Full-Frontal News: The Virus Among Us

Watching a local newscast this morning, I was horrified when I saw two more TV newsreaders had become infected with a virus that transforms them into sub-human, brainless prompter puppets I call "Setwalkers" - zombie-like news creatures who move from monitor location to monitor location around the studio for no apparent reason other than to "mix things up." Where this virus first started - ground zero, can't be pinpointed, but I'll bet it began festering unnoticed in some small-market station before the infection spread via the airwaves from one newsreader to another.

Slowly, newsreaders around the country have been turned into setwalkers simply because their competitors are doing it. The symptoms are easy to recognize. A newsreader leaves the main news desk (home base) during a voiceover or package and suddenly appears standing like Carol Merrill from Let's Make A Deal, draped around a monitor in another area of the set.

"Let's see the next news story we have up for grabs, Bob!"

The monitor has some very important graphic on it, such as "Murder" or "Car Crash". The newsreader, shot from his/her knees up, then reads the story about the murder or the car crash. (S)he looks extremely uncomfortable because (s)he is standing up reading news stories - knees and muffin tops for all to see. The question is: Why? What is so important about getting a newsreader off their butt to stand next to a monitor? Is it because the station has paid a lot of money for the talent's wardrobe and wants to get some mileage out of it? Doubtful. Is it because your news gal has great legs and this just may increase her ratings? Um, not unless her name is Robin Meade. Does standing next to a monitor somehow stress that one story is more important than another? I think not. My guess is that setwalking is a direct result of the one thing that dehumanizes every TV newscast - research - those people at the mall who get paid twenty bucks to say how much they like Alicia Anchorwoman being dwarfed in front of a floor-to-ceiling monitor wall while talking about a school board meeting. As someone who has produced thousands of hours of ratings-topping TV news, I assure you that's not a visually appealing way to present or tell a story - unless, perhaps, you are producing Canada's Naked News. Then, by all means...

This full-frontal anchorage trend stems from something many news executives simply don't understand: news sets are not all that important to viewers. Viewers tune in to get the news by someone they like and trust, not to watch monitors - and not to be awed by the diverse number of set locations you can create with what you have. Since the invention of plasma screens in the mid-'90s, news chiefs have gone gaga over finding as many places to use them as possible. Plasmas photograph well without producing shadows and reflections like those old, rounded TV monitors used to do. Because they're cheap, they're now placed at every possible set location, flipped sideways and upside down, on the floor and hung from hydraulic lifts that move in and out of frame on cue. And don't forget those touch screens! Oooh! It's a flatscreen frenzy that is nothing more than a distraction for the viewer.

I was in the office of a Top 30 market news director very recently. I asked her, point blank, "What is the most common criticism you get from corporate about your newscasts?" She said without losing a beat:

"Not moving the anchors around on the set as often as they want."

There you go. Proof positive that the virus has infected SVPs and EVPs at the highest levels of station groups around the country. This virus makes Ebola look like an over-the-counter colon cleanser.

I applaud the first station who tried this technique. I really do, because producers should always be experimenting. But it's an experiment that failed the first time it was tried and should have gone no further. Monitor shots reduce the number of close-ups on your talent. I, as a viewer, want to see their face, their expressions, their concern, not their knees. If your talent is any good at all - has any personality or magnetism or on-screen presence that captivates viewers, you could stand them next to a haystack and no one would notice. Putting talent next to monitors is actually an insult to the newsreader - it says they can't own a close-up. It says there needs to be other stuff in the shot to distract viewers from this newsreader whose presence alone isn't enough to carry a close-up. And if that, in fact, is true, then why are you investing money, time and promotion on this newsreader?

It fascinates me that newsreaders are susceptible to this virus, but news anchors are immune. You would never have seen Detroit's Mort Crim and Bill Bonds, or Cincinnati's Al Schottelkotte and Nick Clooney, or Miami's Ann Bishop setwalking. It just wouldn't happen. News personalities own any camera they're on. Their strength, concern, credibility and compassion are best expressed on a close-up, a "tight" close-up I dare say, from home base. Their commanding presence belongs in the lead anchor chair where I expect to find them every night. That's how news anchors anchor the news. Period.

News know-it-all's will tell you (using the latest buzzy catch-phrases of corporate nomenclature which I can't speak), that varying set positions and monitors are tools that help tell a story. Oh! It's about "storytelling". So a report about a warehouse fire is transformed into a compelling drama - with a fascinating plot and jump-off-the-screen characters, when it's told next to a monitor! My grandmother never had to sit next to a monitor when she shared a story about her life. She said everything with her eyes. If your anchor has something to say, say it to me, face-to-face, and leave the monitors as blurry background scenery which is all they're good for. So many news executives have never studied the simple psychology of television. That's why this setwalker strain has become so virulent and widespread. And that's why setwalkers are here to stay. Like the flu.

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