A fundamental lesson for TV, print
For football fans, August is that glorious month when fall previews pour out handicapping each team’s chances, while the players — some grizzled veterans, others newcomers brimming with potential — engage in a flurry of last-minute practices girding for the season to come.And if that sounds like a cheap analogy for the TV biz, wait, because I’m going to stretch and torture the gridiron metaphor to fit the entire media world. There’s always something exciting about new wrinkles in a team’s arsenal, which helps explain the unbridled enthusiasm toward ancillary media, whether it’s TV programs creating “webisodes,” broadband games and social networking; or newspapers offering video and fresh content online to recapture some of those readers they keep hemorrhaging. In their rush to meet those objectives, though, there’s a nagging sense they might be neglecting the fundamentals — practicing throwing reverse passes and other gadget plays, in football parlance, when they should be working on blocking and tackling. This image of misplaced priorities keeps rearing its head in regard to TV and print, two venerable media besieged and beguiled by new technology’s promise. Last spring, for example, when NBC presented its series development to advertisers, the network went to great pains discussing all its planned tie-ins even before the actual shows were ordered — such as an online version of the fictional magazine featured in the drama “Lipstick Jungle.” The primary challenge facing new programs right now, however, is far more conventional — namely, how to derive a second, third and (God willing) 22nd episode from whatever attributes helped sell the pilot. Because while “Lost” and “Heroes” have spawned their own enviable cottage industries, without big, gaudy hits consistently pulling in viewers, all those ancillary bells and whistles will possess the staying power of an ice cube in August. Granted, it’s possible to pat your head and rub your stomach simultaneously, but there’s an inherent risk that all the attention devoted to secondary pursuits can become a cart-leading-the-horse distraction. As for those aforementioned fundamentals, one article recently questioning whether college journalists are mastering a new set of skills — among them capturing and editing audio and video — necessary to compete in the newly wired world, as lines separating news distribution in print, TV and online blur. Teaching kids such disciplines sounds great, assuming that they learn how to write and get their facts straight, which would be more reassuring if there weren’t so many typos and gaffes from major news organizations, as staffs shrink and thus lines of defense are depleted. As evidence, the New York Times public editor’s latest column lamented 269 misspelled names in the world’s most prestigious newspaper this calendar year — a credibility deflator that tends to make cynical minds wonder what else reporters might have gotten wrong. Yet multitasking is increasingly the norm, as the Washington Post’s Norman Chad observed about sports writers feeding ESPN’s insatiable talking-head appetite, flocking to TV to become “serial screamers.” “Who has time to write?” he asked, which at least creates some alibi for why so much sports writing is shrill (think the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke) and awash in melodrama worthy of “Desperate Housewives.” (Full disclosure: My own brief adventure moonlighting on cable is, to the medium’s betterment, mercifully over.) The preoccupation with blogging and web video is surely logical, provided that news outlets don’t overlook the basics — like breaking news and delivering in-depth analysis. This is one reason why I’m more sanguine than most about Rupert Murdoch upholding some level of standards at the Wall Street Journal — in part because he can appreciate the paper’s mandate, being one of those corporate titans the Journal mythologizes, the type of guy who plays Monopoly with real companies. Back in “The Cosby Show’s” hey-hey-heyday, Bill Cosby’s character came home shaking his head after trying to teach his son to play football. Although young Theo clearly lacked talent, he kept practicing an elaborate, celebratory post-touchdown dance. “The boy will not score,” his father said ruefully. Ah, but that was when such measures were clear and objective. By contrast, the real trick play now is that if you do the dance just right, you can make people temporarily forget how to read the scoreboard.