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SHALES SLUGS IT OUT WITH CNN! READ THIS COLUMN! RIGHT NOW!

Apr 22, 2002  •  Post A Comment

You’re the old kid on the block. You have tradition, you have experience and even a certain degree of dignity. But at the moment, you’re getting your can kicked by sexy, noisy, upstart competition. What’s a cable news network to do? More specifically, what’s THE Cable News Network to do?
First things first: The hell with the dignity. Dignity? Out. It’s gotta go. Dignity shmignity. Hot dignity dog. Dignity be darned. And so on-if that’s what it takes to lure back viewers and sell ads infinitum. Bad-boy Robert Blake arrested for the murder of his wife? That must have boosted the morale at CNN. It’s hooked up with no less austere a newsgathering organization than People magazine for team coverage of this one. But it’s all in the family: People’s off in another wing of the AOL-Time Warner mansion.
Promo-mania
Even before Blake was hauled away-in O.J.-style overhead shots captured by News Chopper Whatever-the masterminds at CNN were attacking the problem of the Fox News Network and all the big ratings and beaucoup press it’s been getting. When a network’s in trouble, history tells us, the first step is simple: Rev up them promos, mama. Rev ’em up good. Fixing programming takes time, but you can overhaul the promo machine and get it into hyperdrive virtually overnight.
And so CNN is reduced to the degradation of imitating its inferior-but much snazzier and jazzier-competition. It has a more Fox-like look on the air, and that includes not only making its “shows” more personality-dominated-Lou Dobbs doesn’t merely have his name above the title of “Moneyline,” his name is part of the title-but also making the promos much more aggressive, trashier and so excessively frequent as to be virtually inescapable.
“Young boy … Incurable disease … An extraordinary story of heartbreak and hope! Mattie Stepanik on `Larry King Live’! Nine eastern on CNN tonight!” That promo must have run at least four times an hour on CNN last Thursday, and each time it ran, the announcer’s shouted words were accompanied by video of poor Mattie moving about in a wheelchair with a breathing tube inserted in his neck.
How is it, incidentally, that they have clips of “Larry King Live” if “Larry King Live” is live? Must be just another miracle of modern technology.
Connie Chung was weighing in that night too. There’s growing evidence that after living with Maury Povich all those years, Connie might be turning into him. Her story about a priest charged with moral misconduct would be, the promos promised, a story of “Broken vows!” and “Sexual assault!” and a “CNN Exclusive” airing under the title “Fall from Grace.”
Moments after that promo aired, CNN ran another one for a new thriller, “Disappearance,” airing on Time Warner sister network TBS. That promo didn’t really look much different than the CNN promos did. You know, buzz words, gaudy type faces, tabloidy peeks at naughty nuggets, the whole shebang.
CNN’s “Crossfire,” which has always been hysteria by design-and in truth a guilty pleasure with a certain campy irresistibility-has been redesigned to make the show more like the promos that ballyhoo it. And those promos have become so hokey that a viewer may feel a certain sympathy even for Robert Novak, the Mr. Murdstone of journalism. Israel-basher Novak and his cronies on the show had to dress up in boxing gloves to help with the fight motif of the promos.
The promos for “Jackass” on MTV are more respectable, believe me.
Gone are the days …
Frequent “Crossfire” cohost Paul Begala now comes across on the show just as ridiculous as Chris Kattan does imitating him on those great “Saturday Night Live” parodies of CNBC’s shameless Chris Matthews (artfully impersonated by the brilliant Darrell Hammond). Begala is another case of a TV personality turning into his caricature, and yet you may feel sorry for him, too, when he’s required by the new CNN to hype the next segment on “Crossfire” by saying, “Coming up, Round Six! Novak and I will slug it out” on “the sex scandal in the Catholic Church.”
Slug it out? Round six? At the top of the hour, Begala had begun the program reading promo-department copy: “Set the VCR,” he told viewers with what passed for a straight face. “This is a show you’re gonna wanna keep.” Jeez Louise, it’s one thing to sell out and prostitute yourself, but Begala’s leaped right over the brink.
Even inveterate vulgarian Ted Turner must be feeling a tinge of embarrassment these days to see his baby soiling its bathwater. Turner has virtually nothing to do with the operating of CNN anymore but will forever be linked with it in the public mind. Or wait-maybe nothing is forever anymore.
I don’t know exactly when it was added, but “Crossfire” now has a studio audience, at least on some nights-an auditorium filled with a few dozen sad souls assembled on the campus of George Washington University. “Crossfire” was plenty sleazy enough without dragging a Wrestlemania crowd into the melee.
Lost its edge
For all this tinkering with the promos and graphics and those cluttery interstitial elements (“A CNN Exclusive! What Really Happened to Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora!”), the CNN product itself remains essentially unchanged-and to a dismaying degree mediocre. Oh, the “personalities” are more aggressive now, and more likely to interrupt newsmakers they are interviewing; Fox’s den of preeningly pugnacious pundits has made rudeness fashionable, or at least commercial. But slapping the word “exclusive” on every single report doesn’t really fool anybody, does it? CNN still rarely “breaks” a story.
On the other hand, if style is content now, and it seems to be all over the cable and broadcast spectrum, CNN is definitely a different network than it was a year ago. Maybe all the noise, all the flashing lights and rattling of sabers and promotional banging on pots and pans will bring viewers back, as they’re designed to do, but you have to ask the predictable but valid question, “At what cost?”
CNN has never been cable’s saving grace. C-SPAN is. But CNN did have a certain credibility, a certain civility, perhaps even a sense of pride. Remember the fuss when a CNN promo, yanked soon after its premiere, told viewers they should watch Paula Zahn partly because she was sexy? That promo may be extinct, but the mindset behind it-and the unhappy surrender that it represents-hasn’t gone anywhere.