At WTTG, they don't just give you the news; they Fox it to you.
"The Fox Morning News," a 2 1/2-hour newscast airing at 6:30 a.m. daily and designed to compete with "Today" and the other early network shows, premiered yesterday. As a shakedown cruise, it wasn't all that shaky, but as an alternative to the established programs, it seemed largely an exercise in low overhead.
Certainly it's a welcome step forward when the station, owned by Fox and one of the most profitable in the nation, replaces "Woody Woodpecker" and other syndicated cartoons with a live, local news program. One must admire the effort and risk-taking that produced the show, even if the show itself, at this early moment in its life, falls clunkingly short of excellence.
Tim White, formerly of "CBS News Nightwatch," and Lark McCarthy, formerly of ABC News, make personable and efficient anchors, though McCarthy seemed stiff on opening day, and not always certain in which direction she should look. She did alertly correct White when he called Defense Secretary Dick Cheney "defense attorney Dick Cheney."
What "Fox Morning News" offers that the other stations don't is that the program is locally produced and local in outlook, and that it's a relatively no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts news show. There's little gingerbread and folderol, and no interviews with actors or actresses explaining what drew them to this or that role in a major motion picture -- and never admitting that what drew them was a ton of money.
Considering that Fox is the home of the nightly sleazefest "A Current Affair," it's almost a pleasure to report that the morning news show tends more toward dullness than tabloidism. Ungenerous wags might even be referring to it as "The Fox Boring News."
You do get a lot of Real News from the show, but on opening day, it was often without Real Pictures. "Fox Morning News" isn't all-news television so much as it is all-news radio. Local bank threatening to tear down row of historic town houses? No picture. Bride invites dozens of homeless people to attend her wedding? No picture.
Producers of the network morning programs have said that those shows are designed as much for the ear as the eye, since in the busy morning hours, viewers don't sit riveted to the screen. But "Morning News" executive producer Steven Borden seems to have taken that idea too far. The program is a parade of talking heads whose visual monotony gets to be wearing.
There were plenty of live remotes on the premiere, but these mainly qualified as backdrop news: Pat McGrath popped up seven times, no less, to announce from the White House lawn that Nelson Mandela would be arriving there several hours hence. Brian Wilson materialized five or six times from Capitol Hill to say it wasn't going to be a very busy day up there.
It's symptomatic of the prevailing impulse in TV news to go live to the corner of Main and Elm even when there's nothing happening at the corner of Main and Elm except that a correspondent is standing there blabbing.
More valuable were the live interviews spaced throughout the program, the best of them a chat with Washington First Lady Effi Barry about the Mandela visit. McCarthy said Mrs. Barry had agreed to talk about that subject only, not about her husband's trial on drug and perjury charges, but McCarthy skillfully worked related questions into the segment in a way that didn't seem rude or unfair.
The only real problem with this segment was the inordinate amount of background noise on the handsome newsroom set. It sounded as if somebody were erecting a circus tent behind the weather map.
One of McCarthy's questions to Effi Barry ended with her asking, as many Washingtonians have doubtlessly asked about the mayor's wife, "Why do you stay with him?" Barry didn't answer that precisely but did say, "Getting through the trial is just something else to do." Both Barry and McCarthy came out of the sequence looking good.
If this interview was the best on the "Morning News," the worst was done by co-anchor White, a painfully misbegotten segment in which he interviewed three District citizens who did not make the Barry jury. They "almost became a key part of the Barry jury," White said in breathless anticipation, but in the news biz, "almost" really counts for nothing.
Also embarrassing was the show's gushy-mushy closing sequence, in which Angela Robinson read excerpts from Nelson Mandela's love letters over photos of Nelson and Winnie.
"Morning News" is in a constant process of recyclement. Few things are seen or said just once. We're told that we'll never be far from a weather or traffic report; that means those reports are duplicated over and over again.
Traffic reporter Cheryl Doyle stands in front of a rather intestinal-looking animated map in which all the little car-dots are in motion -- hardly ever the case during Washington rush hours. Once, Doyle felt compelled to leap out of the shot when the voice of the "airborne" traffic reporter came on, leaving the screen all to the map. Her numerous reports could all be boiled down to two words: "Expect delays."
Dave Bender, the suspender-sporting weatherman, is from the Frisky Puppy school of telecommunication. He was beside himself with glee over what a "great day" lay ahead; it'll be fun to see how he handles the miserably sultry summer scorchers just around the corner.
At 7:05, Bender reported that an ominous high-pressure center was hovering over the East Coast but, he assured viewers, it was "not going to squish down and heat us up." At 7:22 he reconfirmed the sighting of the dread high-pressure system but said it was "not a really nasty high-pressure system that's going to squish down and heat us up."
Bender further clarified this tricky, squishy high-pressure matter during the 8 o'clock hour when he again reassured viewers it was "not a real nasty high-pressure system where it's going to squish the air down and heat us up."
Hey, somebody squish this guy's air down before he heats everybody up!
The format requires the two anchors to be on camera more than is fair to them. No wonder there were little goofs, as when White reported on a Washingtonian magazine poll about which congressman was "the hardest working -- no, the hardest to work for! Big difference!"
Or when McCarthy, during the 8:13 edition of the headlines, announced, "Efforts in Iran this morning continue, including the first American private relief mission to that country in 10 years." Alas, the word "earthquake" was missing.
It is a Herculean effort, however, to produce such a long broadcast every day. The only packaged material on the first show was a tacky "Fox Entertainment News" report out of Fox's Los Angeles station; the lead item just happened to publicize "Die Hard 2," the big Fox movie release of the summer.
Otherwise, everything else, for better and for worse, was home-grown.
"We're pleased with the first outing," said producer Borden, 33, after yesterday's show. "I think we've embarked on the course we're trying to set. We're showing what we can do when we marshal our resources."
Additional marshaling is in order, and it wouldn't hurt to expand resources so as to allow a few more pictures to sneak onto this alleged television program. The staff and talent have the whole summer to get the show in shape, and with that in mind, they have made a decent beginning.
"We apologize to kids who expected cartoons," White said at the end. "Yes, but give us a chance, give us a chance," McCarthy added. Consider the chance given.