Turning the morning news into soap opera

By Jack Shafer
June 21, 2012

Ann Curry, the second fiddle on NBC’s Today show, is apparently being shown the door. That news was broken yesterday afternoon by Brian Stelter, the prolific media reporter of the New York Times on the newspaper’s website, and that 1,100-word story earned prominent placement on Page One of the business section of this morning’s paper.

I’ll forgive you in advance if you don’t care whether Curry continues on Today or if you don’t care whether she finds a slot elsewhere in the NBC empire, just as long as you forgive me for not giving a fig either. It’s not that I dislike Ann Curry or Today‘s first fiddle, Matt Lauer, or even Today‘s morning-show competition. It’s just that I dislike the shows for being dulled-down messes of news, entertainment and talk. If I watch any of them, it’s by accident.

My lack of interest in the morning-show mix puts me in the majority. Today, which is usually the number-one-rated program, and ABC’s Good Morning America, which took that position a couple of times this spring, draw an average of fewer than 5 million viewers. The third-ranked show, CBS’s This Morning, pulls in a little more than 2 million viewers. In a country of 311 million, that’s minimal interest.

The length and placement of Stelter’s piece, on the other hand, conveys a level of importance to Curry’s rumored departure that’s hard to justify. Stripped to its essence, the Curry saga might justify a 300-word short about Today‘s recent ratings volatility, Lauer’s alleged estrangement from Curry, and NBC’s judgment that she wasn’t as good a co-host as predecessor Meredith Vieira, all leading to her impending exit.

Instead, Stelter serves an extended story packed with anonymous sources – ”some at NBC,” “some staff members,” “people with knowledge of the negotiations, who insisted on anonymity because the matter was confidential,” “several people who know Ms. Curry,” “one of the people” who know Curry, “friends” of Meredith Vieira, and “one of the people with knowledge of the negotiations” between Curry and NBC – that makes the departure of a TV co-host sound like the final days of Richard Nixon. How much of the anonymous dancing is Curry’s people spinning her story and how much of it is NBC framing the ouster as necessary strategy to save the show is anybody’s guess.

Overdramatizing the comings and goings of on-air talent and the hirings and firings of network executives is a traditional part of the TV beat. The People Who Cover Television never have to worry about material: The TV industry defines itself by ratings, ratings produce winners and losers, and from winners and losers flow an endless river of copy to bottle and sell. The People Who Cover Sports have been doing a similar thing for more than a century. The toughest choice in covering the TV industry (or sports) is to decide whether to make the loser or the winner the day’s story. It’s not that difficult a choice. If you cover the loser today, just remember to put the winner in your calendar for coverage in the future.

A case can be made that the fate of Ann Curry constitutes big news because Today is a $300 million profit machine dependent on ratings for its ad revenues. If ratings drop and she’s to blame, the network’s stockholders must know! But Stelter spends little time there. In the worst tradition of TV coverage, he’s writing a soap opera about a TV show.

I pick on Stelter, but he’s only one of the several dramatizers working the TV beat. His Times colleague Bill Carter has been known to indulge this tendency, and a couple of years ago, critic Bill Wyman took pleasure in hosing Howard Kurtz (Washington Post and the Daily Beast) for his inappropriately thorough pieces on the fading of Katie Couric’s nightly news lights. The extreme coverage of Curry echoes Politico’s coverage of the Washington beat: While the outlet routinely breaks legitimate news, it also tends to inflate whatever political lint it collects into giant mainsails.

At least one newspaper reporter on the TV beat keeps a sense of perspective about her work: Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post. (Here’s my 2003 appreciation of her work.) With her oeuvre more resembling that of a sports columnist than a sports reporter, de Moraes still delivers as much news about the industry as the writers at the Times – only she doesn’t weigh the beat down with high word counts and Timesian puff. And she’s funny. When CNN’s Lou Dobbs Moneyline was renamed Lou Dobbs Tonight, de Moraes explained that it was “because CNN would not let him rename it “I’m Lou Dobbs, Not Some Darn Islamist.”

With no disrespect to Curry, who is an accomplished reporter, if her impending exit from Today is big news, so is every segment on Entertainment Tonight.

******

Stelter, who long ago mastered “more” and “faster,” has my permission to move on to “better.” Send permission slips for my future to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed went down twice today. I really missed it. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: Television personality Ann Curry arrives at the Time 100 Gala in New York, April 24, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

5 comments

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Nice column Jack, even for someone who never watches t.v. of any kind but a snatch of sports out of the corner of one eye at my club. However, the opposite of “Lint” can’t be “main sail” but ought to be “hairballs”, no? x m.r

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

Why should anyone care about any media person? That provide nothing of value to society. The shows are not news, there are ENTERTAINMENT ONLY.

In fact, why even write an article about it?

This comment says it all.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

Much ado about ego.

Posted by duet | Report as abusive

There are morning news shows on network TV? I thought these were cooking, celebrity gossip and pop music shows.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

Morning “news”? It’s geared for the demographic of the gossip loving housewives, while their husbands are out working.

Posted by KyuuAL | Report as abusive