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Events get in the way of TV news revamp

IN THE GRAND TRADITION of ill-timed plans, just when TV news began laying the foundation for its latest makeover into something less than hoary old journalism, actual news got in the way.

Terrorism in London interrupted what was fast becoming the most dimwitted summer since before Sept. 11, when shark attacks and a missing young woman (Chandra Levy, in that case) kept audiences distracted and gave Connie Chung the summer’s biggest “get” interview, not to be confused with Katie Couric’s recent chat with the so-called runaway bride.

At the same time, news orgs have continued the march toward news-lite iterations of venerable franchises. These range from tinkering with “The CBS Evening News” to emphasize “storytelling” to ABC’s experimentation with multiple topics, different hosts and a new format for “Nightline.”

Then came the London bombings, and concerns about style took a back seat, however briefly, to boring old substance. For a moment, how reassuring it was to see “Nightline’s” lame-duck anchor Ted Koppel providing a reminder of what gravitas means, especially with Jennings, Rather and Brokaw on the sidelines.

TO BE FAIR, TV nets aren’t alone in wrestling with packaging issues hoping to get younger and stay relevant. Consider the Los Angeles Times’ revamp of its Opinion section, which included an aborted online foray into interactive editorials that survived a mere two days after hacking hooligans inserted porn into the Web site.

Introducing the renamed Current section, the Times proposed its aim is to prove that ” ‘smart’ and ‘fun’ are complementary concepts,” which is at best a half-truth. While those two adjectives need not be mutually exclusive, they don’t go together easily or very often — certainly not on TV, as viewers of “Big Brother 6” can attest.

All these innovations start from the assumption that news by itself isn’t interesting enough to hold the attention of Internet-age consumers. The transformative power of that perception, combined with the advent of 24-hour cable news, can be witnessed in the steroid-injected treatment of intermittent events like a papal succession or Supreme Court nomination that last transpired before Fox News’ Roger Ailes met “fair and balanced.” The court ruckus has quickly devolved into part of what’s become a massive, ongoing political food fight, loosely officiated by cable TV and talkradio hosts.

Terrorism, by contrast, requires no such amplification, perfectly calibrated as it is to modern TV news’ penchant for frightening viewers with the specter that they or their children are at risk, however infinitesimal the odds. So we worry about sending teens to far-away places like Aruba, getting bitten by sharks or virus-bearing mosquitoes, or just being on the wrong train at the wrong time — all under the rubric of “It could happen to you,” with compelling pictures to hammer the point home.

LIKE ANY RECURRING sensation, however, regular appeals to fear tend to yield diminishing returns. The “Oh crap” reaction to safety threats remains almost primal, but the recovery time also grows shorter as nerve endings snap back sooner — something news outlets are gradually coming to realize.

“In many ways, we have learned to live with the threat of terrorism, maybe better than anyone expected,” ABC News’ John Donvan mused last week, during a “Nightline” broadcast in which coverage from London shared time with R&B singer Luther Vandross’ funeral.

So those clinging to the vague notion that serious news rearing its head might slow the push toward “news lite” overlook the relentless momentum behind the shift toward viewer-friendly “storytelling,” even within network TV’s most prestigious broadcasts.

As for cable, the question is how much further execs can dig into the same old bag of tricks before viewers grow numb to the time-killing vamping, speculation and repetition that surrounds their “breaking news” reports. CNN’s desperation has become especially pungent, as witnessed by its latest blustery attempt to brand itself as “Your hurricane headquarters.”

In a particularly thoughtful editorial Saturday, the New York Times contemplated the psychological toll terrorism seeks to inflict, concluding, “The purpose of terrifying us is to turn us loose among our own emotions, to undermine our ability to reason with ourselves and each other.”

The purpose of TV news is simpler but no less suspect in its long-term ability to achieve a basic goal — namely, to keep a jaded audience glued to the set, morbidly fascinated and afraid to look away.

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