Perky news

It's said that packaging is everything. You can sell smelly socks if they come wrapped in an attractive box. After viewing the recent debacles on the network news channels, packaging seems to take precedent over content.

Television news was originally presented in black and white with a male newscaster and facts, sometimes accompanied with a few films. Frankly, it was pretty boring. Fortunately, we're past those constraints.

But it seems that television news has shifted from “here's the news” to “here's the package, which contains the news.” It's more about package and presentation than about content. Call it happy-talk news wrapped in a pretty package.

Put a beautiful newsreader personality — often not even a trained journalist — in front of the camera and have him or her read what someone else has written. In my television days, newscasters wrote much, if not all, of their copy. Today's newsreaders would be totally lost without the teleprompter telling them what to say.

OK, maybe it is time for change. And that's exactly what CBS has in mind. Unless you've been sleeping under a rock, you couldn't have missed that television mega personality Katie Couric will take over newscasting duties from longtime newsman (and rating increaser) Bob Schieffer next month.

In September, she steps into the huge shoes of venerable CBS news anchors Edward R. Morrow, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. The network is quick to highlight, “Couric will become the first female solo anchor of a weekday network evening news broadcast.”

CBS is reportedly spending more than $15 million per year to buy the most recognizable face on television to take over from the old guard. Never mind that her own CBS bio lists only six years as a television “reporter.”

The network must not be totally convinced the pretty package will be enough, because it launched Couric on a cross-country “listening tour.” The last time we heard that phrase was when former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was trying to convince New Yorkers she was a resident of a state she'd never lived in before. That said, she is now Senator Rodham Clinton.

Can you imagine Walter Cronkite on a listening tour to learn what viewers wanted to see on TV news? Doesn't news work the other way around? News happens, and reporters and newscasters report it.

The CBS press office said the listening tour was designed so Couric could meet with viewers informally. One hundred people from each of the six communities she visited were invited to the closed confabs.

However, rather than being open meetings, the events were carefully staged to prevent the news media from attending. In Minneapolis, WCCO-TV staffer Matt Bartel was initially denied permission to attend because he runs a local Minneapolis blog. The writer was finally allowed inside, but only after he “surrendered his pen.”

With this as backdrop, you still have to give CBS credit for trying something new. It's willing to give a popular personality a clean shot at its most prestigious news program. Will viewers (and advertisers) warm to a perky $15 million face delivering today's disaster headlines? Maybe so. After all, packaging seems to be everything.

Readers will notice the new design and presentation of Broadcast Engineering magazine. The staff has worked hard to bring you a fresh, colorful, easy-to-read — yet always in-depth — coverage of this industry. And, it didn't cost $15 million. Let us know what you think

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