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The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic blogs at TVWeek.com with wit, humor and strong opinion.

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Tom Shales


October 2006 Archives

Celebrating Chet, David and Reuven

October 24, 2006 8:34 PM

"Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams & Steve Capus," says the invitation, "Invite You To Attend a Celebration in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of ‘The Huntley-Brinkley Report’ & Remembering Reuven Frank, Friday, the 3rd of November, 2006, at 11 o'clock a.m., Studio 8H, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York City. Space is limited & on a first come, first serve basis."

Of course, ironies abound—a celebration of NBC News coming just as parsimonious General Electric lowers the boom on hundreds of employees at NBC, dozens of them within the news division itself, and even though Brian Williams is deservedly No. 1 in the three-way nightly anchor race. He may not have the phenomenal dominance enjoyed by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley in the days when they reigned supreme, but he is soundly defeating Katie Couric, even after all those millions CBS spent on ballyhooing her ascendancy to the "Evening News" anchor throne.

(Personal blog to Mr. Williams: "Could you please stop saying, 'Thank you for THAT' to correspondents at the ends of their reports? It's, like, soooo irritating. A simple 'Thank you' would suffice. Or maybe compromise and limit the 'for THAT's' to one per newscast—okay? Thank you for that.)

More sad than ironic is the fact that Reuven Frank, who put Huntley and Brinkley together, didn't live to attend this tribute, though he came so very close, having died earlier this year.

Reuven Frank was one of the most important and also most under-honored gentlemen in the news business, though he used to laugh about the low regard in which TV news was held back in its earliest days when he first signed up. A network news department was about as coveted a place of employment as the rowers' galley aboard the battle ships in "Ben-Hur."

Reuven invented the Huntley-Brinkley report and with it the pair's famous sign off "Good night, Chet" and "Good night, David." Reuven recalled not too long before his death that both anchors hated it as a way of ending the show, with Huntley protesting that it made the men sound like lover boys. Frank challenged them to come up with a better sign-off. They didn't, and history was made.

Here's how different those days were from 2006: The closing theme for "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" was an extract from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Beethoven yet! (I hope I got that right. It might have been the Fifth. No, the Ninth. Hey, it's a blog, so correct me if I'm wrong, okay?).

Maybe we'll all get lucky and the layoffs at NBC News will come entirely from the staff of "Dateline," thus shutting down the show. Of course that means that pedophiles will be free once more to run rampant through the highways and byways of the nation with no vigilante news posses chasing after (and entrapping) them. It's a risk we'll just have to take.

Maybe some of those who speak at the Huntley-Brinkley 50th anniversary celebration will have a few words to say about "Dateline." We can only imagine what Brinkley would have thought of it—but then he'd left NBC long before his career was over and quickly began a new one with Roone Arledge at ABC. The reason Brinkley bolted was simple: He couldn't stand NBC News President Bill Small. I didn't hear that second-hand, either; Brinkley told me himself.

He also said—bravely—in that interview that if he had to characterize his own political philosophy he would use the word "liberal." But Rush Limbaugh needn't get his panties in a bunch. Brinkley never would have dreamed of letting his own political notions color anything he reported on the air, and in fact he laughed and scoffed at almost all politicians of both parties (and any new independent parties that came and went over the years).

The Huntley-Brinkley celebration comes a few months after Shirley Wershba, a longtime CBS News producer, made a fool of herself on a PBS documentary about Walter Cronkite by denigrating the "Huntley-Brinkley Report" as a "Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee" effort. She didn't say it in good humor—just in bad taste, and inexcusably bad manners. Meanwhile, her friend Cronkite was more of a cartoon on the air than Huntley or Brinkley ever were. For that matter, "Good night, Chet" and "Good night, David" is a heckuva lot less corny than Uncle Walter's pompous bye-bye: "And that's the way it is."

And that's the way it really is.

The Scoop on 'Saturday Night Live'

October 11, 2006 5:37 PM

Lorne Michaels had let it be known over the summer that his budget for this season of "Saturday Night Live" had been cut, but even so, attentive viewers must have been taken aback when they saw a promo, on the Oct. 7 show, for the next “SNL” telecast—a repeat of the season opener only three weeks after it opened the season!

Why, what on earth is going on, we wondered.

It turns out there is no reason to panic, even though that is a logical first reaction to ALL news in these times. NBC is airing a NASCAR race on Saturday (the 14th) and it will run late—so late that “SNL” probably wouldn't get on the air until after midnight. Michaels says there is no point in burning off a brand new show when it's so late that hardly anyone will see it, so the season premiere will air again. The host is comic Dane Cook, whose monologue was long and boring but who did a very good job in the sketches, and the musical act is The Killers, whom your teenage daughter may already be tired of. They have a certain something—but not much of it.

Meanwhile here's a scoop: On the Oct. 21 show, although he won't be the host (that will be John C. McGinley of "Scrubs"), “SNL” alumnus and now movie superstar Will Ferrell will make a gala return appearance. Ferrell represents a certain special something that the current cast lacks (though Amy Poehler comes close): He's an all-around utility player who is also a high-energy power source to keep everybody going even on those nights when the show's luminance dims.

He also dared to ad lib, against the show's tradition, sometimes daring fellow cast members not to crack up on the air. He brought so much oomph and was so tireless on the show that he could have been given Tom Brokaw's old network nickname: Duncan the Wonder Horse. It was given Brokaw by then "Today" executive producer Steve Friedman, who masterminded the show's rise from the ashes, causing Phoenix envy to break out among the competitors. But that's ancient history.....

Look Who's Not Talking

October 3, 2006 3:03 AM

News coverage of the Rep. Mark Foley scandal may seem sketchy on network TV because network newsees are having a hard time getting members of Congress to talk about it on camera. They're clamming up like -- well, like clams, even though, since Foley is a Republican, you'd think the Democrats would be anxious to shoot off their mouths -- thus perhaps proving once again that Democrats don't seize opportunities, they spurn them.
 
Democrats are soft on Republicans. Vice is definitely not versa.
 
Obviously any sort of smirky gloating would look unseemly since the offenses with which Foley is suspected -- he hadn't been officially charged by anybody with anything at bloggy press time -- are so delicate and, to most people, distasteful: the sending of sexually suggestive or explicit emails to kids working on Capitol Hill as pages, meaning 16-year-olds and younger.
 
Maybe this is one of those issues where members of Congress close ranks on the grounds that even though the scandal only reflects on one member of one party, in the public mind it just reconfirms the notion that wicked Washington is sin city, a place where pedophiles not only run wild in the streets but in the marble halls of the Capitol and the congressional office buildings. It results in frustration for those charged with reporting the news, that's for sure. On the other hand, a casual or intense observer might think it makes members of Congress look cowardly when no one will come forward and speak decisively on the issues raised by the scandal.
 
Meanwhile AOL celebrated the 10th anniversary of Fox News with one of its informal and extremely unscientific polls. As of 8 p.m. Eastern time Monday, with just over 46,000 subscribers having voted, 61 percent chose Fox when asked which cable news network they preferred to watch. CNN got a piddling 26 per cent of the vote and MSNBC, the only other network listed in the poll, got 13 per cent.
 
"Proving" probably nothing more than that political conservatives are much more likely to vote in opinion polls than their political opposites are, the question "What do you think of CNN?" was answered thus: 59 per cent called it "too liberal" and 34 per cent called it "balanced," whereas 60 per cent of those polled found Fox News to be "balanced," just like the network's slogan claims, with 37 percent voting "it's too conservative."
 
Too bad voters weren't given the choice of "Too Dull' for CNN. That might have resulted in a landslide.
 
And MSNBC? "It's too liberal" said 56 per cent of those voting -- which is hogwash. But that's the country we live in: Walk down the street and ask almost anybody if any of the national media are too liberal or too conservative and eight times out of 10 you'll probably hear "too liberal" because it's an American mantra, a knee-jerk reaction, the conventional "wisdom" based almost entirely on superstition. Quick -- the National Enquirer -- too liberal or too conservative? "Too liberal" of course! And TV Guide? That's not as silly as it sounds. In the old days, when it was owned by Nixon pal Walter Annenberg, the magazine regularly ran commentaries by Patrick Buchanan.
 
Then again, some people probably find him too liberal too.