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Essays

Phantom of the Impermanent
(column series)

   Young Talent Time


Introductory Note: These six short pieces were initially written (on a yellow typewriter I purchased for 15 Australian dollars) for the Gold TV Guide of The Herald Monday Magazine, thanks to editor Debi Enker, between July and October of 1987, with a final reprise 10 months later in August 1988 – mostly at a time when I was living in Sydney, flat broke at the age of 28, aiming to write (and sell) literally a piece of criticism every day in order to survive. The run of TV pieces turned into an unofficial, short-lived series devoted to diverse disreputable, little-discussed genres and formats of supposedly “bad” popular television (some with a strongly “Aussie” inflection): cartoons, variety shows, religious programming, all-night news, wrestling. My typed manuscripts of all six texts (which I mailed off to Melbourne in haste – this was in the decade before the Internet – without making carbon copies) have been lost, so I have reconstructed them, in full, from my handwritten drafts, while retaining the journalistic mode (such as the use of very brief paragraphs). My suggested titles for some of the pieces (newspaper subeditors do whatever they like on that count) are long gone, so in those cases I have adapted the heading that appeared in print. The collective title I append to the series today is a slightly anachronistic nod to Serge Daney’s late 1980s movies-on-TV newspaper column, “Les fantômes du permanent” (begun in October 1988) – roughly, the “ghosts of permanence”; however, what sticks out to me, as I look over these texts of mine, is how utterly impermanent, ephemeral and forgotten so much TV (in every country) is – even I cannot recall some of my passing references from 35 years ago – and the intriguing problems this raises for archiving criticism of the medium, and making it legible in retrospect. Putting these interrelated pieces together in the way I have done below is one small step toward such cultural (and personal) memory-retrieval.  Daney subtitled his own column “from cinema to television”. A related back-and-forth passage from cinema to TV criticism can be deciphered, between the lines, here – especially given the evident extent to which I had internalised by ‘87 (and still believe in) Paul Willemen’s observation (à propos Roger Tailleur’s championing in Positif of Frank Tashlin’s films) that, contrary to the “highly moral tone of so much of Anglo-Saxon criticism”, “frenzy, madness, neurosis, extravaganza, monstrosity, etc.” can be wielded as “positive values”. [12 September 2018 / 12 October 2022]

 

I. A Cartoon Connection

I know a little boy named Joel Conomos who is devoted to The Cartoon Connection, 7am to 9am, seven days a week. Joel has his definite favourites. As far as his command of language can allow, he parks himself in front of the TV set and demands to see – once again, and always – “Little ‘Tinker!”

 

Joel is, in truth, a scholar and a purist. Little ‘Tinker (1948) happens to be one of the best cartoons made during the grand old days of animation, mostly before the advent of TV, by Warner Bros. and MGM (and other, smaller studios) from the 1930s to the mid 1950s. What’s more, it is directed by Tex Avery – by any reckoning, one of the 20th century’s greatest artists in any medium.

 

In Melbourne and Sydney, during the Avery animation marathons that emerged in the mid 1980s, hordes of inner city pop culture buffs show up to laugh and learn with these divine cartoons. In 20 years time, Joel will probably be among them, too, yelling once more for Little Tinker. I plan to be there as well, once again, yelling just as loudly.

 

Little ‘Tinker is violent, erotic, crazy. It is the extreme instance of what makes The Bugs Bunny Show or The Roadrunner Show – these program-packages that have painlessly switched the ‘home base’ of such animation from big cinema screen to TV – so great. I would be proud to have any child of mine grow up on this fare. For these cartoons were made with enormous love and inventiveness. They are city-slick smart, helping to initiate children into a style of thinking and reacting that is fast and loose.

 

Yet I never cease to be amazed – offended, actually – by the successive waves of well-meaning Children’s TV reformists who take The Bugs Bunny Show (and its merry ilk), and cartoons in general, as the bottom line of what children should be gently guided away from. They incredulously bemoan the fact that, no matter how many wimpy “educational” shows are rammed down kids’ throats, they still seem to like Bugs. To crave him (and his brethren), in fact.

 

And thank heavens for that – it is the proof that children are, even today, still alive and kicking.

 

I sometimes fear the power of the reformists to take Bugs and Little ‘Tinker away from those of us who love and appreciate them. But, during weekends and on The Cartoon Connection, great art survives. It can never be cancelled, it endures!

 

The difference between the best old cartoons and many of the pious, educationally slanted programs made for children these days is simply this: the cartoons do not condescend.

 

Chuck Jones, a brilliant compatriot of Avery, once made a statement to the effect that, in his view, Kidvid, as he called it – i.e., programming made specifically and exclusively for children, aimed at that ‘target audience’ – was a dirty word. The creators of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck never targeted their work toward children in that narrow-minded way. They made their animations for each other, and for whoever could join in on the jokes and appreciate the intricate craft involved.

 

And that is why these cartoons appeal to many people in every age group – yours, mine, and Joel’s. These works do not underestimate anyone’s speed or intelligence. I wish I could say the same for Wombat, C’mon Kids or Simon Townsend’s Wonder World. Looking at those horrors, I know that Jones was right: Kidvid is a dirty word.

 

By the way, I should add that I am very glad The Cartoon Connection begins with Bugs. For, as the children are being shuttled off to school, the dregs follow: modern-day non-animations like Inch High Private Eye or He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-1985). The latter even comes complete with an epilogue to explain the moral lesson of each episode to its niche market.

 

Now, I ask you: what could be more boring for a kid?

 (published 3 August 1987)

 

 

II. Young Talent Time: On for Young and Old

Why is Young Talent Time (hereafter YTT), in its 17th year, so popular? The show continues to be a big hit with (one suspects) the very old and the very young. As something of a closet YTT fan who belongs to neither age group, I believe the question of who likes the show and why is a bit more complicated than it might, at first, seem.

 

As the archetypal Family Variety show, Young Talent Time makes one type of well-worn pitch to the oldies: it presents a world that never changes. That cute, cuddly Teddy Bear Johnny Young (who, over 20 years earlier, had a chart hit with his teenage cover of “Cara-lyn”) never seems to get any older. The kids – the Young Talent Team – do get older, but their constant rotation over the years insures a façade of eternal, abundant youth.

 

A large part of the program’s musical content is pure Leagues Club Night Out – 1950s and ‘60s rock’n’roll or pop nostalgia such as “Twist and Shout” or “Rock Around the Clock”. And even when the music edges into a little ‘70s-style disco funk, Johnny is sure to bop onto screen shouting, “Do the Swim! Do the Monkey!”

 

YTT is full of syrupy sentiments that this older audience loves to hear over and over – that Mums are wonderful; that families can stick together no matter what social ill is knocking at the door; and that each and every individual is a “very special”, acknowledged part of the imagined community binding on-screen performers and off-screen spectators.

 

Indeed, very special is almost a compulsive term for Johnny. On a recent very special episode, a very special song was dedicated to a very special mother in the studio audience. You get the (very special) idea.

 

The ‘requests’ segment – complete with JY phoning up a selected viewer, and Polaroids of other viewers to whom songs are dedicated – is the ecstatic height of this televisual, extended-family oneness.

 

Above all, the appeal to an older audience depends on Young himself. Sometimes, it must be said, the distance between Johnny and the notoriously shambling Countdown host Molly Meldrum is not so great. Particularly when you watch JY bumble through cue-card intros, or try to talk his way out of an unintentionally risqué slip of the tongue.

 

There are even occasional hints of a tyrannical manicness (especially under the high pressure of live-to-air performance, as I once witnessed in situ), and fleeting touches of insincerity (“I mean it, sincerely, I love all the kids” – methinks he doth protest too much). But perhaps it is this very lack of slickness that makes him deathlessly endearing to the oldies.

 

When it comes to capturing the young audience, YTT is a much trickier proposition. I’m certain that its producers (Young included) have racked their brains for two decades over this problem.

 

After much trial and error down the years, YTT has basically settled on a pitch to children that is similar to that of Simon Townsend’s Wonder World (shudder). Meaning that, on the fun side, the show requires garish primary colours, a few pseudo-Muppets cracking very corny jokes, and yet another rendition of “If I Could Talk to the Animals”.

 

On the educational side, there are a few “amazing” pedagogical facts inserted here and there, and a few more cute animals – this time, real, living ones for the performers to hold or fawn around.

 

But YTT has also always been about something else that is much harder to tame or control. It very closely monitors trends on popular music’s Top 40 list, and then reproduces those trends in its own, sometimes peculiar way.

 

Many songs receive an entirely different look or meaning when they filtered through YTT. For instance, the Team can dress up like The Village People and deliver a rendition of “In the Navy”, without the slightest hint of Camp peeping through.

 

So where’s the problem in this, exactly? For kids, I believe that YTT provides a dress-ups fantasy. When the Team do modern pop material, it must be like a slow, tantalising initiation into the wild world of teenage life. Bear in mind that these kids have no real interest, as do their parents or grandparents, in consuming a nostalgic, unchanging image of yesteryear. They are shooting for the threshold: that moment of turning 16 when Team members must leave the YTT Family (it sounds like a sect or cult!) and venture into the sordid jungle of adult entertainment. (Not all of them make the transition as well, or strike fortune as big, as Tina Arena – but this will never quell the constant enrolment of hopefuls into Young’s showbiz sideline, his Talent School.)

 

So YTT is trying to reach a young audience that probably already senses more of what Madonna or Prince are really all about than Johnny Young is willing to tell them. After all, they are the children of MTV. And YTT is well aware of this; its big production numbers are getting more intense and (dare I say it) sexier by the week.

 

But then, if YTT manages to satisfy the overstimulated imaginations of 1980s youngsters, where will the oldies go? Back to the live Leagues Club shows, no doubt, and away from the box.

 

It’s a hard act to juggle two audiences that are getting further and further apart. I await Young Talent Time’s next, anxious move with rapt interest.

 

                                                                                                 (published 10 August 1987)

 

2022 Postscript: When eventually published (for it was initially slated as first in the series), this article earned me, the very next day of 11 August 1987, an appreciative personal note (typed on Television House Pty. Ltd. letterhead, an office-studio not very far from my parents’ home in Richmond) signed by Johnny Young himself (who is today – like many of the performers and hosts mentioned in these columns – in his mid 70s). Here it is.

 

          Dear Adrian,

 

          It is not often that the media takes Young Talent Time seriously.

 

I guess that despite its production values and longevity it is after all a   children’s family program and not of the jundre [sic] of hardcore journalists. It is therefore always a thrill when I read an article like yours, that is not only accurate in its observation, but also understands the juggling that it takes to keep it young year after year,

 

We sometimes feel a little isolated from the mainstream and you gave us a big lift.

 

          Thank you,

 

          Yours sincerely,

          JOHN YOUNG

 

 

III. Mania on the Mat

The 1980s really began for me in a big way that night in 1985 I saw Wrestlemania on Australian TV for the first time. To be sure, part of my pleasure came from the rekindling of fond memories: growing up in front of the homegrown World Championship Wrestling TV program all those Sunday mornings, long ago (after Catholic Mass!).

 

But even legends like Jack Little and Killer Kowalski become pale, quaint memories before the monumentality of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), which brings us Superstars of Wrestling on Thursday nights and Wrestling Challenge on some Saturday afternoons.

 

Wrestling has gone the way of all TV sport in the 1980s: into hi-tech spectacle. The pre-recorded inserts of wrestlers raving; the extravagant ringside commentaries; the disco music; the flashily edited credit sequence: all these are as much a part of the show’s appeal as the actual bouts of wrestling action.

 

And to this list of WWF attractions we should add the incredible range of consumer paraphernalia. Available are magazines, posters, even children’s toys fashioned after each star wrestler (such as Hulk Hogan).

 

While some of the other sports and their devoted fans have had to be dragged screaming into the 1980s TV era of hyper-sport, wrestling seems always to have been truly destined for it. Wrestling, hype, spectacle, frenzy: these phenomena go together very naturally.

 

For even in its earlier, less technologically sophisticated days, TV wrestling was already angled toward high drama, even soap opera: larger-than-life, cartoonish heroes and villains strutting their stuff on a grand stage.

 

I love TV wrestling because it is fiction – not despite of that. I love its artificiality, its glitz, its corn. Non-fans may take that to mean that the wrestling is fake, phony. And that therefore the whole show is bad, ludicrous television.

 

But understand me clearly. Whether or not, technically speaking, TV wrestling is fake is an open question – personally, I would not choose to take some of the falls onto the canvas these artistes endure. But I do not think this is the crucial issue, or that it matters much at all, in the long run.

 

Real or phony, the wrestlers are part of a big show, performers in the show-business of TV wrestling. Showbiz has always been about hokum – hamming it up to a knowing audience that laps it up, artifice and all. And the WWF sure serves up terrific hokum.

 

By now, TV wrestling must have many fans like myself who do not watch the show especially for the fights. The action by itself can often become repetitive and boring. This is why WWF has extended the hokum element in all directions – now taking in the managers with megaphones prowling the edge of the arena, as well as the voice-over commentators who argue on topics often far from the match at hand. Not to mention those fabulous comperes Lord Alfred Hayes and Mean Gene Okerlund, two finely-dressed dandies who look and talk like refugees from a slick 1940s American comedy.

 

No matter where the wrestling soap opera happens – in the ring or out – one golden law rules all proceedings: the law of Good versus Evil. The ways in which the WWF keeps coming up with new and different manifestations of both sides of this great Moral Order is a source of endless wonderment.

 

All-American, blond beefcakes are Good, as are underdogs, straight-down-the-line guys, and our very own Crocodile Dundee-styled Outback Jack. The Bad Guys are more varied and flamboyant, ranging from Russians who demand the right to sing their National Anthem in the ring, to mysterious men in black masks – plus a motley assortment of cynics, thugs, two-timers and crooks.

 

As in classic melodrama, the audience gets into the game of cheering the heroes and hissing the villains. And, as in soap opera, they follow, from week to week, the shifting balance of power between Good and Evil.

 

Sometimes, a special element of intrigue is added, where a Good Guy suddenly turns Bad, or vice versa. Then the TV universe of moral certainty shakes and quakes for a few, dramatic moments … but the wrestling goes on.

 

Wrestlemania: the WWF picked this word well. Where else on TV is it possible to find this level of pure mania – screaming, shouting, play-acting to high heaven? Maybe only in the most madcap cartoons.

 

And if any of these TV wrestlers were ever personally reproached in the street for their excessive hokum, I am certain they would respond with the immortal words of Daffy Duck: “Don’t mind me – I’m just crazy!”

          (published 31 August 1987)

 

 

IV. Religious TV in the Twilight Zone

At least once a year, for about three decades now, there is a controversial, muckraking telemovie, feature film or bestselling paperback that tries to expose showbiz religion – or religion as showbiz.

 

In such stories, the congregation stands rapt, mindlessly handing over its money, while the media cameras roll on a flamboyant ‘celebrity’ preacher who rants, raves and manipulates.

 

If possible, the shadow of organised crime and an apocalyptic mass suicide (modelled on Jonestown) are worked into the cautionary tale.

 

Money, religion, showbiz spectacle: for some observers, this combination can only add up to no good. At the heart of these sometimes exaggerated fears (think of the resolutely spectacular, even ecstatic black gospel tradition as a non-corrupt counterweight), there lies an old attitude: the belief, in certain quarters, that religious ceremonies and rituals should always be presented reverently, respectfully, soberly.

 

Yet if some believes cruise on a quiet spiritual intensity, others surely have the right to shout their faith with all the gusto they can muster.

 

This is where the contemporary incarnations of showbiz religion enter the picture, to fulfil that more extroverted spiritual need. The most striking example of it on our TV screens is Robert H. Schuller [1926-2015] and his Hour of Power. Broadcast from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, it spares no opportunity for awe-inspiring spectacle: sublime architecture, massed choirs, stirring “negro spirituals”.

 

The crowd applauds with vigour and laughs in unison. The star performer is Schuller himself, by any reckoning an extraordinary orator. He has taken the self-improvement philosophies of Protestant clergyman Norman Vincent Peale [1898-1993] to heart, and given them a powerful Christian inflection. Peale is, in fact, a regular guest on the show, as are many other performers from the worlds of film and television.

 

During one such “celebrity interview” on Hour of Power, Dick Van Patten (of Eight is Enough [1977-1981] fame) testified: “A lot of people in showbiz are admirers of yours, Dr Schuller”.

 

The program is also full of sales pitches – such as the opportunity to see the “Glory of Christmas Pageant” sandwiched between trips to Disneyland and Hollywood. Clearly, Schuller’s ministry is a huge business venture. 60 Minutes once put the pastor and his enterprise under the microscope; he didn’t come out too badly. But this is obviously not every Christian’s preferred form of organised worship. [2022 Postscript: various members of the Schuller clan fell from grace – and from their hour of power – in the 21st century.]

 

Yet not even Schuller’s showbiz ministry can truly reverse the fate of religious content on TV. Once a prominent fixture of Sunday morning programming right up until midday in Australia, it has, for some time now, been inexorably pushed out by cartoons, music video and sport.

 

One likely reason for this is the perpetual fear of broadcast TV’s managers (kin to Hollywood movie producers in this regard) about handling religious material. They appear to prefer to think of their general, target audience as secular – with basic secular needs like the desire to be entertained on a sleepy Sunday morn.

 

If people seek religion, the assumption seems to be that they should look for it somewhere other than television – in a Church of their denominational choosing. (This parti pris immediately disadvantages elderly believers who can no longer make that ritual physical journey each week.)

 

Another likely reason for the estranged relation between religion and TV is the admittedly drippy quality of most religious programs. Beyond Hour of Power, it’s downhill fast in spectacular entertainment terms.

 

The efforts of Australia’s Christian Television Association or Anglican Television Productions, however well-intentioned and more-or-less professional, never seem to get off the ground enough to become riveting viewing. They employ crusty, worn-out formats: round-table discussions led by elderly patriarchs in suit and tie, folk music, Bible readings delivered from behind desks, cute nature photography.

 

Australia’s Sing Me a Rainbow, for example, ends with these unfortunately apt theme song lyrics: “Here’s where our rainbow ends / With no sign of wealth, never mind”! Who wants to be let down like that?

 

We do have, however, a venerable icon to rival (in his un-humble way) R.H. Schuller: I refer to B.A. Santamaria [1915-1988] and his Point of View. This has been on air for as long as I can remember, and its format has never changed: a single mid-shot of presenter Bob, interspersed with on-screen newspaper cuttings and quotations. (I once made the fatal mistake of requesting a transcript – as encouraged – of his diatribe about the film industry, and ended up on the National Civic Council’s News Weekly print mailing list for years thereafter.)

 

Santamaria is old-style TV and old-style religion in a single whammy. He is stern, unsmiling, patrician (in the worst way), and a pitiless critic of civilisation as we know it. His message is cold comfort, when compared with Schuller’s showbiz frenzy.

 

Yet, in the lonely Twilight Zone of 6 to 8am on Sundays, Schuller and Santamaria are equal in one, essential way: today, they are both preaching probably only to the converted.

 (published 7 September 1987)

 

V. Bad is Beautiful

Have a Go! Is a show devoted to badness – bad performances, bad TV, bad art. Like the sublime The Gong Show from USA, or the “Red Faces” segment on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, Have a Go! provides the opportunity for “normal” folk – wags, has-beens-who-never-were and hopefuls alike – to strut their stuff, perhaps just this once in their lifetime, before a TV audience.

 

You see the type of acts here that you can never see anywhere else on TV – particularly not on the “serious” talent shows. I consider this to be rather magnificent. In fact, what the show clearly parades as badness, I would be keen to promote as the ultimate goodness.

 

Everyone talks these days, in ever more glowing terms, about popular culture. The masses queuing up for a Spielberg movie or a Bon Jovi concert: these, we are informed, are widespread pleasures worth celebrating. But Have a Go! digs even deeper into the cultural substrata of the real world, revealing something as yet unreclaimed, uncelebrated, unredeemed … and completely wonderful.

 

Many of the acts on Have a Go! present very ordinary people – all the way down to pre-schoolers, and up to senior citizens with (evidently) one foot already in the grave – as they try to exactly copy certain models and forms of showbiz entertainment. They mime and move to records, dress up like their favourite pop stars present or past, mimic familiar media voices.

 

In performing such pastiches, these ordinary citizens utterly deform and explode the original “quality” models, using a mixture of manic irreverence, wild creativity and passionate intensity rarely glimpsed on TV. This isn’t hi-tech pop culture; it’s veritable down-home folk art.

 

It is necessary to approach Have a Go! with a suitably cleansed state of mind, in order to achieve a proper level of respect for all this so-called badness. In the total context of a world of slick TV entertainment, it is far too easy to look down on the acts of this show with a superior eye, a smirking look and a mocking comment. That would mean either laughing, in a rather cruel fashion, at these normal people (hence fooling ourselves that we are not just like them as part of the human race) for their failure to live up to a showbiz ideal; or indulging them in a patronising, paternal way, which is equally bad on the ethical plane.

 

As it transpires, the producers have built both of these hopelessly superior responses to folk art into the very format of the show. The panel of judges is inevitably on hand to represent the proper, quality ideal of showbiz performance. Their role is mostly to scorn and degrade the acts, “scoring” them ungenerously to the point of censoring them mid-flight by blowing a whistle. (Flamboyantly gay “celebrity chef” Bernard King [1934-2002] became the go-to guy for dishing out such punishment on Aussie TV.) Fortunately, the indignant studio audience – this formidable jury of peers – often roars back in disapproval.

 

The reflex gesture of the penalty-whistle is the Aussie sports-derived equivalent to Chuck Barris’ almighty gong, but The Gong Show was, in truth, never this cruel. Its judges, and inimitable host, were ever ready to have a riot of a time, entering into a 100% sympathetic and complicit relation with the parade of acts. And it must be said that Jono (Jonathan Coleman) and Dano (Ian Rogerson) on Have a Go! display a similarly natural, non-condescending rapport with most of their featured performers, which is why they are so effective and refreshing as hosts.

 

But Jono & Dano are, alas, pressed into the service of that other crime of cultural superiority: indulgence. The show loves rewarding “good sports” for their “effort”. Almost nightly, some old chap who plays the spoons or warbles “Swanee” gets the prize guernsey. Not for his folk art, you understand, nor for his demented passion, but simply because he … “had a go”. It’s a veritable Australian Ideology! And a highly patronising process, which I abhor.

 

Actually, I would be entirely happy for there to be no awards – and definitely no showbiz/celebrity judges – on Have a Go!. Just an endless line of sublime folk artists – little kids who mimic newsreaders, Elvis impersonators, disco-aerobic dancers. If only this was our yardstick definition of art … then what a wonderful world it would be.

 (published 19 October 1987)

 

VI. Supernews

Alongside the wrestling and Entertainment This Week, Channel 7’s News Overnight stands for distinctively 1980s super-television – very slick and very American. It is, in fact, the USA equivalent of what Umberto Eco diagnosed in Italy, during the early ‘80s, as Neo TV.

 

The tiny Aussie bulletins dropped into the flow of this monumental nightly news broadcast seem positively archaic by comparison, in terms of technological and human resources. We just can’t make ‘em like Jane Pauley or Bryant Gumbel – not yet, anyway.

 

Jane and Bryant talk, move and dress like they have been plugged, all of their adult lives, into a giant TV news computer. So down pat is their spiel, so faultless their delivery, so immaculate their appearance, that they resemble nothing so much as ideal, preprogrammed, simulated versions of newsreaders, in the vein of Max Headroom.

 

Paul Verhoeven’s movie RoboCop (1987) made a wise choice indeed when it created its vision of the future around such a news team. For this style of Neo TV seems already in the future and of the future.

 

I have a theory about why News Overnight (and I mean particularly the NBC News Today segment) is so hypnotically compelling, and why it is the perfect and ultimate late-night TV – far more powerful than, say, non-stop music video broadcasting.

 

You don’t just “watch” News Overnight – you come “on line” with it, get patched into its flow. Its scale and scope are simply not human; it’s bigger than you are, so you submit to it. No TV rides so effortlessly over the ad breaks as this – even between ads, Bryant pops up, smiling, to keep you hooked in. News Overnight appears to be everywhere at once.

 

It has been suggested by many critical observers down the years that, as TV carries less and less real content, it becomes more and more obsessed with simply celebrating its own presence (this is part of Eco’s argument). In effect, the sole message of TV, in this hyper-self-conscious state of things, becomes like a complicit slap on the viewer’s back, saying, over and over: “You are watching TV” – and that’s all.

 

News Overnight is the absolute epitome of this trend, which is the wave of the future. What is so hypnotic about it is the endless self-promotion: “Stay tuned for … In the next hour we have …”

 

Some nights, you find yourself unwittingly waiting two hours for an item which probably could have happened 90 minutes earlier if all the filler of logos, promos and chit-chat between hosts had been omitted. But, then again, who really watches this program for its news content?

 

News Overnight is quietly obsessive TV. Its principal obsessions are with movement, speed and action. Jane, Bryant and the rest of the team camped out in Washington during 1988 to cover the American-Soviet summit talks. With incredible intensity, every little detail of this media event was picked over, replayed, and commented on from every conceivable angle.

 

Even though we were only seeing, for the most part, the same footage we had already seen a dozen times on previous mornings and on other news services, we nonetheless waited for some new truth to be revealed … or just for something new to happen.

 

Yet, most of the time, nothing ever really happens. From day to day, news rarely happens in the dramatic way that TV would like – and even when it does, as with the Stock Market crash of October 1987, it’s often hard to see it happening, hard to immediately photograph and transmit it, let alone instantly digest and produce a commentary upon it.

 

News Overnight’s solution to this problem is as ingenious as it is maddening. In place of anything else happening, the show becomes its own “happening”. If the news won’t move, then the show itself will – with a regularity, variety and precision that mere reality lacks.

 

The only real news spectacle on News Overnight is how this giant TV machine fills up time and space. The show is obsessed with mapping itself into schedules and surroundings. Perhaps half of the summit coverage was taken up by minute descriptions of just where the news tent was pitched in relation to the geography of Washington … plus shots of nearby pigeons.

 

As always, it was left to that wonderful wag Willard Scott [1934-2021] to ever so gently satirise this aspect of the program, suggesting to Bryant: “I think we’ve run out of people to interview, so we’ll have to interview each other soon!”

 

News Overnight is, indeed, more than obsessive – it’s frankly paranoid. What the show’s producers and presenters fear more that anything is a dead, silent moment – a moment when nothing is happening. Hence the banter, the ever-ready razor-sharp questions for guests, the endless proclamations about where the show is going next (but never where it has already been, usually many times over!).

 

It may all seem relaxed and cordial, but underneath this slick surface the spectacle is tense and worried. For its vocation is not simply to report on what what’s happening in the world, but in some sense to fabricate that world and be what’s happening. Hip theorists of our times call that the (Jean) Baudrillardian Nightmare.

 

That is why I always find it funny when, during the uneventful twilight hours in my TV room, I hear Willard calling, weather-wise, for “what’s happening in your world right now as we speak”. Since the weather is the only thing that’s happening at that precise moment in my world, while the real action is on the box – on News Overnight.

 

So, stay tuned, because in the next hour …

 (published 8 August 1988)

 

MORE 1980s TV: Stretch TV


© Adrian Martin July 1987 to August 1988


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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