Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Weak In Review

In case anyone missed Nightly News this week, here's a recap:

On Sunday, there was a two-and-a-half minute story about "Britain's Got Talent" contestant Susan Boyle. The story included a clip of Jay Leno impersonating Boyle, as well as a brief interview with her hairdresser. Who says Nightly News doesn't dig deep to find the important stories?

On Wednesday, there was Tom Brokaw's seemingly endless four-and-a-half minute saga about the Maryland crab industry. For a while, I thought I was watching "Masterpiece Theater". When you take away the commercials, this story accounted for an incredible 20% of the entire broadcast. It might have been helpful if the producers had included an intermission. Now, Tom Brokaw is an iconic figure in network news. He is perhaps the best anchor of his generation. But this story was ridiculous. It had zero news value. If this is the best Tom can do these days, maybe he should stay in retirement. That same night, Chris Jansing presented a report about earthquakes. She told us that California may get a really big earthquake and that very few people are prepared for one. There--I just said in five seconds what it took Jansing two-minutes-and-twenty-five seconds to say. But at least she managed to include a gratuitous ten-second clip of Carson Daly in her story.

On Thursday, we saw a two-minute-and-twenty-second story about the controversial subject of high school students who like to hug each other. Chris Jansing even got some students to demonstrate the different types of hugs. Maybe NBC should have attached a "Breaking News" tag to this story.

On Friday, we got a thirty-second "news story" about Jay Leno's last show, with a pointed reminder about his new show that will be starting in September at 10 PM (9 central). Check your local listings. Then we were treated to another two-minute-and-fifteen-second story about Susan Boyle. Apparently, she's unraveling a bit due to all the pressure and media scrutiny surrounding her. And Stephanie Gosk even gave us a solemn update on Boyle's odds of winning, according to London bookies. This is at least the fifth story Nightly News has done on Boyle in the past six weeks. (In the same time period, Nightly News has not presented a single story about the conflict in Sri Lanka.) And also on Friday, we were given three reminders about Brian Williams' upcoming special "Inside The Obama White House".

Does anybody remember when Nightly News actually presented news, instead of garbage, filler and self-promotion?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

More Susan!

Thank you, Nightly News for last Sunday's two-and-a-half-minute "news story" about the further exploits of British singing sensation Susan Boyle. That night's broadcast contained no reports from Africa, South America or Eastern Asia, but at least we know more about Susan Boyle. Congratulations, Nightly News producers, you're doing a great job. You must be very proud of yourselves.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ebenezer Williams

I would like to pitch an idea to NBC: A television adaptation of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" starring Brian Williams. In this version, NBC News anchor Ebenezer Williams will be visited by the Ghosts of NBC News past, in the form of John Chancellor, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. They will take Ebenezer Williams on an eerie trip through the history of NBC News and implore him to change his current broadcast or suffer the ghostly consequences. They will tell him that pandering to viewers with fluff pieces devoid of news content does not meet the proud tradition of NBC News. They will tell him that ignoring important stories like the election in India or the conflict in Sri Lanka in favor of pointless stories about pink dolphins or skateboarding dogs is not what NBC News stands for. They will tell him that he is devaluing the NBC News brand by doing "news stories" promoting sponsors' products, and that accepting sponsorship money from Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline is an unacceptable conflict of interest. They will tell Ebenezer Williams that if he continues to broadcast a second-rate newscast, he will be condemned for all eternity to wander the halls of the NBC News studios as a ghostly apparition weighed down by the heavy chains of his journalistic lightweightedness.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The 2009 Peabody Awards

Congratulations to Richard Engel for his well-deserved Peabody Award! I would also like to congratulate Nightly News for the other Peabody Awards they won:

>Best non-stop 24-hour round-the-clock coverage of Michelle Obama
>Most total sponsorship money accepted for a half-hour newscast (calendar year 2008)
>Most extensive coverage of Knut the polar bear (Nightly News shared this award with Animal Planet)
>Most pre-empted weekend newscasts due to football or golf coverage
>Best collection of military challenge coins--Brian Williams (Nightly News shared this award with the Military Channel)
>Best misspelling of a well-known name (tie) Arnold Schwarznegger (sic)--1/26/09 and Stephen (sic) Spielberg--1/11/09
>Most effective use of a paid military analyst who used his air time to promote policies that benefit companies in which he had a financial interest--Gen. Barry McCaffrey
>Best use of a nightly newscast to relentlessly promote their network's Olympic coverage
>Best use of the same clip over and over and over again (people on line at the "Work One" center)
>Best use of news time by an anchor to promote a book by a paid network consultant (Brian Williams' four-minute promotion of Jack Jacobs' book on Dec. 25)
>Best anchor's look of fake indignation--Brian Williams during his 1/23/09 report that Yo Yo Ma's quartet had been playing to pre-recorded music at the presidential inauguration. In fact, NBC News was informed of this on Jan. 20 and only reported it after the New York Times released the story
>Best use of a news story to promote a sponsor's product (the 5/5 story about McDonald's coffee)

Congratulations to all the Peabody winners at NBC!

More Shameless Than Shameless

The English language needs a new word to describe the shameless depths to which Nightly News so frequently plummets. Because for NBC, "shameless" just isn't shameless enough. On Friday, May 15, Nightly News did a "news story" about Farrah Fawcett's battle with cancer. Although this story did not have any actual news value, it was, by NBC's standards, the perfect story for Nightly News. First and foremost, it was about a celebrity. And celebrity stories attract viewers, which is NBC's top priority--far more important than presenting actual news. (Nightly News is apparently trying very hard to become indistinguishable from the shows that follow it: Extra and Access Hollywood.) After all, what will earn higher ratings--a story about Farrah Fawcett or a story about the fighting in Sri Lanka? And second--the Nightly News Fawcett segment was an excerpt from a two-hour special about Fawcett that would be airing on NBC later that night. Obviously, the Nightly News producers have no qualms about using valuable time on their news broadcast to promote their entertainment shows. Clearly, the second commandment of NBC News (right after "Thou shalt make tons of money") is "Thou shalt relentlessly self-promote". The Fawcett story was nothing more than a two-and-a-half minute commercial for the upcoming two-hour special. And, of course, there's an additional benefit to airing the story. It's a great way to eat up a few minutes of Nightly News without doing all that time-consuming and costly reporting. After all, the Fawcett story is already completed. It takes just a fraction of the time and money for a production team to edit a few clips from a 2-hour special than it does to report and produce an entire news story from scratch. A few snips here, a voice-over there and bang--instant story. I just felt bad for poor Lester Holt who had to abase himself by announcing, "The entire documentary 'Farrah's Story' airs tonight at nine on this NBC station." And just in case we missed it, NBC also aired a segment of the Fawcett story on that Sunday's Dateline.

But wait, there's more. Following the Farrah Fawcett segment, there was a two-minute-and-fifteen second story about the Preakness Stakes--a race that just coincidentally was going to be broadcast the following day on NBC. And in between these two "news stories", there was a 20-second story about Michael Phelps swimming in his first competitive meet since Beijing. Obviously, this was NBC's first promotional spot for the 2012 Olympics. So Nightly News used five consecutive minutes of their broadcast solely to promote upcoming NBC shows. That's almost 25% of the entire broadcast! I really hope that Mr. Roget comes up with that new word soon, because when we take into account the way Nightly News shamelessly promotes other NBC shows (and also uses valuable news time to shill for their sponsors like United Airlines, Cheerios and McDonald's coffee), shameless doesn't even begin to describe Nightly News. I can only imagine how much time Nightly News is going to devote to Jay Leno as his 10 PM show nears its debut date. Perhaps Jay will fill in for Brian Williams one night. Would anybody even notice?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Endeavour On The Hudson

When Nightly News led off their Monday broadcast with the relatively benign story about the space shuttle Atlantis embarking on a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, the reason was obvious. Brian is hoping for some sort of Space Shuttle accident that will increase Nightly News viewership. Not loss of life, of course, but maybe an emergency that strands the Atlantis astronauts in orbit until they can be rescued by the back-up crew in the Endeavour. That would be totally awesome! NBC could come up with cool news titles like "Rescue In Space" or "Heroes Trapped In Orbit". And if the Endeavour could land in the Hudson--well, then we'd really have something. (In case there's any doubt that Brian is hoping for a space disaster, this is what he said on Wednesday's Nightly News : "And remember, they're in an orbit now where a collision with orbiting space junk becomes a much greater risk." I guess Brian is keeping his fingers crossed.)

How ridiculous that Nightly News did another story on Elizabeth Edwards. They covered every aspect of Edwards' story on Thursday, but lo and behold--there she is again the following Monday. It just so happened that Edwards spoke to Matt Lauer on the Today Show, so Brian felt obligated to run some of the interview on Nightly News. Are we really supposed to believe that Edwards said anything to Lauer that she hadn't already confessed to Oprah last week? Of course not. But NBC already had the Today Show footage, so why not re-hash it on Nightly News?

Venti Venting

Even by Nightly News's abysmally low standards, last Tuesday's "news story" about the coffee wars between McDonald's and Starbucks was appallingly shameful. Let's be clear: This story was a two-minute-and-fifteen-second commercial for McDonald's (and to a lesser extent, Starbucks). The hucksterism began before the story even started. In the intro, Ann Curry told us that the story was about, " much we are willing to pay for the delicious brew they make." We don't need to form our own opinion--Ann Curry has already told us that McDonald's and Starbucks make delicious coffee. The story itself is chock full of ads for McDonald's new McCafe coffees. There are a total of 22 seconds of excerpts from McDonald's TV commercials. And Starbucks print ads are also featured prominently. A McDonald's Senior VP tells us, "Well, we definitely have coffee experts and they will be ready to serve our customers a great tasting cup of coffee any time of the day." A Starbucks VP of Marketing retorts, "We sell coffee. We sell it at great value and we sell it with a human touch. And that is our secret and I think it will be difficult for those doing burger and fries to also deliver that." When you total up the various ad excerpts and the comments from the two VP's, they total 47 seconds, or 35% of the entire story. So more than a third of the story is devoted to commercials and weaselly ad-speak.

I have only one question: How much did McDonald's pay NBC to air this "news story"? Are we supposed to believe that it is just a coincidence that Nightly News ran this story on the very day that McDonald's launched their specialty coffees? Or perhaps the story was part of a giveback. When a network TV show fails to achieve the rating that was promised to the advertisers, the network is contractually obligated to give the advertisers additional spots at no extra charge. Maybe this "coffee wars" story was compensation to McDonald's for NBC shows that had lower-than-expected ratings. Or maybe it was just NBC showing some love to a major advertiser. After all, NBC has done this kind of thing before. A Feb. 23 Nightly News story was devoted to how well United Airlines (a major NBC advertiser) cleans their planes. And a Jan. 31 "news story" purportedly about 3-D technology in ads prominently featured commercial clips from "Lifewater"--a beverage that would be advertising on NBC's Super Bowl the following day.

NBC has a track record of using their Nightly News broadcast to promote their regular advertisers. The "coffee wars" story is only the latest example. In the news business, there is supposed to be a clear line between advertising and news content. The NBC executives not only ignore that line, but they encourage their producers to cross it. And that is a violation of the viewers' trust. NBC is acting unethically and they owe their viewers an apology as well as a promise that they will stop engaging in this type of improper behavior.

Postscript: On Monday's Nightly News, there was a story about the excessive amounts of sodium found in the average American's diet. The author of the study, The Center For Science in the Public Interest, tested the food at a number of popular and well-known chain restaurants. One of the chains found to be serving excessive amounts of sodium in their food was McDonald's. Did Brian Williams or correspondent Rehema Ellis mention McDonald's in the context of this negative story? Of course not. When it comes to promoting McDonald's coffee, Nightly News can't say enough. But when the subject is dangerous amounts of sodium, Nightly News has never heard of the Golden Arches.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Three Faces Of Evening News

Unbelievable. Yet again, there was no Nightly News Saturday or Sunday on the east coast. On Sunday, hockey was obviously more important (translation: more profitable) than news. And on Saturday, there was no news because of the Kentucky Derby. Now, the Kentucky Derby is a two-minute race. But NBC pre-empted Nightly News so they could air three hours of Derby coverage. Proportionally, that would be the equivalent of airing 360 hours of Super Bowl coverage for a four-hour game. Maybe I shouldn't mention that--I don't want to give NBC any ideas.

NBC's commitment to news is...well, actually NBC has no commitment to news. They pre-empt the weekend edition of Nightly News so frequently that they might as well abandon it altogether. Which is why it is so puzzling to hear NBC News president Steve Capus talk about expanding the weeknight edition of Nightly News from a half-hour to a full hour (as he was quoted as saying in the March 9 New York Times business section). Judging by how often NBC pre-empts the weekend edition of Nightly News, they seem to care little for the broadcast. Yet, at the same time, they talk of expanding the weeknight edition. With regard to Nightly News, NBC seems to have multiple personality disorder. Call it The Three Faces Of Evening News.

Here's an idea for Mr. Capus: Before he thinks about adding a second half-hour to Nightly News, maybe he should concentrate on filling the existing half-hour broadcast with actual news. Instead of more ridiculous non-stories about luncheon meat, the board game Clue, kazoos, pink dolphins, dancing parrots, centenarians or twittering, Nightly News could report on stories like the conflict in Sri Lanka or the election in India. Then Capus could think about adding a second half-hour. Perhaps Nightly News could fill that second half-hour entirely with "Making A Difference" segments suggested by viewers. Somewhere out there, there's got to be a barber giving free haircuts or a diner owner providing free meals that Nightly News hasn't yet covered. Or maybe the second half-hour could be devoted entirely to covering Michelle Obama. That would certainly free up a lot of space from the first half-hour. And here's an idea: If NBC does expand Nightly News to a full hour, maybe they could use a different anchor for the second half-hour, like they do for the fourth hour of the Today Show. I hear that Kathie Lee is available.

Who's Counting? (Part 2)

On Monday's Nightly News, Brian Williams earnestly informed us that 36 states had been affected by the H1N1 virus. But the accompanying on-screen map clearly indicates that 37 states have been affected. Isn't losing the ability to count the first symptom of the H1N1 virus?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Who's Counting? (Part 1)

Someone needs to give Robert Bazell an abacus. On Thursday's Nightly News, Bazell told us that, "There are now confirmed cases (of swine flu) in 17 states and 11 countries." Meanwhile, the accompanying map of the U.S. clearly showed that 18 states had been affected. And an on-screen roster of countries listed 12, not 11, with swine flu. Come on, Bob. At least pretend that you're trying.

A Message From "The Zuck"

In Friday's New York Times business section (May 1), we were treated to the following quote from NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker in a story about the relative merits of Hulu vs. Youtube: "Advertisers have made it clear that they want a safe environment unpolluted by videos of cats on skateboards...That has made Hulu the pre-eminent video site." It's obvious what Zucker was referring to. Last January 1, Nightly News devoted two minutes and twenty-five seconds of news time to a pair of skateboarding bulldogs. Clearly, Zucker's quote was intended as a comment on that Nightly News story and on Nightly News in general. Not surprisingly, Zucker doesn't like what he sees on Nightly News. And why should he? No one likes to be fed a steady diet of fluff stories devoid of news value. Since Zucker understands that advertisers (and viewers) don't want videos of skateboarding cats (or dogs), why does he allow Nightly News to get away with airing these types of stories?

Which makes me wonder how Zucker felt about Thursday's Nightly News, when Brian Williams devoted more than a minute to a dancing parrot and the new tattooed Barbie, while neglecting to even mention the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka or the election in India. I'm guessing that Zucker didn't exactly tell Brian Williams or the Nightly News producers that they should be proud of their work.