A Guy at a Desk with a Box Over His Shoulder

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Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz………

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Same old… same old…..

I travel all the time, and whenever I get to a new city, I go to the hotel and turn on the TV set.

No matter what country I am in, I always know when I am watching the news.  It all looks the same.

A guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

England, France, The US, Italy, China, Russia, Japan, Mongolia. A guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

And it does not matter what time it is.

8AM, 5PM, 11PM, 2AM.

A guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, NRK, NHK, BBC, XYZ…

A guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

And it has been this way for years.

2008, 1998, 1988, 1968, 1958.

A guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

116 countries broadcasting 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on a hundred different news channels.  Millions of hours, quite literally, all exactly the same: a man at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

The morning news is equally recognizable: Three people sit around a coffee table and chit-chat about the news. They are, in any given order, blonde, fat and black (except in Japan).  Yet even here, when it is time to ‘go to the news desk’, what do we cut to? A guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.

Is there something wrong here?

Television is a completely plastic medium.  That is, each day, when you walk into a studio, you can do anything you want with it; anything at all.

Yet for sixty years, every single person in every studio in every broadcasting operation in every country around the world has elected to do exactly the same thing – over and over and over and over again.

Why is that?

It is as though every painter in every atelier in every country in the world had decided to paint a cow and a lake, over and over and over and over again, ad nauseum.

Why is it that a medium that should encourage creativity, instead encourages repeatability?

As with so many other things in life, it comes down to cost.

Since its invention- and really only until yesterday, television was incredibly expensive to produce.

As a result, there was no room for risk.

When you put a few million dollars on the table to create a television program, everyone in the room wants it to be a success. No one can countenance failure.  Those people, the risk takers, were long ago eliminated in a kind of corporate Darwinism in television that richly rewards the risk-averse.

Since its inception, television has been remarkably risk averse because the cost of taking a risk was so high.

Novelists take a ‘risk’ all the time. Each time they put a piece of paper into a typewriter (or printer), and try to write a novel, they are taking a risk.  But each piece of paper costs next to nothing, so there is little to prevent them for tearing it up, 3 or 4 pages in, and starting again, and again, and again until they get it right.

If, however, each piece of paper cost $10,000, then they would type very very carefully, and every novel would begin: “It was a dark and stormy night”.
Creativity is directly tied to the cost of risk. The lower the cost of risk, the more one is willing to risk being creative.

Up to now, the cost of television was so astronomical, that there was no incentive to take a risk. In fact, the vast majority of risk-takers in the television business were eliminated early in their career for being attached to a ‘failure’.  Just as there can be no creativity without risk, there can be no risk without failure. Yet if a failure is the end of a career, then the only ones who will survive are those who refuse to take a risk.

Television is the child of the risk averse.

If there is one successful CSI show on TV, you can bet that in a spurt of creative imitative(ness), there will be half a dozen in a year or two.  If Law and Order is a hit, then you can bet that variants of Law and Order will be all over the networks.

The news business on television is the worst of these offenders (but networks and cable are not far behind).  In the news business, the risk is even higher, because although you have to pay for a news piece to be produced, you cannot re-run it (at least not for too long).  You don’t see a lot of CBS Evening News Best of 1988 running on cable.  Who would watch it? (In fact,  who watches it now?)

In the newspaper business, you can at least wrap fish in yesterday’s paper.  Old TV news is beyond worthless.

Thus the TV news business is the most conservative and least creative venue in television, an industry already known for its lack of creativity.

And that is too bad, because news is both important and compelling.

But when the packaging has not changed since 1952, it does not make for the most ‘watchable’ programming, which is why almost no one (certainly no one under the age of 35) watches TV News.

And its not that the money is not there.  It is.  The news divisions spend hundreds of millions of dollars (not to mention a breathtaking $16 million dollars to for an anchor to spend 22 minutes a night essentially reading what someone else has written for her).  This is their idea of a radical change – going from a guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder to a woman at a desk with a box over her shoulder.

4 responses to “A Guy at a Desk with a Box Over His Shoulder

  1. and when they dump the $16 million newsreader you can watch her leaving her office for the last time… with a box over her shoulder (presumably carrying all that $) on youtube

  2. yes it’s like great works of art – always a square frame, no one ever tries out an octagonal one…..

  3. MSNBC decided to be a little creative and added more boxes which inadvertently lead to adult onset ADD. =)

  4. The great communication theorist James Carey compares TV news with a religious ritual, exactly the same actions performed exactly the same way, over and over again, as if any change would break the spell.

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