Christians who want to point out his faulty thinking in scripture.

But the truth is that Jensen is a typcial American believer. A commitment to Christ is pretty much meaningless when it comes to how one approaches pop culture today. Christians not only go to the same R-rated movies and watch the same trashy TV shows, but some studies show that evangelicals actually watch MORE cutting-edge inappropriate material than none-believers!

Jensen says that he has an "appetite for more urgency, more risks, more soul in my movies." Yet all of the films he mentions in the article have absolutely no soul--they lack redemption and are just plain trash. Though he agrees that they are "outragous. Deplorable," he also calls them "Challanging. And even deeply rewarding."

And there is the problem with Christianity today. Believers not only live no differently than non-believers, but they extract unplanned meaning from what is actually money-making entertainment. These people who say they are trying to "engage the culture" would have been called "backsliders" years ago. They are not living their faith as they are living in the world and hoping they survive with their faith. They are not shaping culture by going to R-rated movies and watching trashy TV shows as much as they are BEING shaped by those very things they shouldn't be watching.

I had a college student who told me she was addicted to the sex-filled TV show Friends. And that she was a Christian. I told her I didn't see how she could reconcile the two. She claimed the show had "no impact" on her and that she thought it was good to keep current on pop culture trends to try to influence society, to which I responded that the show had a much greater influence on watering down her beliefs than she would ever know.

I would say to that student and to author Jensen that Eve in the Garden of Eden was the first person who attempted to "engage" non-believing pop culture when she talked with the serpant and bought into his sales pitch that eating the fruit from the banned tree would let her see things she had never seen before. Certainly there's nothing wrong with a mind-opening experience like that, is there? And there is even nutritional value in eating it!? Except for one small problem--God said don't eat it.

The same is true of the trashy film and TV world. No matter how "believers" want to justify what they watch by saying that they saw "redemption" in it or that they need to be exposed to it in order to understand how the secular world operates, the truth is that God said to avoid the "prince of the power of the air" and only watch good things and set your mind on the things above.

Entertainment Weekly named Passion of the Christ as the most controversial movie of all time. It's a silly choice, made by young writers that know little about movie history (the entire top 25 list includes two movies from the past few months--what a lack of historical perspective!). But Passion is notable in that another "Christian," Mel Gibson, attempted to influence society by using R-rated violence to show Christ's suffering. Yet the film really showed what the years of making R-rated, profanity-filled, rear-end exposing films can do to a man who claims to have religious faith. Gibson's past is filled with compromise in the movies that he makes, so it is no surprise that he would push a film about Christ to the R-rated level and American Christians would consider that progress. No, instead of him influencing society it merely reflected the movie industry's dark influence over Gibson as a movie maker.

Instead of influencing the culture with their own faith, naive writers like Gibson or Jensen are actually allowing their own souls to be influenced by the very evil that Christians are supposed to avoid. It doesn't mean a person of faith has to avoid everything violent or profane (since we're living the real world we will encounter enough of that every day), but it does mean that the line that a believer crosses needs to be drawn much tighter than it is now. When the opportunity for CHOICE comes up in making entertainment decisions, the choice for the true believer should always be held to the higher standards of avoiding evil and clinging to what is good.

Namely, next time one is offered pop cultural fruit, check to see if it's not just another trick to trap victims into thinking they are wiser than God.

Meredith Vieira's classy last day

There was no better comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of Katie Couric and her replacement Meredith Vieira than when watching their farewell episodes. Vieira came out looking like the winner.

The Couric Today Show tribute was a too-long three hours, featuring segments ranging from Katie being in news hot spots to her goofy antics to her husband's death, which led to her on-air colonoscopy. It was all about Katie and that wasn't good.

The tribute showed that Couric is really not the right person to lead the CBS Evening News. First, she is not that good at doing news reporting. She is a great morning host who is best when perky, but looks constipated when doing serious news stories. Second, she tries to hard to prove that she's tough by asking insensitive and poorly timed questions of major guests. Some complain that she shows her liberal political nature (which is true) but even worse she shows that when she conducts an interview she isn't so much interested in the truth as she is in making her own subjective point by asking demeaning questions. Third, she is a lightweight. She's really a girl next door who wants hard to play ball with the big boys but doesn't have the talent or even the natural ability to do it.

The NBC tribute also revealed her lack of chemistry with co-anchors. People blamed Bryant Gumbel for the cold chemistry between the two '90s Today hosts, but in retrospect Katie looks uptight and sheepish. Her early years with Matt Lauer had some spark but in the last fews years (since his marriage and the death of her husband?)the two have seemed like cold office cubicle co-workers. His minor attempts on her last day to gently tough her arm seemed awkward and distant. The fact is this woman has a wall up and has difficulty relating to the men who sit next to her.

Despite what NBC has claimed all these years (and CBS will now say in promoting her) Couric is not a good journalist. She not only isn't the best choice for the CBS Evening News--she isn't even the best female to be on a network newscast. To be honest, in normal circumstances she wouldn't even be considered worth hiring as a part-time weekend anchor in a major TV market.

But she is one thing--a MEDIA STAR. Like Oprah, Couric has become bigger than her average talents. And because of that networks need to fight over her.

On the other hand, the final tribute to Meredith Vieira showed that this woman has many talents that are underutilized on television. Certainly she has the solid journalistic backgound (multiple Emmys for a variety of news magazines such as 60 Minutes) but after nine years on The View she has developed a relaxed live-television personality and a great sense of humor.

Her final day was filled with entertainment and comedy. It proved that Vieira not only is great at live television but is the one who knows how to create chemistry with whomever she works (and she had quite a range to work with at The View!). The tears flowed freely at the end of the hour because the clips showed she really was the core of The View's success--her firm command kept control when others wanted to spin out of control.

The irony is that Barbara Walters was the last to say goodbye to Vieira. Walters had been the first female Today co-host and now was unofficially turning over the job to Meredith. One couldn't help but feel that Walters would have never picked Couric and that she was happy to see one she groomed on the View be rewarded with Walters' old job.

Yes, Meredith will do great on Today. If Katie was the "girl next door," then Vieira will be the mother and sister to the cast and crew. She and Lauer already have noticable chemistry in the promos for the new team and everyone seems to have a relaxed anticipation that this will be a good change for the show. Despite the three hours devoted to telling Katie how much she will be missed, in the end there wasn't much emotion shown by those involved with the Today Show. The final tributes showed that NBC is getting the better deal here.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

KATIE COURIC MAKES THE WRONG MOVE

Katie Couric ended her 15-year run on the Today Show last week and will never have the same level of success. It is understandable that she wants new challenges, but bottom line she is taking the wrong job at the wrong network at the wrong time.

The facts are that only three women have ever tried to become regular network weeknight news anchors and all have had the same experiences: the ratings temporarily rise slightly out of curiosity, then after a few months the viewership levels drop to below what the show was getting. Here's the harsh reality: female viewers tune out female anchors. Am I saying that female viewers want to watch male anchors? That's what the ratiangs show. So this is the wrong job for Couric. Especially since she is known for her perky girl-next-door image, which is not what viewers want to see delivering their news at night.

And if you have ever seen her on Dateline or subbing on the NBC Evening News or even trying to look serious on her morning show you know that she is just wrong for the job. When Katie tries to get serious she scrunches up her eyebrows and looks pained to the point of constipated. Hasn't anyone told her that she is just the wrong person for the job? I guess when you make $15 million a year people in the business want to kiss up to her and not tell her the truth.

She is also headed to the wrong network. CBS is the stodgy network of Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, even Andy Rooney. If Meredith Vieira couldn't survive working there, how will Katie? Couric is about the opposite of the CBS image. That may be why they want to bring her in, but she just isn't going to fit.

This is also the wrong time for a woman to attempt to be a solo anchor. Elizabeth Vargas just failed in a similar role at ABC, seeing viewers leave to the point that shortly before she left the ABC news dropped to third place for the first time in years. And with the war going on, viewers want to see a strong, fatherly male figure deliver the harsh results of combat. That is why Bob Schieffer's numbers have been growing--he's serious, old and trustworthy. How can the same network drop him for his TV opposite?

Prediction: The CBS news numbers will go up for a few months when Couric starts in the fall. Then 3 to 6 months in the numbers will drop and by late spring Couric will be struggling. They'll keep her in the job just because she is a "star" and an investment, but if CBS drops to third place with Couric in the anchor seat changes will occur. They will first fire the producer and bring in some new sets (this is standard TV operation--when numbers go down get rid of the producers or change the window dressing) but if the network stays in third place Couric may be replaced by the end of her second year.

Katie Couric is a sweet person who should have kept her morning job. She wants to be a trailblazer but needs to be told by someone outside her New York/Los Angeles media circles that she has made a bad choice. It will just take a year or two for the network to figure it out and even then they won't blame Katie. But Couric is the problem and not the solution.

Monday, June 05, 2006

REALITY TV CONVENTION HAS DISAPPOINTING CROWD

The first reality TV convention was held in Nashville June 3 & 4 and after attending the first day's events, the biggest surprise was that there were very few people interested in paying to meet their favorite reality stars! There were about 80 reality stars scheduled to attend but it looked like there were less than 100 people who paid to meet the reality celebrities.

The stars were seated at tables to meet fans and sell trinkets. Some came with just photographs to autograph, while others had entire tables filled with t-shirts and other items for sale. At least two showed up selling their spreads in Playboy--what were they thinking? This was a family event.

Or was it? Johnny Fairplay from Survivor was foul-mouthed and woman-hungry as he prowled the convention floor wearing dark sunglasses and carrying a beer bottle. He truly is as creepy as his TV personna.

The two questions that need to be asked:

First, are reality stars as hungry for fame as they appear? The answer is overwhelmingly yes. They are (for the most part) good, decent, average people who now have a taste of fame and are addicted to it. So they love to meet the crowds to get another fix. Some are obvious, such as Howie from Big Brother who was constantly promoting himself as the greatest guy in reality TV history. Others seem a bit ashamed, such as the geeks from Beauty and the Geek or the guys from Average Joe who know that the joke is really on them. But they were all there, looking for that next big break.

Second, who are the people who would attend this type of convention? Well, they were very average Americans, mostly in the young adult demographic group and overwhelmingly female. Granted, it's tough to make a judgment based on the small crowds at this convention, but there were many women who seemed to have the same love of reality shows that they used to have of soap operas. These women had memorized every character and circumstance to the point that minute trivia was being discussed years after the show had aired. There were some men there as well--I counted about a dozen single middle-aged males who quietly walked around. They were the TV addicts who enjoyed seeing these TV characters in the flesh.

The convention was a first attempt--the sessions were directionless and weak, but the effort should be praised. Maybe next time don't have it in Nashville and instead locate it where more big names congregate.

There will be more details on this as I put together the information for my upcoming book TV'S GREATEST REALITY SHOWS.