News on the eye of hell used to be pretty straightforward. A guy, sitting at a desk, reading the news. Those days, however, are long gone.

I grew up on Lawn Guyland, from the mid-60s to the early 80s, and I saw a lot of the changes in the news at the flagship stations of the major networks (back when there were only three). Some were fads, but some have stuck around.

Scripted Small Talk

I remember , who was the quintessential NY anchorman. For some 25 years, he had just a touch of grey on his temples. Jensen used to challenge his reporters: they’d come back from the taped segment of the report and he’d have questions to ask the reporter — real questions. You could tell that they didn’t know in advance what he was going to ask.

I remember seeing them go back to the studio after a report by (who was seriously hot back then) about abused children. Meredith was in tears, and Jim did what he could to (ahem) comfort her.

Uncle WethbeeI remember, but didn’t see Tex Antoine’s last night on the air. Tex was a weatherman, and he used a character called “Uncle Wethbee” to show us what the weather would be like: if it was to be sunny, Uncle Wethbee wore sunglasses. Cold weather meant Uncle Wethbee would be wearing a hat and scarf. Tex lost his job when, after a report about a rape, Tex was to make a quick statement before they went to commercial. Rather than something to the effect of “We’ve got some wild weather coming up,” he said something like, “Confucius say if you’re going to be raped, lay back and relax.” No more Tex, no more Uncle Wethbee.

Now, just about everything is scripted. When we come back to the studio after a taped segment, the hard hitting, incisive questions asked of the reporter by the anchor are all being read off the prompter. After all, they don’t want to get stuck with some reporter not knowing the answer. Every now and then, the small talk appears not to be scripted, like when Kira Philips’ mic was left on when she went to the bathroom to kibbitz about her sister-in-law, or when Carol Costello’s needling caused Chad Myers to have a weather tantrum.

Weather Radar

This one seems to be going the way of the dodo, but you can still catch them pulling this crap now and then: Americans are stupid. We know that. When you say the word “radar” to an American, they either think of the little Iowan guy from MASH, or an image from a World War II movie of a monochromatic screen with a line sweeping around it in a circle. Apparently without that line, we don’t know that it’s radar, so when weather reporters show us images from their radar, they’ll add in that rotating scan line. It’s not actually part of the radar image; they just figure we need it to assure us.

Hand-held Camera

This is something they were doing rather a lot of maybe ten years ago: to make the news more exciting and immediate, they’d pretend that they hadn’t had sufficient time to prepare their reports, so the reporter would come bounding down a corridor and into the studio, being covered by a very shaky hand-held camera. Did it work? Of course not. But it’s not that different from…

The Control Room

The standard was always to have the reporters sit in at the big desk, next to the anchor to introduce their stories, but we see a lot of reporters sitting in what’s supposed to look like either an editing room or the control room. It shows their connection to the technical aspects of reportage, even if they have no idea how the machines there work — even if the machines are just mock-ups that don’t do anything.

Big Screens, Fake Screens, Screens Screens Screens

Anyone who’s seen CNN in the past couple of years knows that they just love gigantic video monitors over there — big ones, sometimes arrays of monitors, and sometimes arrays of big monitors. On some broadcasts, the giant video wall is completely fake. It’s just a blue screen, and when the anchor carries on a fake, scripted conversation, s/he has to pretend to look at the image of the reporter while reading the scripted conversation off the monitor, all the while looking as if they’re just talking to another person. This is why they make the big big money.

The monitors our boy Wolfie has in his Situation Room are real, and they can do all sorts of fun things with them: a different picture in each one, a single picture spanning across all of them, or breaking them up into groups. One thing they do that doesn’t make a lot of sense, however, is to point a camera directly at them, so that the array of monitors takes up the whole screen. Why do they do that, when they can just send the array of feeds out as the feed we receive? Pointing a camera at a monitor is so 1950s.

STFD, or the Finger Clasp

Maria StephanosI think we can blame Blitzer for this too, although someone else may have done it before him: for many anchors, the anchor desk is no more. Sometimes they’ve got a stool, but often it’s their job to just stand there. I suppose sitting down implies that they’re too lazy for the exciting world of journalism. The problem is that back when they had their desk and chair, they could lay their hands on the desk or hide them under it. What are they to do with their hands now that everything is so out in the open? Some choose to hold a few pieces of paper. They don’t read them, of course — that’s what the prompter is for. But if they don’t hold anything in their hands, it seems that the trend is for them to stop their hands from wildly swinging about in the studio by gently clasping the fingers of one hand in the other. Some of them seem to take this very seriously indeed. If their fingers ever slip out of the proper clasped position, they seem to go into a tiny panic attack until they find their way back. Maybe some guy in the control room is responsible for reminding them about it, shouting “FINGERS! FINGERS!” whenever they slip.

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