Sunday, April 12, 2009

(No.22) Cable news toothache

24 hour cable news channels have the annoying practice of interrupting their 'talking head' panelists and  topic experts  as if the moderator is always short of time, but clearly is not. This approach is presumably a reflection of the opinion of the attention span of their average viewer: don't strain the viewers' brains with segments of talk longer than a few minutes. 

The cable news broadcasters endlessly play or 'loop' the same video of this or that weather disaster, campus shooting scene or traffic accident while repeating ad nauseam the few bits of actual hard news about the event in question. They often stretch out the facts of a news item that could be summarized in a very few minutes into hours of repetitive pap, all the more likely the case with CNN in the US if the story involves the disappearance of a blonde child. 

It is profoundly depressing to contemplate, for example, the hours and hours over many months CNN devoted to the unsolved murder of the American child beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsay in comparison with, say, the relatively little broadcast time it offered its US audience about the genocide of a million people in Rwanda. 

The US version of CNN is unfortunately  the version broadcast in Canada via cable TV. To a Canadian viewer it can be particularly irritating in its rush to relate and reduce all stories to conform to their understanding of the prevailing American mindset. While CNN does not aim at the lowest common denominator in the fashion that the risible FOX News does, it does compare unfavourably with the CNN programming for most non-American audiences. This is clearly evident when one watches CNN in Europe, for example, offering (mostly) different programming with a necessarily more international tone and perspective on the news. If it were not significantly different, less parochial, than what was broadcast to US audiences it would be unlikely to attract much of an audience.

In Canada the CBC Newsworld cable channel, like CBC programming generally, operates on a more satsifying level, one that is indeed available in the US mainly on PBS via programs such as "Bill Moyers Journal", "Frontline" and the nightly "Newshour with Jim Lehrer". I think Moyers has by a wide margin the most thoughtful and sophisticated news and public affairs interview program on American television.

As for the CBC in Canada I have a somewhat conflicted view. I am a loyal viewer and supporter of the CBC. It has been and remains a cornerstone of Canadian culture and identity. Given the traditional role of commercial television in this country as little more than relay transmitters for US programming, the CBC has been all the more  indispensable. Indeed I miss it every time Pat and I are out of Canada. (Radio Canada, the CBC in Quebec, plays an even more central role for its francophone audience.)

Having said all that I confess that the CBC frequently makes my teeth ache with its predictable and pervasive political correctness. Imagine a broadcaster run by a partnership of the United Church of Canada and the New Democratic Party; it would be the CBC -- especially CBC Radio.

Still, it is relatively small price to pay. 

Alastair Rickard