My "Journo-less" Summer...So Far (Part 3 of 8)

Monday, August 18, 2014
[NOTE: I apologize for the long break between segments but I have been doing some employment-related activities with at least two potential opportunities in the journalism field. Most of the hard work--a resume and online portfolio--has been accomplished and they are now out for review by a few trusted mentors so now I can get back to writing about what I once thought was going to be a "journo-less" summer.]

This is the third installment for my personal journalism-related observations of the current summer promised, hard-hitting reporter, truth seeker, Curves membership. Nothing yet? How about justice hunter, philanthropist, has a Gmail account? You'll be shocked!

3. News Glance with Genevieve Vavance:

One of Roger's latest personas is news anchor Genevieve Vavance, a made-up character very much borrowed from a true-life television personality. (graphic courtesy of Fox)

- News Glance with Genevieve Vavance: after what I described in the last posting in this series, one of my few vices I will freely admit to doing is watching animated shows during the Fox television network's prime time and their re-airing on the Cartoon Network's after-hours Adult Swim channel. My favorite of the current selection has to be American Dad!, the story of the day-to-day antics of a fictional CIA agent and his immediate family (as well as a gay gray alien and a talking fish who live with them--his son-in-law, slacker/stoner Jeff Fischer, appears to have been written off near the end of this past season). For this post, I will go through the episode in-depth and then provide my own specific and generic critiques. (SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't seen the show, don't go any further because I do provide details in my review.)

Vavance, Hayley Smith and other channel 438 staff members attend a "pitch" meeting for the News Glance show that quickly goes off the emotional rails. (graphic courtesy of Fox)

In a manner similar to many episodes during this show's 10-year run, viewers are subjected to a preposterous situation that becomes more bizarre as the minutes go by. The main story line follows Hayley Smith, Stan and Francine Smith's daughter, as she supposedly learns a lesson about her own personal and ethical boundaries as well as the journalism industry--specifically, television news. We see her at her first day on the job as a reporter intern for Genevieve Vavance, a ratings-craving news anchor for Langley Falls' public access television channel 438 (and also happens to be Roger, the family's resident alien, in one of his many costumed personas). Wanting to tell the world about "Garbage Island", an actual floating trash mass located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that estimates place at twice the size of the continental United States, she must first find her boss a sensational story before hers can go on the air. In a emotional tirade at a story "pitch" meeting, Vavance explains what she is looking for:

"I need a serial killer priest! I need a vegetarian cop! I need a senator cheating on his wife with a bagel! All of you, get out there and find me my JonBenét Ramsey!"

 The face of Steve Smith is amateurishly taped over the famous photo of John F. Kennedy, Jr. saluting his slain father's casket in a sympathy building slide show on News Glance. (graphic courtesy of Fox)

In the show's companion--but subordinate--story line, we find Hayley's brother Steve wanting to lay low after being identified as the submitter for an extremely misinformed question about female anatomy during his high school sex-ed class. Each facing their own dilemma, the intern hatches an idea that would solve both of their problems: Hayley will put Steve up in a remote cabin for a week and then tell her boss that her brother has gone "missing".  While initially broken up when first hearing about his disappearance, Vavance suddenly realizes that she now has her big story that will help boost her ratings (which, strangely, are always compared to those of reruns of a Taiwanese prayer breakfast). In the first show after Hayley's "scoop", the host significantly plays upon the audience's emotions and runs a musical slideshow featuring altered photos (and even a painting) with the missing teen's face amateurishly taped over them. As it concludes and she goes into a commercial break for the show's sponsor (an eponymous beverage named Beer Water), Vavance shares another satirical indictment on how today's television news outlets seem to be mishandling breaking stories for the sake of being "first":

"It's too early to speculate whether Steve is dead or alive but when we come back, it won't be".

Vavance (left) interviews the grieving parents, Stan and Francine Smith, at the impromptu candlelight vigil for their missing son Steve on their front yard. (graphic courtesy of Fox)

Starting to feel a little uncomfortable about what she did, Hayley asks the anchor when she will be able to do her environmental piece but their conversation is interrupted by the sound of people singing the song that accompanied the just-broadcast slideshow--Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday"--coming from the front yard. They make their way over to the open window to see a makeshift candlelight gathering for Steve taking place there and Vavance happily announces, "and we have vigil!" Wanting to continue promoting the story (as well as boost the ratings), she and a remote camera head down to that event and interview the grieving parents. After Francine becomes too emotional and runs away crying, Hayley decides to tell her boss about the "arrangement" she has with her brother and we next get one of the episode's most biting critiques of television news:

"You're a journalist! We don't report the news, we make it. Accuracy is so time-consuming. Fiction is the new fact"

Stan, center, recuperates from a Taser blast from Vavance, left, while Francine, right, looks on. (graphic courtesy of Fox)

Vavance again coerces the intern with her "Garbage Island" report and they agree to allow the charade to go on for another 24 hours. The next program begins with a group interview with several of Steve's female classmates who admit, as Genevieve guides them towards saying, that they would've wanted to have sex with him if he was still around (which significantly elevates Steve's ego as he watches the broadcast from the cabin). She next interviews the parents and, after introducing some selective "facts" as well as manipulating the father's answers to make it appear that he  murdered his own son, the host has to shock him with a Taser when he angrily charges at her from the sofa. After a short commercial break (to refute Stan's unflattering opinion of the sponsor's product), Francine becomes the recipient of a new line of leading questions and the audience is treated to an amateurish "reenactment of what we believe happened" with the alien plays the roles of the scheming parents as well as the innocent son that ends in his brutal stabbing death in their home's living room (with a bottle of ketchup--the blood--sitting next to the "corpse" when the camera pans out). The viewers are brought back to the set where a police officer handcuffs the couple and takes them off the set with their daughter trying to intervene.

Vavance, left, interviews Stan, Francine and Steve Smith during "The Steve Smith Homecoming Spectacular" telecast. (graphic courtesy of Fox)

After witnessing what happened on the show, Hayley wants to end this deception but Vavance pushes the intern out in front of the camera to do her environmental report as both a distraction as well as her reward for her participation in the plan. Extremely distraught by what she just saw, the intern can't go through with it and immediately heads to the cabin to bring Steve back and clear the entire matter up; unfortunately, she was tailed by the anchor and two remote cameras. With this "discovery" of the live teen, Vavance now declares that the murder was actually a kidnapping and immediately blames the older sibling. Alarmed by the sound of approaching sirens, Hayley jumps through one of the cabin's windows and head out into the woods on foot. After a bizarre reunion between the anchor and her now-cop ex-husband who responded to that call, we see the fugitive Smith duck into a diner where she finds out that "The Steve Smith Homecoming Spectacular"--hosted by Vavance--will be held at the city's theater.

Audience members expressing their anger over being the victim of Vavance's scheme. (graphic courtesy of Fox)

After a theatrical opening sequence (involving trapeze artists and a theme ballad sung by a cartooned Josh Groban), the host begins to ask questions of the three available family members where their replies are meant to either boost Vavance's credibility or to further increase the sensational nature of the "kidnapping". When pressed to admit that his sister made him kiss a raccoon (it was part of the prepared copy on a teleprompter), the teen breaks down and confesses to the entire scheme. He is joined onstage by his sister who further implicates Vavance in the deception. At that point, the studio audience starts to become agitated and members provide their own self-deprecating admissions on how television viewers have "devolved" due to the prevalence of today's mind-numbing "info-tainment" programming:

"We trusted you!"

"You're supposed to be a journalist!"

"I can't read! I depend on you!"

When those disgruntled attendees attempt to climb onstage, Vavance busts the side panel of a large glass water tank that contain the Beer Water Mermaids and she escapes through the ensuing deluge. As in most sit-coms, we have a resolution of the issues surrounding the storyline where Hayley comes to understand the errors of her ways and apologizes to her brother. She further elaborates:

I just wanted to be a journalist and get the truth out there but I ended compromising all of my beliefs along the way. I learned my lesson...I'll never be ambitious again!

During the closing credits, we get to see Vavance recording several outrageous teaser "bumpers" for her upcoming shows that mimic the kind heard for local news stations--especially around the financially critical "sweeps" periods:

What household item could kill you in the next half-hour? We'll tell you tonight at 11:00! 

Easily surprised? You'll be shocked by what you learn tonight at 11:00.

Texting and driving-- how it may save your life. Tonight at 11:00! 

Is Mario Lopez gay? We make irresponsible guesses, tonight at 11:00. The results will shock him.

Tonight, at 11:00, teens are having sex younger and younger. Want to watch?

Genevieve Vavance (left) was outwardly modeled on the Headline News prime-time television host Nancy Grace (right). (left graphic courtesy of Fox; right graphic courtesy of CNN)

I perhaps went a bit too far into the "weeds" with my overview above but I thoroughly enjoyed this episode and instantly picked up on the writers' well-deserved barbs thrown out to the viewers about television news in general and the news/entertainment "hybrids" that are the mainstays of HLN's "must have, must share" offerings specifically. That channel used to be the former Headline News outlet that provided 30-minute news, weather and sports updates on a 24/7 schedule but its programming veered sharply towards tabloid, opinion, crime and entertainment stories back in 2005. It was rather obvious who Vavance was modeled after (at least in her physical appearance). Nancy Grace, one of one of that channel's primetime hosts, is well known for her layered collar-length bob with a "volumized" crown and, in the opening segment to one of the News Glance broadcasts, we see a photo of Vavance with her arms crossed in a manner as one of the HLN host's promo pictures. While Grace is a former prosecutor and legal commentator, this episode's primary character appears to be an ordinary journalist who worked a long time to make her way up to the anchor desk. In that exchange with her ex at the cabin, Vavance shares a little bit of her past when she tells him--in an almost film noir manner--that she kept his name because it was "TV-ready" and concluded their chat with "I'm married to my career now" and "my story's leaving and I got to chase it".

Hayley on her way to her first day for a reporter internship position that she probably didn't deserve to get. (graphic courtesy of Fox)

As a fellow journalism aspirant, I thought it was borderline insulting to see someone starting as a reporting intern who, according to her on-air biography over the past decade, has no background in that craft at all. Hayley is portrayed on the show as a promiscuous, pot-smoking feminist with ultra-liberal political views (her "Garbage Island" story was related to her activism for environmental causes). Such a radical background is strongly suspected by adherents believing in an overall media bias towards liberalism and its ideals to be the norm for journalists when, in reality, such subjective beliefs could jeopardize the trust and reputation required by members of that profession. As an unenthusiastic student of the fictional Groff Community College, she majors in women's history and, in one episode, she paid Roger off in snack foods so he would write her term papers for school. I am currently finding out that breaking into this line of work can be a frustrating ordeal and to have someone of her limited background and experience selected for that kind of opportunity is aggravating--even if her father's attic border did the hiring and it is for a low-rated program on a low-powered public access station. On a positive note, I did like the homage to Melanie Griffin's commuting montage seen in the opening credits of the 1988 movie Working Girl (and in its 1990 short-lived television sit-com starring a then-unknown Sandra Bullock) when Hayley was heading in for her first day at the new job (and she is directed back to her own house in the most round-about manner possible).

 Channel 438's studio area looks very much like those seen in the television industry today. (left graphics courtesy of Fox)

Inasmuch as Roger's existence on Earth and his profusion of occupations and costumes are understood absurdities to the show's regular viewers, the wholesale move of an entire television station into his cramped attic living spaces without anyone else in the house noticing it defies belief--even within the bizarre world of animated programming. With that prefacing statement already made, I was impressed by the attention to detail the animators exercised in depicting the set-up and equipment used in broadcast news operations. As part of the Society of Professional Journalists Region 4 Spring Conference 2013 activities, I had the opportunity to tour the state-of-the-art broadcast facilities at Dayton's CBS affiliate (WHIO-TV) and I provided photos from that event to compare the two sets. I am not familiar enough with studio cameras but I'm guessing that channel 438 is using standard definition units--after all, it is a public access channel. In two other scenes, we see the use of remote equipment for live coverage but there is no indication of an ENG, or electronic news-gathering, vehicle to get her feed back to the main studio for subsequent transmission (a receiving mast is readily visible mounted on the outside of the Smith's attic in several scenes).

News Glance touched upon all of the media's current tools for "intimitizing" news to their viewers and exploiting individuals at their most vulnerable moments--the "vigil", the "group interview", and "the couch interview" (left graphics courtesy of Fox; top and center right graphics courtesy of HLN; bottom right graphic courtesy of CBS).

While traditional television news programming normally imparts information in a regimented format (an anchor/host and in-studio and/or remote correspondents providing their live or recorded reporting), the "hybrids" attempt to introduce techniques and situations borrowed from their entertainment divisions for purely exploitation--and ratings-related--reasons. The writers employed three such scenes in this episode to advance the ever-changing story line revolving around the disappearance of the teenage boy. In recent years, vigils have become our modern society's preferred method of sharing grief and providing comfort within a community and the sounds and images from these gatherings can produce powerful emotional responses when edited and broadcast to previously unaware and potentially susceptible viewers. Understanding that process, Vavance immediately went down to interview the group and elicited unscripted--but anchor-guided--comments for her show. In the next News Glance, we see a group interview being conducted by Vavance with Steve's female classmates. Instead of addressing the facts surrounding his disappearance, the discussing centers around the non news-related subject of "hitting" him (a slang term for having sex with someone) to lure in curious "channel surfers". The last device, the "couch interview", is used by many news and "info-tainment" programs because such a setting is supposed to make the interviewee feel more comfortable when answering the interviewer's potentially uncomfortable questions (and we see Vavance providing off-camera reassurances to Stan and Francine before she starts with her libelous and unethical murder accusations). That technique also projects a feeling of intimacy with the television viewers so that they feel like they are in the room or studio with that person and sharing a "special" moment. While those first "tools" are regularly seen on Grace's program (or via her show's blog), I could not find any photo or video of her doing that kind of "one-on-one" interview. I don't intend to sound sexist or chauvinistic (or mean) but that absence might due to one of the misogynistic "rules" governing women on television--only move the pretty ones from out behind the desk. Besides, Nancy doesn't have the on-air demeanor (or the professional reputation) to come off as "nice" or "empathetic" in such a setting.

For its first four seasons, American Dad! opened every episode with a "newspaper gag". (graphic courtesy of Fox)

Although television news--specifically, the "hybrid" varieties of "info-tainment"--was the main target of this episode's satire, the newspaper industry also received some deserving mockery. First seen in the 2005 post-Super Bowl pilot episode (and for its first four seasons), American Dad! featured a running "gag" that involved the Langley Falls Post, the show's fictional daily. During the opening credits sequence, Stan would go out to his front porch and pick up that day's edition and the viewers then saw the joke headline that was displayed (examples include "Al Gore Honors Carlos Mencia for Recycling Jokes", "Dems Take House, Republicans Get Record Collection", and the one seen above). This device was akin to the now 25-year streak of The Simpsons show and its own weekly antics involving members of the family and their living room couch. The newspaper headline bit was replaced at the beginning of their fifth season (Roger now pops up in Stan's SUV in one of his many disguises before he skids into the flagpole in front of  his employer, the Central Intelligence Agency) but it returned twice within the body of this episode in full force.

American Dad! brought back--at least for this episode--its "newspaper gag". (graphics courtesy of Fox) 

The first paper appeared in the remote cabin that Hayley and Vavance traveled to after the parents were taken into custody at the studio. Steve, found alive and well, wants to exonerate his sister but the anchor reminds him of his increased desirability among his female classmates due to him being featured on News Glance. To amplify that point, the camera shows a copy of the Post with the tabloid-like headline, "Boy missing! Classmates worried, horny", and the hormonal teen reluctantly opts to keep the false story going and vouches for the new kidnapping claim made by Vavance. The second was as a multi-element prop at the diner where the fugitive Hayley stops in to presumably get some food. While sitting at the counter, she sees a police officer entering and quickly picks up a copy of the Post to hid behind (with her life-sized portrait prominently displayed on its front page). The officer sits next to the hiding intern and asks her for the metro section and she quickly slides it over to him. We next see them with newspapers hiding both of their faces with the headline on the officer's section saying "Survey finds local cops useless". To be totally honest, those were "groaners" but, as a diehard fan of that information dissemination medium, it's always nice to get them a "shout-out" whenever, or wherever, possible.

 Vavance enthusiastically shows Hayley the show's recent ratings on the set of News Glance. (graphic courtesy of Fox)

Although I don't quite understand the significance of ratings to the operations of a public access channel (or how such a low-budget organization could afford to subscribe to such a service), I do recognize their significant influence in the television news business and how far we have veered away from how things were done back in the early days of that medium. From the late 1940s through the early 1960s, national broadcast news was given just a 15-minute block of time during their evening programming schedule so it was easy for the network's entertainment divisions to absorb the "losses" expended (costs associated with on-air talent, production, equipment, marketing, etc.) in producing them . It wasn't until 1963 when two the "Big 3", CBS and NBC, expanded those offerings to 30 minutes a night (the financially strapped ABC network didn't do that until 1967) and increased that support obligation. Ratings were provided for those programs but they were merely used for "bragging rights" between the competing entities and were not carried over into the overall financial equations (in fact, many innovations--videotape, satellite communications, live reporting via microwave, infographics-- were introduced during this "golden age" as a way of differentiating them from their competitors and they were not cheap). At one time, news--like the idea of a television station itself--was seen as an undertaking conducted "in the public's interest" and these outlets felt the need to "serve" their viewing citizens. With the advent of cable television, those broadcasters began to feel a monetary pinch due to this new competition to their previous monopoly of entertainment options and, when the Cable News Network debuted in the summer of 1980, to their newscasts.

Although they aren't "hawking" products as blatantly as Vavance is above, today's news organizations face potential conflict-of-interest issues due to associations with corporate sponsors. (graphic courtesy of Fox)

The once impenetrable--and revered--boundary between the news and entertainment activities at those and other networks was obliterated by the early 1990s and those offerings must now complete for the limited amount of total revenues coming in. Ratings have always been the "Holy Grail" in terms of content providers securing advertisers and charging them for limited airtime in order to attract new customers based upon the programming's audience demographics. Because of the higher average ages for nightly news shows viewers, we tend to see ads for prescription medication, automobiles and other goods aimed at their health needs and sizable discretionary income. This kind of linkage does pose the potential for conflict-of-interest issues where a sponsor may get preferential treatment or reporting might be diverted--or even ignored--if one of their products prove defective or dangerous. For example, cigarette companies were incorporated into early television shows like the 1950s NBC Camel News Caravan program that featured actual sponsor logos and branding on the set (Vavance's Beer Water product pitch was done in a similar heavy-handed manner). When the  Surgeon General's devastating report on smoking and health was released in 1964, it was the beginning of the end for television advertisement money for tobacco products and the newly unrestrained news bureaus could then thoroughly investigate their former "cash cows". A more modern example of a toxic linkage might be with automobile ads and the 2010 recall of defective Toyota vehicles or the current flurry by General Motors to retrieve cars whose faulty ignition switches and other problems have claimed dozens of lives and hundreds of injuries from their customers. Ratings have become so sacred that they have forced several high profile network anchors out of their positions due to anemic viewership numbers. Cable news, with three major and several secondary channels now available in most US homes, has an even greater challenge in filling up their 24/7 schedules. Throw in radio--television's older but still relevant "cousin"--as well as print and internet providers and you can see that the news "landscape" once ruled by the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and The Huntley-Brinkley Report is as distant to today's media environment as the policies of ancient Rome are to our present system of government.

2014 was the tenth--and final--season for American Dad! on the Fox Network (graphic courtesy of Fox)

While researching the web for this posting, I sadly discovered that American Dad! will not be on Fox in the fall. After 10 seasons, the show is moving over to TBS and its eleventh season is scheduled to start on October 30th and features 15 brand new episodes. I've been a fan from the beginning and that was primarily due to my curiosity about how a post-9/11 CIA intelligence agent would be portrayed on television. There have been several shows in recent years that directly mention the agency (24, Chuck, Homeland) but all were set as dramas, not spoofs or satires. Originally pitched as a "bitching and complaining" vehicle against the George W. Bush administration, the imagery and storylines used in the show reflected those critiques throughout its two terms (the terror alert level indicator being prominently displayed on the family's refrigerator, constant references to Osama bin Laden, and even the inclusion of the 43rd president in an episode near the end of their second season). Described by some critics to be a modern remake of the 1970s classic show, All in the Family, I, as a loyal viewer during most of its initial CBS run, can certainly see those similarities (the overbearing conservative father, the often superfluous mother, the hippie daughter and her live-in slacker husband). Unlike the staleness that its Animation Domination companion Family Guy has displayed in recent seasons, American Dad! has a wider topical and character range to produce several more seasons of quality programs for their new cable host. One can only hope for a future Genevieve Vavance appearance...I'd be shocked!


Here are the previous postings in this series:

1. The Al Jazeera Reporters
2. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Coming up next...whether you remember it or not, this decade's influence on American culture is still evident today.

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