Network news departments used to make documentaries. Now they make magazine shows. NBC News goes this one worse: It makes People magazine shows.
Those who found the superficial friffle of "Real Life With Jane Pauley" too deep may take specious consolation from "Cutting Edge With Maria Shriver," another exercise in thumb-twiddling anti-journalism from a news division that seems to be steadily losing interest in the news.
"Cutting Edge" was produced by Sid Feders, the man who perpetrated many of the mockumentaries and schlockumentaries that starred Connie Chung before she jumped ship for CBS. This is another show about celebrities and celebrityhood, about famousness and, inadvertently, fatuousness, with Shriver panting around in pursuit of fellow media meteors.
Thus a defiantly un-informative profile of the pop singer Sinead O'Connor has Shriver all agush about "fame ... success ... adulation" and "life at the top," informing us, in a style suggesting Robin Leach crossed with Leeza Gibbons, that O'Connor is "on a fast track to becoming the first superstar of the '90s."
Gosh! The thrill of it all! Those with weak hearts ought perhaps to avoid this segment entirely.
Strangely, the most newsworthy thing O'Connor has done -- pulling out of a scheduled "Saturday Night Live" appearance to protest the booking of filthmonger Andrew Dice Clay -- is pretty much ignored. This is so Shriver can spew MTV-ish cliches like, "Life on the road seems to have taken its toll."
O'Connor boasts, "I'm not really Miss Commercial, am I? I'm not really Miss Accessible." That's right, it's another rock star bragging about being unconventional, unorthodox, too hip for mass acceptance -- purely as a means of courting it. NBC News plays right along, the way a press release or a fanzine would.
Lyle Alzado, the longtime defensive lineman for the L.A. Raiders, is in training to resume his football career. This fact is established, reestablished, then pounded mercilessly into your head, with Shriver calling him "a man possessed, driven to prove that age won't tackle his dream."
On this piece, the tape editor's cutting edge got a bit carried away. We see fast-forwards and blips and other fey touches designed to gimmick the thing up, movement being much preferred to thought in TV news.
Later, during a piece about British billionaire Richard Branson, Shriver tells him, "Wait, we need to put a mike on you," and the wireless microphone is dutifully attached. Such cutesy peeks into backstage logistics are supposed to give the show an informal, news-on-the-run kind of look.
And that's what they're concerned about at network news departments now: how things look. The prevailing mentality is the same as at fashion magazines and advertising agencies. "Cutting Edge" is really a one-hour infotainment video. It's garbage wrapped in glitter.
Shriver calls Branson, the owner of Virgin Airlines and Virgin Records, "England's version of Donald Trump," like we wouldn't care about a rich guy unless he were compared to Our Rich Guy. In fact, Branson seems more to resemble Ted Turner, especially in his zest for sport -- ballooning as opposed to Turner's sailing.
He's "unconventional," Shriver attests, having said in the credit sequence, in reference to the show and its subjects, "If they're mainstream, we don't want 'em." Whom is she trying to kid? She also calls Branson "an entrepreneur whose goal is to give capitalism a good name." Silly you if you thought it already had one.
Charitably enough on NBC's part, the entire program was not available for preview. Missing was a segment in which Kirstie Alley, the unfunny costar of NBC's otherwise funny "Cheers," talks about what a hard life she's had and how she's kicked drugs, and how about those for fresh topics?
Comedian and filmmaker Robert Townsend will also be seen in brief segments (one of which was available for preview) talking about the new American mania for censoring movies, recordings and art exhibits. Shriver uses the word "semen" during the discussion. "That'll be cut," says Townsend. It wasn't.
Approximately midway through the show, Shriver parenthetically asks viewers, "Are you still with me?" The lucky ones will already have bailed out.
Earlier she gives her own program a rave review: "Whatever the 'cutting edge' is, we think it makes for good television." Actually, in this case anyway, it makes for real bad television, but you couldn't call "Cutting Edge" bad journalism, because it isn't any kind of journalism. Calling it journalism would be like shouting "bravo" and "encore" after listening to Roseanne Barr sing the national anthem.