Barbarians at the Gate: Odoacer takes the number one slot, prime time and otherwise
1976 marked the fifteen hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Roman Empire.
It passed pretty much unnoticed.
1976 had been the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independent, and that got some pretty good play in the press. The Sack of Rome by Odoacer in 476AD did not receive much play or fanfare, which is kind of too bad, because we don’t get to celebrate the 1500th anniversary of too much, let alone the collapse of the number one Empire (at least until Britain) in the Western World.
It is only now that historians can start to take a look at what led to the fall of Rome, a fairly significant event in our past (as it precipitated a thousand years of the Dark Ages, for starters).
I am not going to draw an analogy here between the United States and Rome (though there are many) but rather between (very loosely), the fall of Rome and the fall of Network News, (another predominant Empire in the throes of collapse).
Modern historiography can give many reasons for the fall of Rome, from the Christianization of the Barbarians to overextension to lead in the drinking water. All agree, however, that Rome was not overthrown by outside forces so much as the seeds for its own destruction were carried within the very structure of the Empire itself. Here, I think, is the parallel to TV News.
Many years ago (at the start of time), television news was populated by the best and the brightest of a generation. Murrow’s Boys, (as they were called), came from the wire services. They were first and foremost journalists. They got on TV almost by accident. It was the sheer quality of their reporting and writing, their thinking in fact (think Eric Sevareid, if you can remember him), that produced the ‘trust’ that the network news was known for.
The ‘show’ was secondary.
Somewhere along the line, the networks (and local) lost the thread.
The ‘show’ became everything; the content of lesser consequence.
Anchors became all hair and teeth.
The ‘show’ was all about graphics and music and live remotes from people standing in the dark or in front of courthouse buildings.
The consequence of all this was a debasement of the quality of the content.
Worse still, as television news embraced Hollywood concepts – the ‘show’, it also embraced Hollywood salaries (for the Star). Anchors, both network and even local, began to move with an entourage of support teams – hair, lights, stylists, makeup, writers, hand holders.
I am told that every word that Peter Jennings ever uttered on screen (and perhaps off) was written by a team consisting of Schulder, Blatt and Stein.
As the ‘star’ concept was ratcheted up, so too were the salaries. We know Ms. Couric’s but that is only the tip of the iceberg in this business.
Well, those multi million dollar salaries have to come from somewhere (even in local, those salaries have to come from somewhere), and where they come from is the budget for the newsroom. They are paid in journalists and crew and equipment. When it comes time to slash the budget, the anchor (ironically) is the last to get tossed overboard. (which is ironic, because they are more often than not the ones who do the least work in the place).
CBS News is now at one of those places where, because they are in so much trouble, (ratings keep dropping to new lows each week), they could.. they could… take a really radical step. They could trash the whole unworkable system and create a very interesting digital newsroom where they could (could) hire the best journalists in the world today (look at places like Huffington Post for starters), and kick ass. With their budgets the could do it in a heartbeat!
But they won’t.
Like their pals 1500 years ago, they will be content to fiddle while CBS burns.