Good Night, and Good Luck
April 23, 2009
I had intended to write this column about WNBC's launch of "New York Nonstop," the NBC O&O's widely touted 24-hour-a-day experiment with hyper-local news. That is, until I began watching it.
Few new television ventures leave me speechless, but this one did. First of all, it's not "news" at all—hyper-local or any other kind. Not even close. The best I can come to describing it is a low-cost—very low-cost (think home video)—trivia channel. N.Y. NONSTOP A FLOP After watching an obnoxious yuppie spend $2 million on a New York City apartment and then trying to guess whether a cap-wearing man on the street was either balding or had a toy monkey collection (the monkeys won), I choked and turned the whole mess off. I simply couldn't deal with any more of it. To call this mindless drivel "news" is an atrocity. If I were Jeff Zucker, my first act would be to fire everyone associated with "New York Nonstop." I've read the self-serving memos and threats to the staff about "quality" by the show's executives. "If it's good enough for WNBC, it's good enough for NY Nonstop." But the gem was a warning to the staff of what would happen if they didn't follow the NBC guidelines. If the channel fails, the executives warned in a memo, the network will probably "turn it into a lifestyle channel and we'll have one less platform in which to showcase our work, and you know what will happen next." Give me a break, and drop the threats. This programming cannot succeed! It already has the production value of your neighbor's worst home video. Hopefully, by the time you read this, "New York Nonstop" will be off the air and its lamebrain creators out of work.
The "real" news came from the Stewart vs. Cramer smackdown on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." ACCOUNTABILITY Ironically, it turns out the real "news" the same week came from a far better purveyor of genuine information, Comedy Central. Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" skewered Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC's "Mad Money," a show that attempts to do financial news with a screaming manic host. Stewart was on a tear about how financial news channels like CNBC celebrated, rather than reported, the shenanigans that led to billions of dollars of losses by Americans in the recent financial debacle. He held a squeamish Cramer's feet to the fire, proclaiming that CNBC not only failed to foresee the credit crisis, but sided with the bankers and helped inflate the bubble. "You knew what the banks were doing, yet were touting it for months and months," Stewart told Cramer. "The entire network [CNBC] was. For now to pretend that this was some sort of crazy, once-in-a-lifetime tsunami that nobody could have seen coming is disingenuous at best and criminal at worst." It was Cramer's questionable contention that television shows like his on CNBC are required to make financial news entertaining that infuriated Stewart. "I understand you want to make finance entertaining," Stewart told Cramer. "But it's not a (f—king) game," the comedian said, using an additional adjective that was bleeped out. "When I watch that, I can't tell you how angry that makes me." Stewart showed clip after clip of Cramer giving viewers wrong or misleading information. One showed Cramer assuring his viewers that Bear Stearns was not in trouble—shortly before that heavily leveraged investment firm imploded. Cramer has apologized several times since then. Another wonderful moment came when Stewart focused on the over-the-top theatricality of CNBC financial shows like "Mad Money" and "Fast Money." Cramer responded, "There is a market for it, and you give it to them." Stewart stared at him in disbelief, saying, "There's a market for cocaine and hookers!" The dressing down of CNBC and the financial news channels by a comedy host drew huge national attention, including a rave from the White House. "I enjoyed it thoroughly," Robert Gibbs, the president's press secretary, told reporters with a huge grin. The White House has been at odds with CNBC ever since the network's Rick Santelli trashed President Obama's housing plan on the air for rewarding "bad behavior" and subsidizing "losers' mortgages." Gibbs went on. "I thought somebody asked a lot of tough questions," he told the press. "And I am not surprised that the video of Mr. Cramer's appearance doesn't appear on CNBC's Web site today." Who knows whether all the hoopla over CNBC will hurt or help the network. At least initially, after Cramer made numerous guest appearances on other television shows, his ratings were down about 10 percent in the 25 to 54 demographic. CNBC's business day programming was also down 10 percent. NBC Universal's response to these twin travesties in a single week will be interesting to watch. In my opinion, if all is left alone, it signals the network is basically out of the legitimate news business. That would be sad. In an attempt to cleanse myself after viewing "New York Nonstop," I rented George Cloony's excellent "Good Night, and Good Luck," the 2005 feature film about television journalist Edward R. Murrow. Watching Murrow stand up to the CBS brass while bringing down Sen. Joseph McCarthy was perhaps the highest point yet in broadcast journalism. It's a reminder of what we once had, and no longer have today. We've fallen so far. I wonder now if anyone will—or even knows how—to pick up the pieces. Frank Beacham is a New York City-based writer. Visit his Web site at www.frankbeacham.com and his blog at www.beachamjournal.com.
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