Fewer Words; Less Filling

 

                                    by WALTER BRASCH

 

The Reduced Shakespeare Co. cleverly and humorously abridges all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays to 97 minutes. Short of having a set of Cliff’s Notes or a collection of Classic Comics, sources of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, it may be the least painful way to “learn” Shakespeare. The critically-acclaimed show, in addition to being a delightful way to spend part of an evening, is a satiric slap upside the head of the mass media.

The condensation of the media may have begun in 1922 with the founding of Reader’s Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 17 million world-wide subscribers happy by a combination of original reporting and mulching articles from other magazines. Books also aren’t safe.

For more than six decades, Digest editors have been grinding four books into the space of one, calling them “condensed” or “selected,” and selling them by subscription to people with limited attention spans. These are the people who actively participate in society’s more meaningful activities, such as watching Snooki and JWoww on “Jersey Shore” or swapping lies with the gentrified folk at the country club. However, most media condense life to save money and improve corporate profits.

Book publishers routinely order authors to reduce the number of manuscript pages, saving production and distribution costs. The printed book will always have a place, but publishers are now deleting print production and putting their books onto Kindle and Nook, reducing page size to a couple of sizes smaller than the first TV screens. Because reading takes time, and time needs to be abbreviated for the MTV Go-Go Generation, chapters are shorter, and book length has been further reduced to adapt to e-book format.

Movie industry executives, eyes focused upon their wall safes, dictate shorter films, with more “action-paced” scene changes, an acknowledgement that Americans need constant stimulation. It isn’t uncommon for writers, faced by corporate demands to reduce the length of a screenplay, to indiscriminately rip out three or four pages in protest, only to find that the corporate suits instead of being appalled are, in fact, pleased.

Scripted half-hour TV shows were once 26 minutes, with four minutes for promotions and commercials. Now, the average half-hour show is 22 minutes; the average hour show is about 45 minutes, with at least two sub-plots because producers believe viewers don’t have the attention spans to follow only one plot line.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves usually top out at 90 seconds, about 100–150 words. An entire newscast usually has fewer words than the average newspaper front page.

An exception is the music industry. At one time, popular songs were two to three minutes, some of it because of the technological limits of recordings. During the past two decades, with the development of digital media, pop music has crept past four minutes average. The downside, however, is that writers are taking the same cutesy phrases and subjecting listeners to nauseous repetition.

Long-form journalism, which includes major features and in-depth investigations that can often run 3,000 or more words, has largely been replaced by short-form news snippets, best represented by Maxim and USA Today.

USA Today condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today’s format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories. Thirty column inches maximum per news story, with 12 to 15 inches preferred, is a common measure.

When the newspaper industry was routinely pulling in about 20–30 percent annual profits, the highest of any industry, publishers were routinely delusional, believing that was the way it was supposed to be and would always be. Instead of improving work conditions and content, they increased shareholder dividends and executive bonuses. When advertising and circulation began to drop, they made numerous changes to keep those inflated profits.

Publishers downsized the quality, weight, and size of paper. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches. Newspaper page width has dropped to 11–12 inches, from almost 15-1/2 inches during the 1950s.

Faced by advertising and circulation freefall the past decade, publishers cut back the number of pages. More significantly, they began a systematic decimation of the editorial staff, cutting reporters and editors.

Faced by heavier workloads and tight deadlines, many reporters merely dump their notebooks into type, rather than craft them and then submit the story to a copyeditor to fine tune it so it is tight, has no holes, and no conflicting data. In the downsized newspaper economy, stories often pass from reporter to a quick scan by an editor and then into a pre-determined layout, all of it designed to cause fewer problems for overworked editors.

The solution to the “newspaper-in-crisis” wailing, with innumerable predictions that print newspapers will soon be as dead as the trees that give them nourishment, may not be in cutting staff, and replacing the news product with fluff and syndicated stories that fill pages, but are available on hundreds of websites, but in giving readers more. More reporters. More stories. And, most of all, more in-depth coverage of local people and issues, with each article well-reported, well-written, and well-edited.

[In a 40-year career in journalism, Walter Brasch has been an award-winning  newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, syndicated columnist, multimedia and TV writer-producer, and tenured full professor of mass communications. He says he’ll keep doing journalism until he gets it right. His current book, BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW, is an autobiographical mystery novel that includes a number of media observations.]

 

 

 

Booze, Schmooze, but Not Any News: The “Today” Show Fourth Hour

 

 

 

 by WALTER BRASCH 

 

The most important media story this past week is that the Kardashians were guest co-hosts on the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today” show. One Kardashian sister per day, plus mother Kris and stepdad Bruce Jenner.

It isn’t bad enough that talk shows, which have descended into a morass of being publicity mills for celebrity hucksters, adore them. It isn’t bad enough that the E! cable network, owned by NBCUniversal, throws millions of dollars to create and promote their reality shows that are as real as unicorns and fairy dust. Now we have Kardashians in NBC’s Studio 1A, the window on New York City.

The three sisters are Kourtney, 32; Kim, 30; and Khloé, 27. Their mother is Kris, 54. Other than Jenner, whose career stems from having been an Olympian gold medalist and Wheaties box icon, the rest seem to have few discernible talents or skills, other than being celebutantes, socialites, and models. Even their various businesses exist only because they have the Kardashian name, earned because of Robert, a high-profile lawyer, who became a household name by defending O.J.

Upon their name, the three sisters wrote an autobiography and once again are about to leap to the best-sellers chart with a novel. There is no evidence that any of the three can write; there is evidence that bookstores and Americans buy books because of name recognition rather than talent.

But the real loser during Kardashian Week may be the integrity of NBC’s News Division. News, not Entertainment, produces the fourth hour, co-hosted by Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford. At one time, Kotb was a good journalist. Now, with a larger paycheck and her hair dyed an unnatural blonde, she and Kathie Lee Gifford, herself an excellent singer/writer, co-host the fourth hour.

That fourth hour is filled with diets, makeovers, fashion, food, relationship advice, and celebrities huckstering their latest films, TV shows, and books. There are frequent short segments devoted to displaying semi-wild animals, the “ahhhh” factor in TV entertainment. But since Hoda, who has covered wars and natural disasters, seems to be afraid of any animal less cuddly than bedroom bunny slippers, those segments seem to be inserted into the show not as information but to give the audience an at-home laugh track to Hoda’s reactions. It makes little difference anyhow, since Hoda and Kathie Lee usually talk over whoever is trying to explain a little bit about each animal.

A typical show begins with Hoda and Kathie Lee interrupting each other with a few minutes of chatter. The chatter and interruptions occur throughout the rest of the hour. The guests, in rapid sequence, may actually have something important to say, but the endless babbling and cross-talk seemingly leave them little more than chum in a swirling pool of drunken steroidal fish.

Drinking is part of the fourth hour. Every day has at least a few seconds, often an entire segment, with the two co-hosts talking about booze and liquor, and then having demonstrations of how to make mixed drinks. Even the days are named. One day is “Booze Day Tuesday”; another is “Thirsty Thursday.” Guest co-host Seth Rogen two weeks ago had said he had never had a drink that early on TV. Hoda, joking it up, responded on the show’s Facebook page that the “operative words” were “on TV.” It isn’t too outrageous to believe that by the end of the Today’s final hour, even AA mentors are tempted to take a swig just to ease their pain.

Because the “Today” producers are “with it” and “one with social networking,” they underline the on-air show with audience contact through Facebook and Twitter. During the hour, Sara Haines conveys fan email to the co-hosts and occasionally discusses technology. There is no evidence she is a technology guru, just as there is no logic why she, like the two co-hosts, are bottle blondes.

Legendary TV pioneer Sylvester (“Pat”) Weaver created the “Today” show in 1952, filling a daily two-hour program with news and features. Two years later, now NBC’s president, he created the “Tonight” show.

For all but eight years of its 59 year run, “Today” has been the ratings leader in its two-hour time slot, mostly following the basic formula that Weaver established.

In 2000, NBC added a third hour. In September 2007, NBC expanded “Today” to the fourth hour. Kotb was the original co-host, along with Ann Curry and Natalie Morales. Gifford replaced Curry and Morales a few months later. After a dip in the ratings, the fourth hour again took over its time slot, adding to the News Division’s profit, a reason why it would do everything possible to stonewall any attempt to move that hour into the Entertainment Division where it belongs. The show itself is little more than an amalgamation of the worst parts of Cosmopolitan, Us Weekly, and just about any TV entertainment-and-gossip show.

Kardashian Week may have brought in greater ratings. It’s also why middle-class America willingly bathes in the limelight of the rich and famous, even those with little ability other than having created a following who make them famous for reasons no one yet understands.

[Walter Brasch is an a award-winning syndicated columnist and media analyst. His latest book is the fast-paced mystery Before the First Snow.]

 

 

 

Blood on the Lens

 

                                  by WALTER BRASCH

 “If it bleeds, it leads” is local TV’s aphorism that dictates its belief that fires, car crashes, and shootings lead off the nightly newscast. These stories, of course, are more “visual” and easier to cover than poverty, worker exploitation, and the health care crisis.

But, now and then, it’s hard to find an assortment of adrenaline-enhanced stories. And so it was that WOW-TV’s panicked station manager met with his news director late one afternoon to go over the final line-up for the 6 O’clock news, which, with few variants would be the same news the station would run in its “expanded news coverage” shows over the next 24 hours. The station manager wasn’t happy.

“What do you mean leading off the news with a report that some jokers at the Public Health Service found the cure for AIDS? Weren’t there any accidents? Fires? Murders!”

“Sorry, Boss, there’s nothing out there.”

“NOTHING?! ‘Nothing’ as in ‘no accidents,’ or ‘nothing’ as in ‘You’re about to get a job at Kwik-E-Mart’?!”

“Boss, we really tried. I have five camera crews running around right now.”

“Think you can get two of them to run into each other? We’d pay the hospital bills.”

“Boss, don’t you remember? The union made us agree to a six-month moratorium on stories that involve us maiming our crews just for the sake of ratings?”

“Some union,” the station manager huffed. “Doesn’t even want its members to get more air time.”

“It’s only for six months,” said the news director. “After that, maybe we could cut the brake linings on Unit 3 and have Unit 4 cover it. But for right now, the news scanner is dead.”

“What happened to that fatality on Honeysuckle?”

“By the time we scrambled the chopper, the drivers had exchanged insurance numbers and left.”

“Left!?” thundered the station manager. “No one leaves when there’s a camera crew on the way!”

“Best we could figure out, it was just a few paint scratches.”

“Any of the cars red? If you got there faster, it might  have looked like blood. Check the cops again. They might be covering up something.”

“Sorry, Boss. Even Philly’s not reporting any murders in the past 24 hours.”

“Then go out and shoot someone!” the station manager demanded.

“Sorry, Boss, I can’t do that.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” said the station manager. “Tell Susie Sweetwater to do it. Her ratings are down. This should help.”

“Susie’s in the middle of her reading class right now, and you know how she hates to be disturbed when she’s learning new words.”

“Then Heartthrob! Audiences salivate whenever he’s on. The public would back him even if he had assault weapons and made welsh rarebit out of the Easter Bunny.”

“It’s an hour until air,” the news director reminded the station manager. “Hearthrob’s already in Makeup. They’re darkening his hair tonight.”

 “Celebrities!” shouted the station manager. “Audiences love train wrecks, and celebrities do it better than anyone! Find me Lindsay Lohan!”

“We have two crews on her now,” said the news director, “but all she’s doing is drinking and partying. Besides, we’ve done that story five times this month.”

“What about the Jersey Shore morons.”    

“They’re currently destroying what’s left of the Roman civilization, and we can’t afford to send a crew.”

“Get me a fire! Forest. Trailer. Stove. I don’t care!” the station manager demanded, smashing his coffee mug against his desk, and cutting his wrist. “BLOOD!” he shouted. “We have blood!”

“It’s only a scratch,” said the news director.

“It’s blood! And it’s good for a grabber. Grab a producer. Come in with an extreme close-up full-frame, and then pull back to a medium shot. Dissolve to some of the footage of the Vancouver fans rioting when their team lost the Stanley Cup. Here’s your lead: Violence in Canada leads to blood-letting in America.” He paused a moment. “Make sure you run teasers on this every five minutes.”

 

[Walter Brasch, who once worked with TV, says it’s much safer in print journalism. His latest book is Before the First Snow, which is receiving critical acclaim for its look at the American counterculture.]

 

 

 

Kirstie Alley Throws An S-Bomb During 'Dancing With The Stars' (Video)

Kirstie Alley has been the talk of Dancing with the Stars all season long. Her own talking this time, however, got her in trouble. While Bruno Tonioli praised the 60-year-old actress after dancing the Argentine Tango with partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Alley throws an s-bomb during live television in the video above. MORE



 

 

The News, It Is a-changin': bin Laden and the Mass Media


 

by Walter Brasch

 

It was a little before 9 a.m.

 I was chatting with two students.

 Another student came in, and asked if we had heard a plane had hit a building in New York City.

 We hadn't, but I assumed it was a light private plane, and the pilot had mechanical difficulty or problems with wind turbulence.  

 A minute or so later, another student came in. It was a passenger jet, she said.

 The first student had read the information in a text from a friend, who had received it from another friend, who may have heard it somewhere else. The second student had read it while surfing a news site on the Internet. In a few moments I became aware of how news dissemination had changed, and it was the youth who were going to lead the information revolution.

 A half-hour later, in an upper division journalism class, we were flipping between TV channels, and students were texting with friends on campus and in other states.

 By 12:30 p.m., the beginning time for my popular culture and the media class, every one of the 240 students heard about the murders and terrorism that would become known as 9/11. Most had not seen it on TV nor heard about it from radio. There was no way I was going to give that day's prepared lecture. The students needed to talk, to tell others what they heard, to listen to what others had heard. To cry; to express rage. And, most of all, they needed to hear the conflicting information, and learn the facts.

 For the first century of colonial America, news was transmitted at the pace of a fast horse and rider. But even then, most citizens read the news only when they wandered into a local coffee shop or tavern and saw the information posted on a wall. The first newspaper, Boston's Publick Occurrences, lasted but one issue, dying in 1690. The next newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, wasn't published until 14 years later. Fifteen years passed before there was another newspaper. By the Revolution, the major cities along the eastern seaboard had weekly newspapers, with news from England taking up to three months to reach the American shores and be printed. News from one colony to another might take a couple of weeks or more. All of it was subject to censorship by the colonial governors.

 By the Civil War, reporters in the field could transmit news by telegraph—assuming that competitors or the other side didn't cut the wires. Even the most efficient operation took at least a day to gather, write, transmit, and then print the news.

 Radio brought World Wars I and II closer to Americans. Photojournalists—with film, innumerable developing chemicals, and restricted by the speed of couriers, the mail service, and publication delays—gave Americans both photos and newsreel images of war.

 Television gave us better access to learning about wars in Korea and Vietnam.

 And then came the Persian Gulf War, and the full use of satellite communication. Although CNN, the first 24-hour news operation, was the only network to record the destruction of the Challenger in January 1986, it was still seen as a minor network, with audiences of thousands not millions. The Persian Gulf War changed that, along with the nature of the news industry. CNN built an audience during Operation Desert Shield, from late Summer 1990 to Jan. 16, 1991. On that evening, the beginning of Desert Storm, CNN was the only American-based news operation in Iraq. From the al-Rashid Hotel, its three correspondents and their teams transmitted news and video as the U.S. sent missiles into Baghdad.

 Two decades later, individual media have almost replaced mass media as sources for first information. Twitter, Facebook, Linked-in, and innumerable ways to text message now link individuals and groups. Individuals can also transmit photos and video from cell phones to You Tube and dozens of other hosts, making everyone with a cell phone a temporary reporter or photojournalist. It also leads to extensive problems in discerning the facts from rumors and propaganda. The media—individual and mass—have united a world's people.

 In Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt, it was Facebook and Twitter, not state-run mass media, that gave the people communication to launch their protests that would lead to the fall of two authoritarian governments.

 On May 1, in a nine-minute television address beginning at 11:35 p.m., EST, President Obama t old the world that Navy SEALs had successfully completed their mission to kill Osama bin Laden. Those not at their radio or TV sets learned about it from messages and video on their cell phones or computers.

 It is still be the responsibility of the mass media--of radio, television, newspapers, and magazines--to give in-depth coverage and analysis of the events. But, for millions worldwide, it is no longer the mass media that establishes the first alerts.

 

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist, the author of 17 books, and a retired university journalism professor. His latest book is Before the First Snow.]

 

 

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