9:15 am Jul. 2, 20121
Every Monday, Glynnis MacNicol will be writing about the new HBO series, 'The Newsroom.' Today, Episode 2. (Earlier posts here.)
“We don’t do good television, we do the news," says MacKenzie McHale describing her daring and original new plan for "News Night," the fictional cable-news show at the center of Aaron Sorkin's new HBO show, "The Newsroom." Her plan is dubbed "News Night 2.0."
Oh, but we already have that, you say. It’s called PBS.
We may. But it's not clear yet whether they have it in Sorkin's alternate cable-television reality, where the goal of the central characters is to give the viewers what they need and ratings don’t matter. What happens if no one tunes in to get the news they need because they’d rather watch what in the business (and in Sorkin's show) is called "outshouting?" Or "crazy people"? This looks to be the problem the show is gearing up to address, and I’m sure CNN is very eager for him to get down to it already.
The good news: After breaking the big news about the Deepwater Horizon explosion in last week's episode, Will McAvoy's ratings are up, especially in the lucrative 18-49 demographic that attracts advertisers. The bad news is that we, and Will McAvoy, know this. His boss, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) wants the network exec to quit secretly telling Will what his ratings breakdowns are; Will has apparently been a "ratings whore" in the past. Why? Because Skinner also wants to do serious news that is not "ratings driven."
This is presumably what Aaron Sorkin meant when he told Piers Morgan he was writing fiction.
It's three days since that big first night, and according to MacKenzie, the “chaos of the [Deepwater] spill has quieted down.” MacKenzie is intent on building a new news show in which Will McAvoy will "examine the witnesses and present facts." Facts that might affect viewers at the voting booth. To wit: this new better show will not lead with Deepwater tonight because everyone else is doing that.
Say what? Of all the news stories that deserved to be dropped after three days and weren't, it's hard to think of one less worthy than Deepwater, which was a serious long-term story and should still fit all MacKenzie's criteria for News Night 2.0. In real life no one yet had any real idea of the depth of the Deepwater story by April 23. There hadn't yet been time to drop it.
But, OK: They have a worthy replacement (and one that was widely covered on all the cablers in real like that week). A segment about immigration was to feature Arizona governor Jan Brewer, who has signed the controversial SB 1070 "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act" into law. It looks good until associate producer Maggie (Allison Pill) screws up a pre-interview with a Brewer press aide, who happens to be Maggie's former sort-of boyfriend.
A series of missteps follows and the show finds itself without their lead guest, scrambling to put together the immigration segment with a gun-toting militia man, an ill-spoken anti-immigration advocate, and the second runner-up to the Miss USA pageant who says she lost out due to her answer on immigration.
Will quickly shuts down this last guest on the air, and follows up with a defense of Sarah Palin's (real-life) response to Deepwater that is almost as convoluted as Palin’s was: She wanted us to accept help from the "Norwegians." (McAvoy's Palin rant is embarked upon on the advice of the network exec who secretly gives him the ratings breakdown, who counsels him to run with what has been working: meltdowns, emergencies, and being nice to unhinged politicians. News Night 1.0 circa three days ago.)
The broadcast is a great failure in the eyes of the "News Night" people and everyone goes home intent on doing better next time. Which, if we are following the 2010 calendar as Sorkin would like us to, would be the following Monday.
Now, while it will get tedious fast to point out the things Sorkin gets wrong about cable news, I do think it's worth noting at this juncture that Palin’s critique of the media response to Deepwater Horizon actually happened on June 16, 2010, not April 23. Two reasons it matters. One: It demonstrates Sorkin is happy to stick to historical accuracy only when it allows him to point out how the story was covered wrong. Two: The Deepwater spill is the perfect example of a story that both deserved long-term coverage and got it—an opportunity to make this idealistic point that Sorkin has weirdly abandoned. Deepwater was a moment when cable news actually did its job. Dropping the Deepwater Spill from the lead slot three days in, while it is still a wildly moving story, seems precisely like what "News Night 2.0" should not be doing.
But we are only in the second episode, and there is lots here that does feel real and perceptive
SHUT DOWN: McAvoy SLAMS Miss America Contender
"News Night" has its first bad, cable! moment, and it's the first proof we have so far that Sorkin has consumed actual cable news. In a real cable world McAvoy’s snarky exchange with the blond beauty contestant Tess Westin would definitely have gotten clipped and gone viral, hit "The Daily Show," landed Westin on reccurring Fox segments wherein she would have pitifully complained about being bullied by the lamestream media before subsequently landing a gig at the network as a commentator.
Moreover, Sorkin makes a good argument for why we often see idiotic guests on cable TV. It's not like Will is alone in his distaste for low-caliber guests. No one wants to interview beauty contestants about serious issues. No one. It’s what cable shows get stuck doing when their big guest decamps to another network at the last minute and they are left scrambling for a replacement. This happens all the time to everyone because because there are simply too many hours to fill on cable news and and too few good guests. This is why much of cable news is so stupid. That said, Will’s clip with the beauty contestant after having gone viral would have likely bumped his ratings, leaving him to further ponder the Good TV vs. Important News argument. Instead, everyone's just sad about it.
Business news is hot!
Literally in this case. Enter Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), whose character has a Ph.D. in economics but is being hired because she has killer legs and will make the wonky business news more appealing. If you watch CNBC you will know this is not a stretch. However, this is also Sorkin being impressively meta. In real life Munn was famously accused of essentially having landed her stint at "The Daily Show" simply because she was hot. ("30 Rock" had its own take on the flap.) Less believable is Munn telling MacKenzie she turned down a morning show spot because she can’t cook. Please. The network morning-show circuit (there is no cooking on cable news mornings) is the promised land of television: it’s where the money and the famiest of TV fame is. It is not a coincidence journalists happily abandon their esteemed serious careers to leap onto the morning couch: just ask Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson, Charlie Rose, George Stephanopoulos and Savannah Guthrie. You needn’t ask Ann Curry; her tearful farewell to the couch this week (on her way back to the sort of serious news career most journalists would kill for) is evidence enough of how hard it is to land a spot on morning TV and how loath you are to give up on it once you are there.
Words of love. Lots of words.
Again and again and again. More than even his characters' long speeches about politics and society, Sorkin is famous for reviving the highly verbal romance of the screwball comedy in which characters speak their love at a blazing pace. Great! The whole verbal tap dance between two characters destined for a relationship as Jim and Maggie, and MacKenzie (whose nervous franticness is becoming compelling in a car crash sort of way) and Will, who we learn split after she cheated on him (something she accidentally announces to the entire staff of CNN worldwide in a misdirected email) gives some lifeblood to the show. That the storyline between Allison Pill and Jim, in which she pays a professional price for hooking up with the wrong guy in college, basically felt like a thinly veiled rewrite of Donna's predicament in the "West Wing" episode War Crimes is just further proof that Sorkin is not against reusing his own material. It's also good news for those of us who do not mind that so far "The Newsroom" is essentially "The West Wing" lifted up and plunked down in a newsroom.
“No one’s going to watch a classroom. They’ll be either bored or infuriated and it will bleed viewers."
But here’s what feels especially weird about the ideal show Sorkin is trying to create within his show. Or at least how he has explained it so far. This show existed, successfully so, in not one but two formats during the time Sorkin is writing about. Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show was just reaching its stride in 2010 largely due to its reputation for spending long segments explaining complicated stories (ones that would match up to all of the new "News Night" rules) and making it fun to watch. Moreover she has never (in my recollection, anyway) featured guests outshouting one another, something MacKenzie declares her intention to avoid.
And then there is Glenn Beck. The classroom line, uttered by Will's former E.P. as proof the show is doomed to failure, brings no one to mind as much as Glenn Beck who in 2010 was clocking gangbuster ratings using a chalkboard and endlessly discussing obscure subjects like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. I think it goes without saying that Sorkin is not a fan of Beck but between the opening diatribe of last week’s episode, which bemoaned a lost America and pined for the days of Cronkite, and this week’s classroom remark, the figure Sorkin is painting here sounds remarkably like Beck. If there was ever a cable news host not ginning for ratings (but getting them anyway) Beck was it.
More by this author:
- What's really wrong with the White House Correspondents' Dinner?
- Nate Silver receives the adulation of New York's media demimonde in Nick Denton's Soho loft