ELEVEN O'CLOCK MUST-SEE
What if Hurricane Butch blew Louisiana into Vermont tonight? What if that serial killer left Florida and is headed for my door? What if someone I never heard of died in Monroeville? What if there’s corruption in the government? What if an asteroid is smashing into Montana right now and destroying all life on earth? I’ll feel pretty silly if I miss that!
I was going to say I like to watch the eleven o’clock news, but I really don’t. I watch it as a bad habit like smoking -- I don’t enjoy it anymore but I start to twitch if it’s not there. I need the news to sleep. Otherwise, I’ll toss and turn like a penny in the dryer and wake up every hour to check how long to go before I can wake up. I guess I need the news because I subconsciously realize that no matter how scary my nightmares might get later, they’ll never match the horrors TV confided to me at bedtime. I’ll sleep right through my dream of being devoured by a scaly dragon if I know there are worse things in the real world. Because of the eleven o’clock news, I’ve enjoyed many a night’s sound sleep (and several scaly dragons grew fat).
But lately the news doesn’t have its old zing. Oh, there’s plenty of bad things happening. It’s not that the message got better; it’s the messengers who are slipping.
My town has three stations offering news at eleven, but two of them are in the category I call "Only-Watch-at-Gunpoint."
The gunpoint station with the highest channel number used to be my favorite. That had nothing to do with its news content -- which was probably no better or worse than the others -- But what they offered as a bonus was the best unintentional humor in local TV.
In its quest to appear to be an equal-opportunity employer, the station hired a blonde ditz named Beverly. Talking without a teleprompter totally defeated her. Once, when the studio sound was lost to an on-the-scene reporter, she began: "John, I know you can’t hear me but I want to ask you this question ...." To her surprise, John continued to stare blankly into the camera. She led off one newscast with: "Groucho Marx took a turn for the worse tonight. In fact, he died." On another occasion, she turned to a co-anchor, "Adam, I’m not from around here. What does NATO stand for?" Perhaps her most memorable moment came when a piece of film failed and she tried to explain to viewers what they would have seen if it hadn’t. At the end of thirty seconds of rambling, she somehow gave the impression that a local dog had shot a local man. Mercifully, the director went to an unscheduled commercial.
Beverly shared the anchordesk with a veteran newsman named Adam and a features reporter named Jack. Virtually every night viewers could count on Beverly to ad lib some god-awful non-sequitar to Adam or Jack who, in staunch newsman-style would nod sagely and bite their lips. There must have been blood all over the anchordesk. One night the show opened with Beverly alone at the desk. She solemnly informed the viewers: "Adam’s in the hospital and Jack’s off too."
When she was simply reading from a teleprompter, Beverly could still be disastrous. Her forte was mispronouncing names, but even common English words could baffle her. My favorite was the two minutes she devoted one night to a story about the rise of "Heat Disease" among women. She mentioned the dread malady Heat Disease at least six times while I scratched my head. When she returned from a commercial break, Beverly blithly confided that her earlier story had actually been about Heart Disease.
Sadly, Beverly left the station for a bigger market and was succeeded by a parade of pretty male and female strangers from far away who were uniformly defeated in their struggles to pronounce Monongehela. I finally gave up. If they didn’t know to un-Frenchify North Ver-SALES, they didn’t belong in my living room.
For a time I tried the middle-numbered channel even though I always felt if I admitted it to a priest I’d be saying Hail Mary’s until Easter. Perhaps "sleaze" is too strong a word, but this channel had less sensitivity than an octogenerian’s private parts. They never met a bloody accident or a dead body they wouldn’t film in living color. After one too-many of their reporters asked a dazed survivor how it felt to watch his house burn down and his children burn up, I burned out.
I’m down to my last local eleven o’clock news, but I can’t say I’m thrilled.
The anchorheads spend a lot of time telling me what they’ll be telling me and very little time actually telling me.
For example, before the first commercial break I hear: "Eight people die in a shootout. We’ll tell you the details!" After an eternity of ads for new cars that look like last year’s, diet drinks that pretend to taste like milk shakes, and lawyers who promise to get me money if I’m even in the same time zone as an accident, the anchorhead returns to voiceover film on the rescue of some guy’s pet boa constrictor from a phone booth in San Diego, briefly mention a new pill that’s coming on the market to fight five o’clock shadow, and dazzle us with a photo of a rock on Mars which looks suspiciously like any number of rocks in Wilmerding. Meanwhile, I’ve been mentally running through a list of all my acquaintances who might possibly be involved in a large scale homicide.
Just before going to another break, I get the details of the shootout which may have killed eight of my closest friends: "In Spagnu, Czechoslovakia, today, eight people were killed in a shootout."
I don’t know anyone in Spagnu.
"Next, the pictures on your wall can give you cancer. We’ll tell you how!"
Much of the program is given over to self-congratulatory promos about the advantages of watching their news in your hometown because their news people really care. I guess the other stations are just in it for the money.
Eventually we get to the weather. I’m not very good with weather. I still can’t tell partly cloudy from partly sunny. I always have to find out what someone has decided it’s going to be partly like tomorrow, but by the next morning I always forget what was predicted. I’m always surprised by the snow storm, rain squall, heat wave, or partly cloudy. Or sunny. It’s not all my fault. The secret of successful weathermanning is to perform the task with so little charisma that viewers forget what you said as soon as you’ve said it. Then they won’t blame you when a blizzard blots out their picnic. The actual prediction takes all of seven seconds but it’s couched in two minutes of camouflage about highs, lows. inversions, and a weather map that looks like it is being digested by amoebas. The station’s super-duper weather radar is so advanced they gave it a name that sounds like you could fly it to Saturn and blow up the ring.
Someone should tell them it’s still just radar.
After years of watching, the only thing I remember is it’s usually colder in Canada. At least in the top part.
The best part of the sports news is the sportsguy’s eyebrows; they jump up and down like first graders on a sugar diet. He could be semaphoring the Steelers’ Game Plan to Bengals spies, but it’s probably just show. After all, he’s a "hometown guy."
The sports segment serves roughly the same purpose as the editorial page in a newspaper -- that is, the sportsguy treats us to his opinions and occasionally makes vague references to signings, salaries, and scores. There’s often a filmed interview with a local athlete who earnestly reveals he’ll play one game at a time while giving one-hundred-and-ten-percent. He just wants to make a contribution to the team. So long as it’s not monetary. The sports news ends with a "Watch This!" segment so we can see a fiery car crash in Florida, a basket from midcourt in Oregon, or an ostrich race in New Mexico.
After one last piece of important breaking news -- usually involving film of a cute animal -- the weatherguy reprises his soothsaying in case you couldn’t figure out what he was talking about the first time. Then, after threatening to return tomorrow, the anchors banter small talk about the Pirates until fade out. I keep expecting one of them to ask, "That IS baseball, isn’t it?" but I can’t decide which one will say it.