Watching a local newscast this morning, I was horrified when I saw two more newsreaders had become infected with a virus that transforms them into sub-human, brainless creatures I call Setwalkers – zombie-like news creatures who move from monitor location to monitor location around the set for no apparent reason other than to “mix things up”. It’s a virus that started, well, 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 for no other reason than because their competition started doing it. The symptoms are easy to recognize. A newsreader leaves the main news desk during a voice-over or package and suddenly appears standing like Carol Merrill from The Price Is Right, 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 with their knees showing. 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 Alicia Anchorwoman has great legs and this just may increase her ratings? Um, nope. Does standing next to a monitor somehow stress that one story is more important than another? I think not. As someone who has produced thousands of hours of TV news, I can’t think of one sensible reason to turn any anchor into a setwalker, 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 (my apologies to Dan). Viewers tune in to watch your talent present the news, 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 ’90′s, news executives have gone gaga over finding as many places to use them as possible. Plasmas, and now LED’s, 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 simply nothing more than a distraction for the viewer.
I was in the office of a Top 50 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 SVP’s and EVP’s at the highest levels of station groups around the country. Sweet Jesus, this makes Ebola look like an over-the-counter colon cleanser.
I applaud the first station who tried this technique, I really do, because you should always be experimenting. But it’s an experiment that failed the first time it was tried and should have gone no further. The “cons” so far outweigh the “pros” (are there any pros?), that there’s no contest. 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 see Mort Crim or Bill Bonds or Al Schottelkotte or Ann Bishop or Nick Clooney 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 where news anchors anchor the news. Period.
A few years ago, CNN, which has suffered heavy casualties from this virus, went all out with floor to ceiling video walls on nearly every show. Wolf Blitzer – the face of the network – was reduced to a 2-inch blob on my 55-inch screen. He rarely, if ever, had a single close-up on his own show. Behind him on the screen was a live box with a listicle of “important” facts next to a revolving animation of “The White House” next to a listicle of stories yet to come – and that was in addition to the lower third scrolling mess happening below. It was news porn at its worst and it was utterly unwatchable. Fortunately, that “approach” has been abandoned by the network, although the virus could reach pandemic proportions among locals the world over.
News executives 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. Bullshit. 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 executive have never studied the simple psychology of television. That’s why this strain has become so virulent and widespread. And that’s why setwalkers are here to stay. Like the flu.