Newsglut '82 continues . . .
From New York, it's "NBC News Overnight" and "Early Today." From Washington, it's "ABC News This Morning." Come fall, CBS will join in the relatively new competitive fracas of viewerdom's outer limits with its own late-night and early-morning news shows, and very soon--via satellite from hither, thither and everywhere else--there won't be a moment's peace from any of this.
A new age of intense media bombardment has begun. No living room will be safe from The World; nor even will the bedroom.
Last week, ABC and NBC premiered their new programs, first strikes in a large-scale war. The depths of July are considered a safe time for on-air shakedown cruises, since few people are watching. ABC moved up the start date for its early-morning show to compete with "Early Today" on the grounds that the early bird gets the Nielsens, or at least a competitive edge for the later, and maniacally competitive, "Today" and "Good Morning, America" shows.
No great viewer demand has been demonstrated for news programs at these unearthly hours. It has been speculated that with such forays into remote time periods, the networks are responding to initiatives by 24-hour news services like Ted Turner's Cable News Network, and its offshoot CNN-2, and the newly formed ABC-Group W Satellite News Channel. But neither of these services has yet to register a micro-drop in ratings or earnings. It's more likely the networks simply want to stake out and claim additional time periods as a hedge against future technological developments and changes in viewing patterns.
Both "Early Today" and "This Morning" appear competent and useful enough as no-frills utilitarian news broadcasts, but it's NBC's sassy-classy "Overnight" that has a real personality, largely thanks to the reuniting of Lloyd Dobyns and Linda Ellerbee as its co-hosts. Dobyns and Ellerbee previously presided over the NBC newsmagazine "Weekend," precocious brainchild of Reuven Frank, the once and current president of NBC News.
"Overnight" had an unusually assured and accomplished opening week. Dobyns uttered the first words: "Tonight, to inaugurate our program, we bring you an eclipse of the moon. What other program ever did that for you?" Ellerbee told viewers after early shots of the eclipse that Dr. So-and-So of the Hayden Planetarium "will now take the fun out of it."
The program is not a series of headline blasts or rehashes of earlier newscasts. Instead, it seems instantly to have found the ideal, moderately acerbic tone for the hour at which it appears; it's neat and trim but it has nice rumples. When correspondent Robert Bazell (trying much too hard to be funny) failed to materialize on camera for an update on the moon, Dobyns could be heard to grump, "Oh, he'll come in sooner or later." Dobyns doesn't just have the most distinctive wry delivery in television since the great David Brinkley; he also communicates a bolstering we're-all-in-this-togetherness. He's prematurely grouchy, the way a lot of good journalists are, but he channels his grouchiness into wit and bemusement and irreverent resignation.
Ellerbee--a writer, like Dobyns, not just another blabber--has many refreshing qualities, but during premiere week, she often seemed to be forcing the swagger and, occasionally, what was meant as wry came off as smart-alecky. There was also some irritating hypocrisy. Ellerbee seemed to be ridiculing a TV station that had shown two replays of a referee getting knocked to the floor in a Las Vegas boxing match, but "Overnight" showed the replays, too.
Worse, in a sloppily assembled report on the success of Steven Spielberg's "E.T.," Ellerbee first referred to the film "Tron" as "a Disney that flopped"--two days before the film had been released--then said smugly, "To make sure that 'E.T.' would continue to break records, Steven Spielberg made the television talk show circuit. He was all over TV." This was said as if it were somehow suspect; was Spielberg exploiting the networks by making himself available for interviews? The remark was followed by a clip from an interview with Spielberg that Gene Shalit got for NBC's own "Today" show.
They're going to have to be more careful with the sarcasm on "Overnight" or they're going to turn into a jury of jeerers. Also, Ellerbee still does not appear comfortable with her 'prompter--her eyes seem dazed and evasive--and she looks like she could use a week at the Golden Door. Still, Ellerbee remains one of the most direct and effective, and least artificially bubbly, women in TV news.
The best pieces on the "Overnight" show the first week were those done without correspondents. Tape editor John Long contributed a nifty montage of the space shuttle flight; there was another such narrationless piece, later, on POW-MIA "Recognition Day" ceremonies in Washington. By contrast, the windbag approach of a correspondent like Bob Abernethy seems too strident and pushy for the hour. The first 13 minutes of Friday's show were naturally devoted to the crash of Pan Am flight 759 near New Orleans and used reports that had aired on the city's NBC affiliate, WDSU-TV, which included a striking shot of the rescued baby arriving at a hospital in an ambulance.
Through the week, the subjects ranged from a new "Whack-A-Mole" arcade game in Denver to the hazards of covering President Reagan by long, long lens at his Santa Barbara ranch (voice in editing room: "I think that's Reagan there on the white horse") to the Chinese census to a Chicago composer who incorporates the yelps of animals in his scores ("After all, we're animals," said fellow composer John Cage).
Moments from broadcasting past were adroitly plucked up, one of them a scene from a prehistoric "RCA Victor Show" on NBC--an adaptation of a Chekhov comedy--in which actress Nancy Davis, now Nancy Reagan, said to Ezio Pinza: "Never mind your idiotic rules. Show me how to shoot the gun so I can shoot off your head!" Regular nightly segments include a "crawl" of sports scores, a hopscotching "Newsreel," and "Not Ready for Prime Time News," a grab bag of odds and ends, mostly odds.
What "Overnight" reminds you is that there's a heckuva lot of news out there that TV doesn't report--it isn't crucial to your very existence, but you feel better for knowing it--and 1:30 in the morning is not a bad time to report it. The executive producer is Herb Dudnick, and one of his first priorities should be to replace Michael Devon's mopey electronic musical theme (roughly, a trick car horn accompanied by computer gargling) with something a tad more human. Dobyns and Ellerbee, after all, are among the most human beings in network news.
"Early Today" had a sleek and slick first week as well. The half-hour program, which stations can air at either 6 or 6:30 a.m., features Bryant Gumbel, Jane Pauley and Willard Scott gliding through executive producer Steve Friedman's no-nonsense look at the day behind and the day ahead. "First time out of the gate wasn't too bad," said the infallibly personable Gumbel after the premiere broadcast.
Headlines and weather are repeated during the half-hour and regular features include a business segment with visits from Alan Abelson, editor of Barron's, who looked sick on the first show (he perspires; Gumbel doesn't) but proved astute and quotable. Gumbel asked him what Reagan should do if his recession cures don't work. "I think he ought to think of an early retirement," Abelson said. On Wednesday's show, Abelson observed, "Wall Street loves President Reagan and just hates his economics."
A newscast like this lends itself to compartmentalization; viewers should be able to predict what will happen when, if the show is to be a service. "Early Today" manages this trick without coming across as overly rigid. One daily feature, "Today's Issue," seems pretty expendable, except that Pauley--still the leading knockout in all of TV News Land--handled the interviews on "America's Future" very smartly. They were totally hitchless.
To the first day's guest experts, she asked, "Is the nuclear family as we know it doomed?" (No time for beating around bushes at this hour.) On Wednesday, when the subject was medical care of the future, Pauley buttonholed her guests with, "All right: I'm sick in the year 2000. Where do I go? Who do I see?" On Friday's show, she asked a Queens College professor if maybe the word "family" should be "redefined." He told her, "Well, we can 'redefine' anything. We can redefine peanut butter."
Gumbel, Pauley and that gigantic marauding blossom Willard are all as tops as people on television at such an hour could ever be expected to be.
Considerably nuts-and-boltsier, ABC's competing "This Morning" is designed as a "wheel" of four segments that local stations can take intact or interrupt at various junctures for their own newcasts. The program, co-anchored by the unflappably capable Steve Bell and newcomer Kathleen Sullivan, who had the good fortune to escape Turner's CNN operation, is in the ABC News style, which you like or you don't. It's on the blammy side; bombasto-news on bombasto-vision from the American Bombasting Company.
Tighter and terser than the NBC show, "This Morning"--produced by Bob Frye--has other ABC hallmarks. The screen is flooded with type on story after story (lists and things), an odd choice for an hour in which people traditionally don't "watch" television so much as have it on, and use it like radio; ABC News programs like "This Week" are dutifully plugged; and sports get excessive attention. ABC's Monday morning show gave much more time to the Wimbledon weekend than NBC's did, even though ABC had to use NBC footage.
Dan Cordtz's economic reports don't seem as comprehensive as those on "Early Today," and Jim Lampley the sportscaster doesn't light up the morning sky, but ABC says both are on "temporary" assignment to the show. Sullivan had more than her share of fluffs on opening day, but she also seems authoritative and alert. Because she's new to ABC viewers, the network identified her with a superimposed "Kathleen Sullivan" no fewer than 21 times in one hour; Bell, familiar from service on years of "GMA," got a mere nine ID's.
The people on "This Morning" keep saying "good morning" to each other in a style of false but tolerable chumminess. This is less noticeable on "Early Today" and it is absolutely nonexistent on "NBC News Overnight," where Dobyns and Ellerbee resist any possible temptation to play The Newsie Twosie. They don't talk to each other, they talk to us, a pretty sane tactic when you think about it, yet one often ignored on TV news programs.
NBC's errant Baltimore affiliate, WMAR-TV, which was formerly an errant CBS affiliate, airs "Rockford Files" reruns instead of the slightly delightful "Late Night With David Letterman" and the cut-and-dried monotony of CNN-2 instead of "Overnight." The difference between Any Old News Show and "Overnight" is more than a Charles Kuralt Country Mile, and anybody who can't see that is asleep at the switch.
For those who are, at extremely odd hours, still awake at the switch, "Overnight" is the best thing to happen since old movies. It's bright, it's reponsive and it's eminently civil. Newsglut '82 does indeed continue--when CBS adds its early-early and late-late shows in October, ABC will tack another hour of news onto the trailblazing "Nightline"--but "Overnight" makes this a less intimidating prospect than it might be.