Late breaking news

More insomniacs get their news from ABC World News Now than from any other source.

Shift, June 1996  

It’s midnight. Most of ABC News’s New York headquarters is in darkness. Peter Jennings went home five hours ago. The building is almost desolate. Almost. In the third-floor newsroom/studio, a skeleton crew must fill two empty hours of network airtime starting at 2:00 a.m. Nothing is unlikely. There could be eight minutes of Russian TV news tonight. You might see political satire sung to the accompaniment of an accordion. With a budget that amounts to spare change and no overlords looking over their shoulders, the World News Now nighthawks will scrounge content from just about anywhere. Their mission is crystallized by a twist on ABCs familiar slogan: “More insomniacs get their news from World News Now than from any other source.” And right now, almost a million such insomniacs are out there, in the dark, waiting for a combination of news and analysis leavened with slashes of weird humor and seasoned with a wry kind of irony and cynicism.


“It’s not like anything else ABC news does “ says Victor Dorff, the guy ABC hired to get an all-night newscast up and running in January 1992. Dorff speaks with a kind of lazy matter-of-factness. Did he infuse World News Now with this deadpan sense of humor, or did he pick it up working five years’ worth of nights? Hard to tell, but everyone else seems to share a similar outlook. “It’s definitely a Sesame Street situation — ‘one of these things is not like the others.’ It’s filling two hours a night with whatever crumbs we find on the floor; it’s the kindness of strangers. If we don’t put everything back exactly where we found it, they’ll know someone’s been here. So we try to be very quiet and not spend any money. I think they know we’re here, because we hear from them from time to time. They’ll call and say ‘You know that thing you did last night? Don’t ever do that again.”‘ Dorff has since left ABC News to pursue a range of on-line adventures: disseminating World News Now’s audio via the Internet and experimentally “net-casting” it using the CU-SeeMe program, to name two.


The shortages of money, personnel and resources ought to make working on he program akin to being trapped in some kind of TV news purgatory; where misbehaving producers get sent to throw a scare into them. The sheer volume of empty time should make this an even more daunting assignment — like having to fill a supertanker using a teaspoon. For the World News Nowniks, however, this is a rare chance to challenge TV news habits and conventions by creating a program that’s deeper, smarter and funnier. The way these people see it, they’ve been handed a major-league network news division and carte blanche to do whatever they want with it for 10 hours a week. And if doing it with no money is one of the conditions of that arrangement, well, that just makes any accomplishment that much more rewarding.


Air time is less than two hours away, and there are a couple of pre-taped segments to get in the can. Senior producer Terry Baker is in the control room while anchor Kevin Newman and movie critic Jeffrey Lyons prepare to cast a discriminating eye over the week’s new motion pictures. Usually in TV news, there’s a lot more preparation behind a segment like this — endless pre-interviews by producers, a couple of rehearsal/run-throughs. Surprises are the last thing anybody wants. Things are different here. Roll and record. Cue the talent. Lyons and Newman sound like they’ve just bumped into each other. Their conversation is loose, unscripted, and somehow more “genuine” because of that. The addition of film excerpts is equally casual. Director Brett Holey listens to the conversation and rolls clips at the appropriate moments. Lyons and Newman shut up while they play, then jump back in when it makes sense to. Check tape. Tape is good. First take.


Why would Jeffrey Lyons be talking about movies in a TV studio at midnight? He’s already got a TV gig, so it’s not like he needs the exposure. The money? If he’s getting paid anything for this, it’s probably scale, so the promise of filthy lucre can’t have lured him here. He’s drawn as much by the opportunity to go into more depth -- not to have to dumb down his work -- and know he’s reaching an audience of intelligent adults.


Pre-tape two: network star James Walker, usually seen earlier in the evening on the Jennings broadcast. Earlier tonight, Walker’s story about a pyramid scam aired on the 6:30 show. Standard TV news time constraints meant Walker’s piece could only run about two minutes. World News Now will run the piece again. But they’re supplementing it with Walker himself. He’ll follow the package with a debrief, adding new elements that provide depth and background. That adds up to greater impact. As he’s wrapping up with a few thoughts about the nature of charity and greed, Walker quotes Saint Paul — something about “the course set before you.” “I believe that’s the first quote from Saint Paul we’ve ever had on World News Now,” Baker observes to the people in the control room. General murmurs of assent. Some chuckling. Check tape. Tape is good.


World News Now is a different kind of newscast for other reasons besides its broader editorial scope and its 2:00 a.m. start time. It does a lot more than merely regurgitate the day’s stories in an endless rerun loop, hoping to squeeze one more airing out of them before they’re banked in the tape library. Its success depends entirely on its staff and their willingness to experiment, to make television news which doesn’t rely on high-priced correspondents, lavish satellite feed budgets, spiffy graphics or slick production. Its minuscule budget makes those strategies impossible. Improvisation, ingenuity and frugality are the show’s hallmarks. The self-deprecating cynicism helps too. The newscast’s producers have just one asset most programs don’t: time.


Last summer, anchor Thalia Assuras — hired away from CTV’s Canada AM — felt worn out by the nocturnal schedule (10 p.m. to 10 a.m. every day) and left for a shot at dayside reporting and anchoring. Six months later, she’s back at World News Now by choice. “It’s the most fun you can have in television news,” she says of the program. “It’s satirical, it’s cynical to a degree — but not depressed cynical. It’s clever and it’s intelligent and well aware of all the elements of life, right across the spectrum, including the fringe elements. And we don’t do happy talk.”


“I think risk is the key, and this show has risk,” is Kevin Newman’s take on it. ABC offered him a slot co-anchoring the broadcast just as the CBC was frustrating him with its indecision about his future as the man on Midday. “It’s scary most days to be in front of that, but at least you’re living. It’s irreverent sometimes. It pokes fun at authority. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it takes the news and its mission seriously. With some of the stuff we do, the bosses roll their eyes and go, ‘The kids are at it again.”‘


The strange mix is working. After four years on the air, World News Now is the most watched overnight news in America. Its nearest competitor, NBC News Nightside, gets about 500,000 viewers on an average night. CBS’s offering, Up To The Minute, comes in third. CNN trails a distant fourth. Approximately 900,000 people dial up World News Now, and they aren’t just casual channel-surfers. The audience feels — and expresses — a passionate sense of ownership for the program.


Of course, there was no way ABC executives could have known any of that when they ordered an all-night newscast. The program was conceived with minimal expectations; a dirt-cheap network product for affiliates in the dead of night. Its shaky beginnings attest to that.


“We had no idea who our audience was going to be. The line was, ‘It’s probably just going to be criminals and cool people,’” says Dorff. “It turns out we were a little broader than that, but we have our share of those kinds of people. We had no idea where we were going to get video to fill three hours of television every night. We had a feed pattern that was so complicated that every half-hour had to be color-coded in order for it to work across the country. We had two weeks of material stored during the rehearsal period. We used it all up our first night.”


TV news has been made the same way for more than three decades. Wire services and newspapers determine what gets covered; it’s easier to imitate than initiate. Time is tight. TV has just enough minutes to tell you that something happened, not how or why. There are two ways to camouflage that. First, you can keep it flashy, trashy and fast-moving; if you’re blowing through the items on the line-up quickly enough, nobody will notice they’re video wallpaper, a headline and a couple of lame sound-bites. Or you can freight your show with hollow self-importance; fake gravitas covers a multitude of sins, including (but not limited to) the fact that your stories are video wallpaper, a headline and a couple of lame sound-bites. Finally, and most dangerously, most TV news doesn’t bother to offer anything more than simplistic tripe because it’s assumed the viewers can’t handle anything better. If you believe your audience is nothing more than a wad of remote-punching couch-monkeys, why would you bother making a program for sentient Homo Sapiens?


Time constraints mean most newscasts can’t even manage to mash together a truncated video version of the front page of the day’s newspaper. If you transcribed all the words in a standard network newscast, the resulting copy would not fill a single newspaper page. TV is better at telling stories that rely on pictures. Analysis, investigation and depth get dumped in favor of rape, murder, mayhem and sensation. World News Now aims to tell good stories and to show good pictures; it wants to be the whole paper, not just the front page — hard news, features, business, weather, and the op-ed section, including the editorial cartoons. Each 30-minute chunk of World News Now starts with a concise block of utilitarian, no-nonsense hard news, with the running order and treatment changed on each go-round to keep things fresh and interesting (as much for the people making the program as for the people watching it). That still leaves 90 empty minutes.


“We spend eight or nine or 10 minutes on a subject that on the evening news you’d only get 30 seconds or a minute-and-a-half of,” explains Terry Baker “It’s very freeing that way. If we give you eight or nine minutes of a speech by the Speaker of the House, we’re implying that you can decide what’s important in that, and it gives you more context, a better idea of what the speech was actually like.”


Stories on TV seem to happen in a perpetual and evanescent “now” — nothing leads up to it, nothing leads away from it. But World News Now has a sense of history. A segment called “World News Then” raids the ABC News archives for contemporary coverage of bygone stories. Sometimes they’ll offer deeper background to bolster coverage of something current. Other times, it’s a way of demonstrating that the more television production values change, the more the stories stay the same. When Irish peace negotiations bogged down, coverage of the Irish troubles from 15 years earlier served to remind everybody just how long, bitter and bloody the conflict has been. Concern over lawless, wayward mid-1990s youth prompted World News Now to reach for coverage of lawless, wayward youth in the mid-1960s.


“As with most good television, ‘World News Then’ came about accidentally,” Baker recalls. “If you’re looking to fill two hours of television with no money and no staff, you go, ‘Hey, we’ve got all this stuff sitting in the library. It was good enough once. Let’s run it again.’”


When fighting erupted in the Russian republic of Chechnya, most mainstream newscasts parachuted in their high priced correspondents. Others downlinked pictures from syndicated satellite services and wrote script for them using facts culled from the wires. World News Now ran the top eight minutes of that evening’s Russian national news with a simultaneous English translation. There was more information, greater depth, and a glimpse of what Russian TV news looks like. That daily segment’s called “Their News,” and it offers the day’s big story as covered by the people who live where it’s happening. Last summer, Canadian reports on the Bernardo murder trial often made “Their News,” providing a counterpoint to the Simpson trial hysteria.


“It’s a good way of seeing how other people view the same story,” Baker says. “For ‘Their News,’ we’ve taken that a little further. We’ve done ‘International Channel Surfing,’ where we call bureaus around the world and say, ‘Record a night’s worth of stuff and send it to us.’ We often just run it, because a lot of it translates automatically. That kind of stuff is fun, and it gives people an idea of what the rest of the world is like— our similarities as well as our differences — without having to beat them over the head with it.”


The “Their News” mutation shows how fluid this show can be: it demonstrates the willingness to alter the format, to allow it to evolve. The staff will try anything once. If it doesn’t work, they’ll dissect it to see whether they can fix it, or whether it ought to be ditched. If it flies, they’ll keep refining it through trial, error and improvisation. Baker says ABC’s corporate culture encourages that strategy. “They’re not trying to make it fit a mold. They’re saying, ‘Go make a good show.’” The show they’ve made is so good that its competitors have started imitating it. CBS’s Up To The Minute now regularly rifles its network tape library for historical perspectives on current events.


Every newscast has a “kicker,” some lame attempt at humor stuck in on Fridays or at the end of the rundown. Something gigglesome is supposed to make viewers feel better about the onslaught of degradation and misery that’s just bombarded them. They avoid that kind of goofball nyuk-mongering at World News Now. The newscast boasts two regular contributors whose work lampoons current events and some of the conventions of punditry — it’s humor with a brain. Ian Shoales is a high-speed hyperpundit, rattling off his opinions with a poisonously hilarious combination of sneering contempt and amphetamine intensity. The shtick works on two levels, making fun of the topic at hand while skewering the pomposity of professional opinion-fabricators.


Barry Mitchell plays the accordion and sings his own musical satire of current events. His comic strategy is no less pointed for its apparent whimsy. When former Kennedy administration Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara published his book last spring announcing — 30 years too late — that the Vietnam War had been a colossal blunder animated by hubris and delusion, Mitchell offered a cutting, cunning song called “McNamara’s War” to the tune of “MacNamara’s Band.” It was a lot funnier and more thought-provoking than the chorus of pundits yipping “whither America?” on cue elsewhere. Every Friday, Mitchell performs the program’s self-mocking “World News Now Polka,” a very different theme from the bombastic, urgent anthems usually heard when a newscast’s credits roll. And recently, Simpsons voice specialist and free-floating wise-ass Harry Shearer has been added to the weird roster.


As its half-hour wheel continues to turn, World News Now scans the front pages of the next day’s papers and leafs through that week’s forthcoming magazines before they hit the newsstands. There’s a daily look at business across the Pacific Rim through a satellite hook-up to Japan’s NHK network. Nightline guests often stick around after talking to Ted Koppel to knock off a double-ender with Assuras or Newman.


Even the regular boilerplate parts of any newscast are different at WNN. Sports scores scroll past while an offbeat sports story runs in the main part of the screen. The weather map is succeeded by a video essay with music (everything from Steely Dan to John Philip Sousa), consisting of beautiful pictures and predicted temperatures for cities. Some of those local predictions are red herrings: “Anytown, USA... weather — mild.”


Finally, there’s the World News Now National Temperature Index. At the end of the weather forecast, a number appears over a map of the lower 48 states. In the winter, it’s around 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Summers, it can get up to 700 degrees and change. It’s all very authoritative. But nobody outside a select few World News Now staffers knows what it means. What the hell is the World News Now National Temperature Index?


“We needed a number that could tell you at a glance what the weather’s going to be like,” Victor Dorff says. “It’s like the Dow-Jones Industrial Index. Are you going to decide whether or not to buy a particular stock based on the Dow? No. Yet it gives you an idea of how the market did on a given day. This is the same thing, only it’s national and it’s a temperature index. We’ve had calls from the National Weather Service asking about it, phone calls and letters from meteorologists around the country. We got calls from the Air Force, because the military meteorologists couldn’t figure out what it was.” Neither can anybody else, apparently, except Victor Dorff, Terry Baker, Brett Holey and one or two World News Now staff members. Victor Dorff, a math major in college, devised the formula for calculating the index, but he won’t divulge it. It runs daily, carrying the authority of ABC News, even though it was conceived as a recurring prank.


Everybody who assembles and presents World News Now says that as with the Temperature Index, people either “get” the program or they don’t.


“The relationship with the audience is unique,” says Baker “It’s different from any place I’ve ever worked on a news program. My feeling is — I don’t think I’m unique in this — that we’re serving them. If they didn’t exist, we wouldn’t exist. On the Internet, there’s actually a Usenet group that talks about nothing but this program. But it was created by the viewers, not by us. They run it, they operate it. We simply tap into it to get feedback.”


“People are not stupid,” Assuras says, voicing a sentiment considered heresy in most TV newsrooms. “When I went to journalism school, we were taught ‘you’re serving the lowest common denominator.’ Bull. That is not true. People are very intelligent. They pay a lot of attention to news. They really care how you treat it. And they can see through a lot.”


Feedback is encouraged, whether on tape, by telephone, email or snail-mail. A lot of that reaction gets on the air. That’s how they found accordion-playing satirist Barry Mitchell. He sent in a tape of himself singing an appreciation of former anchor Lisa Macree. Dorff and Baker liked it, aired it, then offered Mitchell a regular opportunity to comment musically on current events. One viewer sent in a batch of cookies, along with a videotape of herself baking them. World News Now aired the tape, then offered to mail the cookie recipe to anyone who requested it. They were inundated with requests. Viewers in journalism schools love making their own parodies of the program and mailing them in. World News Now airs them.


The only other news program to inspire that mix of loyalty, affection and sense of ownership aired in the same time slot fifteen years ago. NBC News Overnight, co-anchored by Linda Ellerbee and a succession of male confederates, was also launched with low expectations. When Overnight was canceled after just 19 months, viewers howled. As Ms. Ellerbee is fond of saying, “And so it goes.”


“There was an article in The New York Times that called me ‘the Linda Ellerbee of the ’90s,” Assuras says. “I went, ‘huh?’ I admire her work, but I wasn’t old enough when it was on to be up that late.”


“We’ll gladly accept the comparison,” Victor Dorff says. “We’re flattered. But this is a different show.” He’s right. World News Now has managed to take the best of Overnight’s sardonic bemusement and refine it further And as of this spring, World News Now will have lasted more than twice as long. And maybe World News Now is more desperately needed — and therefore more appreciated — than Overnight was. The TV landscape’s changed a lot in 15 years. There’s more news, of course, but there’s also more flat-out crap on TV — the vacant clowns on infomercials, the zombie legions of the white-trash freak-shows and the babbling cadres of psychic friends. With that many desperate losers crowding the late-night dial, people have a greater need for the refuge World News Now offers: an all-night haven for the smart and the smart-ass; a way station for the weird and the weary, a place to hunker down in your shirtsleeves with your brain and your funny-bone and watch the world while you wait for the dawn. That could all change, of course. Overnight’s cancelation was a shock that came from network bosses who said ratings didn’t matter, then whizzed it because, they said, its ratings weren’t good enough. So far, the numbers and viewer response should ensure a longer, healthier life for World News Now. The people who make the newscast are smart enough to know how hard to push the envelope without making their network bosses scared or angry. If anything, the bosses like the attitude the program fosters; Kevin Newman is anchoring Good Morning America Sunday these days. But he figures there aren’t too many elements of World News Now that could fly during the daytime. His WNN colleagues back him up on that. If WNN succeeds in making television smarter, in transforming other parts of the schedule, it will be a long shot. The stakes are so high in daytime TV, that no one is willing to take chances.


“This program might get the same audience if it were on at 2:00 p.m.,” Terry Baker says. “But at two in the afternoon, that wouldn’t be a big enough audience to justify having it there. It wouldn’t be cost-effective at two in the afternoon. The reality of it is that television is a business.”


“I don’t know if this kind of program would work at 10 in the morning,” Thalia Assuras says. “It should. I don’t see why not. Would anybody consider doing it? No.”


“That’s why we’re here,” Dorff says. “We take the news very seriously. We don’t take ourselves seriously at all.”