"What people like best about 'Action News' is -- action news!" sings one TV station's jingle. "It's action, and people like to see things that are happening," notes a newsman at another station. And yet another local newscast begins with an announcer booming out the hot poop that it emanates "from the Action Center in Greensboro!"
In television, news is action, and action, news. "Media Probes," a sprightly and industrious six-part series on the new American information environment, treads nimbly through the world of local TV news in tonight's installment, at 8 on channels 26 and 32, and without any harsh words or verdicts shows it to be, as one might suspect, a land of fluff, glitz, hype and tripe.
And yet--just like the "Media Probes" show--it does catch one's attention. Not so much catches it, really, as gets it into a hammerlock and wrestles it to the floor.
Producer-director Martin Ostrow starts off with some of the slickly hysterical rock operas and light shows with which local stations open their newscasts. Included is the lapel-grabbing hard-seller of Baltimore's WMAR-TV, which offers not the news but "NewScene 2" (Washington's local newscasts have a certain dignity; Baltimore's are closer to the cutting edge of the cheap bombast).
Then there's a rare TV visit to Frank Magid Associates, in Marion, Iowa, and a very brief interview with Frank N. Magid himself. Magid is the dean of news consultants. Thanks to him, local newscasts throughout America are like airports or fast food joints; they lack all traces of indigenousness.
Magid's consultants are seen at work coaching an anchorman, who is told to sound "just a little bit more urgent" and to "overdo it on purpose." Then we follow the progress, or regression, of a newscast that is made over by Magid into something snappier and cracklier, and therefore, it is assumed, better-rated. Suddenly the nice little show has a "live ActionCam" and the outward disposition of a Tilt-a-Whirl. In Phoenix, meanwhile, a jet-powered news-o-copter sweeps the skies for stories, and one is found on the ground. The folks at home get, literally, a bird's-eye view of a full-length police chase through the streets below. Of course it's news; it moves.
Finally, "Probes" recounts the comeback tale of KNXT-TV, the CBS-owned station in Los Angeles, where the newscasts were also-rans until the arrival of a zippy dynamo named Jay Feldman, who says that either "sex" or "a great investigative report" are sure-fire ratings-builders, and later philosophizes that "a little demoralization" of the competition "can't hurt."
Maybe one could get footage of newspaper people talking the same way, but "Probes" presents us with some pretty unsettling industry norms. The program is hosted, with his time-tested crisp geniality, by John Cameron Swayze, once the host of NBC's prehistoric "Camel News Caravan."
Kit Laybourne, coproducer--with Mickey Lemle--of the whole "Probes" series, says of the project, "I think this may be distinguished from other PBS stuff in that it's amusing." How true; in the case of "TV News," it's amusing and appalling at the same time.