What’s the difference between Tom Brokaw and Tom Bergeron? Not much.
Brian Williams was just coronated as Brokaw’s replacement when the NBC anchor steps down after the 2004 election. As obvious a choice as the clean-cut, straight-arrow Williams would seem to be, there is some hand-wringing about this decision among nostalgic types.
You see, Williams will be the first anchorman of a network news program who does not have gritty reporting experience (covering the Clinton White House doesnt muster the same respect as dodging bullets or bombs). Americans instead know him best as the perpetually tan, behind-the-desk Brokaw substitute with the unnervingly perfect hair.
But maybe the worry warts would feel better if, instead of “anchorman,” the new title for the man who comes to us from MSNBC’s The News with Brian Williams were “News Host.” After all, isn’t this what all anchormen have become?
Broadcast news has changed over the years from the days of craggy-faced, hard-bitten, seen-it-all ex-reporters earning their well-deserved semi-retirements while sitting at desks in front of multiple clocks. Suave Peter Jennings still sits at a desk, but Brokaw now stands in front of groovy video screens, and Dan Rather, certainly the most unpredictable of the Big Three, seems to alternate between sitting and standing. But sitting or standing, they are called “anchormen” because they stay in the studio, the nucleus of the broadcast, and the reports and reporters revolve around them like trench-coated electrons.
All three of these men have reporting backgrounds. Is it necessary for the jobs they have now? Not really. But the necessary traits for a good News Host are the same traits you expect to find in a good Game Show Host:
1. Both should be able to read smoothly from teleprompters.
2. Both ask questions that hard-working underpaid writers research and prepare for them.
3. Both should be reasonably attractive in an accessible, non-threatening way.
4. Both should project a well-informed and caring image.
5. Both should inspire trust, and be worthy of being invited into our living rooms on a daily basis.
The comparison to Game Show Host is no exaggeration. Tom Bergeron, the host of Hollywood Squares, was recently mentioned as a possible replacement for the as-yet-unreplaced Bryant Gumbel, former co-anchor of the CBS’ The Early Show. So was Meredith Vieira, formerly of the news magazine 60 Minutes, and now of that Cosmo-of-the-airwaves, The View. Bergeron elected to stay on his game show, and Vieira decided to add a game show to her resume — she will soon be host of the syndicated version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Thirty years ago, “You want Art Fleming to do the NEWS?” would have bellowed through the hallowed halls where dignified, avuncular, well-informed types like Cronkite once roamed. But news is now entertainment, and entertainment needs to be hosted, not anchored.
For proof, look no further than the “branding” of cable news “stars” like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (has the expression “Let’s play Hardball!” been copyrighted yet?) and Ashleigh Banfield, who, according to her promo featuring the Michelle Branch song Everywhere, is well, everywhere. Hey, it’s important to know where to find Banfield — you wouldn’t want your email questions about her hair and eyeglass frames to end up in Fox News’ John Gibson’s mailbox.
If Bergeron and Vieira can seamlessly switch back and forth between gladhandling game show schmoozer and Trusted Source of News, TV news executives must think it’s acceptable for anchormen and game show hosts to be considered interchangeable. The message is that integrity, knowledge of public policy, and a sense of responsibility to inform the public take a back seat to having a pleasant face and being conversational.
So why shouldn’t Dan Rather consider taking the helm of Win, Lose, or Draw when he steps down from the CBS Evening News? His homespun ad-libs would fit in perfectly when interviewing a homemaker from Ventura, Calif., who likes to yell, “Big Money! Big Money!”
We seem to be evolving toward one generic Host Figure who will handle the delivery of all information. “The Mets beat the Dodgers last night … there’s a cold front coming in … 6,000 people were massacred yesterday … how would you like to win a new car?” Is there any reason to have four separate people to do that? All we need is someone so genial and adaptable, he can be plugged into all of those roles, like an evolutionary Ubermensch.
I cast my vote for Al Roker.
Karen Lurie is a writer living in New York City. She contributes to HoleCity, Modern Humorist and Flak Magazine.
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