We were acting like rave DJs, who are the hottest shit in music right now,” says Stephen Marshall, ex-frontman of the now defunct Channel Zero “video-news company.” “DJs take tracks and they assemble them into collages that keep people dancing for eight to 10 hours. I think that’s what we were doing. It wasn’t that conscious. We just sort of take out cameras out and shoot on digitals that shoot in broadcast qualtiy. We sampled the sound bite, linked them together without any narrative in-between. That’s what DJs do.”
Only, DJs don’t get to broadcast their “shit” on CBC’s The National Magazine. Channel Zero did, which is why it was such a peculiar move for the Mother Corp to give the troupe just as radical with its politics as it was in production style three nights on its flagship time slot. “The Electronic Eye: Canada as a Surveillance Society” was the ominous title affixed to Channel Zero’s investigation of privacy issues in the coming digital age. Though the subject was familiar territory for The National Magazine, the shows were like nothing the 650,000-plus viewers had seen before: a collage of images and text that skipped to and fro with no apparent logic; talking heads that flashed, floated or were juxtaposed over every corner of the screen; a sound track of ambient rave-beats; and a story structure that was more blitzkrieg than narrative.
“We were creating a music video for the news,” says Marshall, speaking to whom is a fractured experience eerily similar to watching Channel Zero productions. With his words streaming at a pace I thought humanly impossible, Marshall hits on everything from how news is driven by accountants and out-of-touch producers (“And I know that because I’ve been invited to speak at NBC, BBC and fuckin’ CNN”) to how the music videos of OMD and the Beastie Boys have paved the path to TV worth watching. And to answer his critics, who disagree with his approach to producing news, he engages himself in conversation and flickers between his usual nasal-pitched self and a deeper, pedantic tone.
“What’s the problem with revolutionizing through entertainment?”
“Well, they’re not compatible.”
“Well, of course they are. Who says they are not?”
“Who is that? Conrad Black or Jesus? Well, I’m not really into either of them right now,” he says, finishing the exchange.
The fact that Channel Zero even made it onto The National, Canada’s bastion of traditional broadcast journalism, is proof that prevailing wisdom is in retreat. And Marshall isn’t the only one transforming how news is transmitted through the airwaves. From Big Lifeand Undercurrents on the CBC to Media Television,Ooh La La and The NewMusic radiating from Toronto’s CHUMCity Building, these shows speak the semantics of news but use the syntax of MuchMusic a language, if you will, that is as dissimilar to that of The Nationalas English is to Mandarin.
WHILE THESE SHOWS ARE AS ECLECTIC AS THE videos MuchMusic will play on any given day, there are similarities binding them. Quick cuts are the norm. Computer graphics alter the visual field. Images are shot from camera angles you wouldn’t see anywhere else on TV. Split screens and multiple images, including a lot of text, are commonplace. A heavy use of music is just as common. And never, ever, is there a person behind a desk. In fact, minus Undercurrents, none of these shows uses a studio. Perhaps the most profound stylistic similarity between, say, Media Television, which has never used a host or a reporter’s voice-over, and Big Life, which is always as aesthetically intriguing as any video installation at a museum of modern art, is that neither of them, nor any of the other of these so-called new-format shows, for that matter, looks like a news program.
“I think you can make a fairly clear statement about why this is happening,” says Saturday Night TV critic and University of Toronto philosophy professor Mark Kingwell. “There are conventions that grow up at certain times in the communication of information via a given medium. Somebody breaks an existing convention, then everybody is going to break that convention.”
“Personally, I would like to see the envelope pushed more,” says Tony Burman, now head of CBC Newsworld, who assigned Channel Zero its three shots at the big time after hearing Marshall speak at a 1996 broadcast journalism conference in Berlin (Burman was The National’s executive director at the time). Marshall was asked to be a keynote speaker after meeting NBC’s London bureau chief, Karen Curry, who was helping to organize the event. Marshall laughs and tells me it was one of the few times he’s been completely coherent. He was also completely unprepared. Arriving with no prewritten speech, he asked the audience rhetorically, “Why do so many young people watch MTV and not the news?” Answering: “Well, because they would rather watch that style of picture design.” He accused the news of being anachronistically “anchor-driven”: “To my generation, a full-screen shot of Tom Brokaw or any other news anchor doesn’t mean anything. We look on them as fillers between Ford commercials.” Instead, he said, TV news needs to be “design driven”: “You have to think about redesigning the very palette of television and facilitating a far greater experience. It needs to be more stimulating.” Until then, Channel Zero was a small, anticorporate documentary producer seeking to revolutionize the public by revolutionizing the medium the public watches the world through. After Berlin, it accepted The National spots and Marshall was hired to consult to those monopolistic news organizations he had made his mark criticizing.
Marshall had struck a chord (the speaker following Marshall, Bruce Gyngell, a director of an independent British news station, called him “the most exciting young man I’ve heard in a decade”). While similar numbers are not available for Canadian networks, a survey of the “believability” of the three U.S. network anchors found that viewers were restive. Between 1985 and 1996, the percentage of people who said they “believed” Dan Rather (CBS) dropped from 40 percent the highest rating of the three network anchors to 29 percent. Peter Jennings (ABC) dropped from 33 to 27 percent. Tom Brokaw (NBC) went unchanged, but was at only 29 percent in 1989 when he was first rated. The drop in believability also mirrors a drop in TV news viewership, which fell from 60 percent of the U.S. population saying they regularly watched at least one of the network newscasts in 1993 down to 42 percent today. But what is more interesting was the age spread: for viewers over 49, 62 percent said they watch network newsÛthe same number that did in 1993. For viewers between 18 and 29, however, the decline was most dramatic, falling from 36 to 22 percent.
“What the new-style shows have done for straight newscasts is blow the facade of objective journalism,” says Laurie Brown, host of Newsworld’s On the Arts. “You talk about those days when everyone believed something because Walter Cronkite said it. That doesn’t exist anymore, and I think that most people under 40 have enough savvy and are media-literate enough to know that.”
The emergence of these new-format shows is really as much a critique of old-style shows as it is a break with convention; it’s a realization that the audience is becoming all too familiar with the medium-so much so that they see through the artifice of anchors, reporters and voice-overs that provide traditional broadcast news with the pretense of authority and objectivity.
“The only thing that is different is that it is unashamedly visual, where the old-style news, for some time, anyway, maintained the illusion that it was journalism as your morning newspaper,” says Kingwell. “They had the correspondents, the anchor was a kind of editor. Of course, we all knew it was nonsense.” The facade is a long-time pet peeve of Tim Knight, who for 10 years headed journalism training at the CBC. “We are still doing newspaper journalism on TV,” he vents. “The only difference is, for one you read the news and the other reads it to you.”
It is an orthodoxy that hasn’t changed since the Columbia Broadcasting System first started airing daily 15-minute newscasts nearly 60 years ago. When in 1942 Pearl Harbor was bombed and visuals were unavailable, the CBS anchor spoke over an American flag waving in the breeze of a studio fan. Following Morley Safer’s footage of U.S. Marines applying their Zippos to the hay homes of unarmed Vietnamese villagers (prompting this call to CBS station manager Frank Stanton: “Frank, this is your president, and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag”), TV news executives started to understand the medium’s visual and emotional power. From there, producers increasingly began to exploit raw, emotional images, culminating today in American nonfiction shows like Real TV,Hard Copy and A Current Affair, which bandy among themselves the duty of broadcasting the most exploitative and sensationalistic images competition joined of late by the network news and magazine shows. But whether tabloid or 60 Minutes, the image is always moderated: between it and the audience is the anchor and reporter presenting the narrative through what Knight calls “the omnipotent voice of God.”
Thanks to the likes of MediaTelevisionand many other of its CHUM/City counterparts, God is being made mute. “I think people can figure the stories out themselves. There is no need to force it down their throats,” says Reid Willis, producer of MediaTelevision, where voice-overs are anathema. When shots need setting up, text tells the viewers where they are and who is speaking. Willis asserts that the segments retain a point of view. A recent segment shot in Jordan, for example, has a commercial director talking about the necessity of having scantily clad women in TV ads, even as he calls them sluts and whores and congratulates himself on his daughter’s discretion. “There’s no need for one of us to say this guy’s a hypocrite,” says Willis. “The audience can clearly see that.”
Contrast this to a Remembrance Day segment on The National. A ground shot captures Canadian veterans marching in formation, with Jean Chrétien coming in and out of focus from behind their torsos. Only instead of the sound of feet hitting the ground simultaneously, the viewer heard: “A final march past the prime minister.” “See, that’s just telling the audience they’re a bunch of idiots,” says Willis, grinning.
Laurie Brown, who began her career as a broadcast journalist in 1984 at The NewMusic, and then moved on to arts reporting at The Nationalin 1989, has experienced the conflicting sensibilities of formats firsthand. Asked to do the “arty” pieces at the CBC, she used methods developed at The NewMusic. “Those pieces shone in the newscast simply because there was music in them, there was movement in them. It used the language of what people are used to seeing on TV but is never in the news. And people were like, ‘Oh, I love it, I love that piece,it just brightened up the whole newscast.'”
IN HIS SHOW’S LINEAR EDITING SUITE, BIG Lifeeditor Ian Hanna is fiddling with original Starship Enterprise-like knobs and buttons (think William Shatner). “And how you edit on a linear suite is you put one shot in, then you put your next shot in, and sound. All in a very linear and straightforward fashion.” Unlike its new-format cousin Undercurrents, with its own Next Generation computerized nonlinear suite, Big Life has to make do with analog low-tech means. Hanna tells me about using the old magazine trick of photocopying text 100 times to get a grainy look. One Big Life intern spent a whole afternoon pouring coloured milk into an aquarium for a backdrop to a show extro. “I think the technology tends to drive what you do,” he says. Tall, with black hair greased down in an oval bowl, Hanna is wearing all blackÛshoes, socks, slacks, turtleneck, blazer. The show’s aesthetic director is more artiste than techie. And this comes across in the programÛeach week he creates one of TV’s most stunning sights, attaining the creators’ vision of a show that resembles a psychedelic Grateful Dead album cover.
As we talk, a video on MuchMusic that’s playing behind us breaks into a strobing effect. The light reflects off Hanna’s hair into my eyes, blinding me momentarily. It’s an effect more suited to what Hanna describes as the “wow and dazzle” of Undercurrents. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t work there,” he says trying to avoid reproaching the show, but admitting, “In a way it’s overkill.” With its nonlinear suite, Undercurrentscan layer upwards of 30 images on a single frame, then use photo-manipulation and graphics software to make the screen do anything the show’s editors want it to. But while pushing TV’s technological limits, the show’s visuals seem gaudy. There is a sense that somebody just doesn’t get it. Host Wendy Mesley sits on a couch instead of behind a desk but she still reads her script. As do the reporters, who use voice-overs as much as in any traditional newscast. Watching the show, I can’t help but think it’s self-consciously trying to be the fifth estate gone raving. “It wasn’t that there wasn’t style there, it’s just that the style was swamped,” says Hanna. Tim Knight agrees: “It strikes me that Undercurrents is the CBC in disguise trying to be something that the CBC isn’t.”
“I THINK YOU HAVE TO SEPARATE OUT A whole bunch of questions,” says Mark Kingwell, sipping a cappuccino in a cyber-style café. “One is: Does this do damage to content? Does it perhaps enhance the content of the broadcast? Or is it neutral in that respect?” What most new-style shows have done, he says, “is basically added a kind of interesting level of visual stimulation, which has very little to do with the content.” However, he adds, “What people are trying to get, and what Big Life sometimes has, is actual marriage of content and style. So that the visual grammar actually enhances what’s being talked about. But that’s quite rare.
“The other thing you have to notice is we are talking about retinal stimulation and the firing of neurons as a result. We are, in a sense, hypersensitized to that kind of stimulation in our brain. It’s a feature of our culture in every possible way. So constant playing to that, constant speeding up of the delivering of images, the compression of images, the jump-cut style, images that flash so quickly they are almost subconscious we derive a lot of pleasure from that.” To illustrate, he didn’t need to look further than over my shoulder at a young, tattooed longhair virtually encapsulated in the shoot-em-up video game Quake. Without moving his head more than two degrees in any direction, he was eviscerating everything on the computer screen while listening to a Walkman vibrate music into his brain loudly enough that we could hear it across the room. Said Kingwell: “The phrase Îrock-videoization’ really does say it all.”
As these shows shed the skin of a prior print culture and embrace the rock-videoized visual stimulants that have come to symbolize the culture of youth of MTV, Nintendo and, more and more, the Web they are also exposing themselves to criticism intractably linked to those media. In the Web magazine HotWired, David Shenck, author of the much-quoted 1996 book Data Smog, recently lamented: “Our culture is increasingly saturated by a flurry of images created not so much for meaningful expression as for the temporary abduction of people’s consciousness.” Shenck quotes German film director Wim Wenders, who described the social condition as “the disease of images,” an affliction where “you have too many images around so that finally you don’t see anything anymore.” In an April 1997 column in The Globe and Mail, Robert Fulford expressed a similar sentiment, claiming that “many of our fellow citizens live in a place where fantasy and reality can’t be separated.” He went on to write, “[R]ock videos are the perfect emblems of this world view bargain basement surrealism that can’t be understood by anyone, even those who produce it.”
For anyone who practices journalism in the new format, the criticism has a fatal sting. Fulford and Shenck argue that media based on an accelerated flow of images opiate the viewer. Their fear is we’re approaching an era of sensory overload, where news, like heroin, floods the brain’s feel-good neural receptors but makes users oblivious to their surroundings. We will watch this news, no doubt it is exactly what our techno-flooded minds crave but will we be able to derive meaning, analyze, judge? Use it to perform the functions journalism is supposed to enable us to do?
New York University journalism professor Mitchell Stephens, author of the soon-to-be-released book The Rise of the Image, Fall of the Word, argues that we will. “If you want television news to be less superficial, the more information you communicate in the shorter period of time is really the better,” he says. In 1980, Stephens wrote the world’s best-selling broadcast journalism textbook, Broadcast News, where he observed no news cut lasts less than fewer seconds, and now points out that newscasts often run cuts of less than a second. He’s also impressed by how text has become a common element. “I think we are heading to, and will eventually reach, TV news stories that are richer and deeper than conventional newspaper stories,” he says. By having more than one thing at a time, he explains, new-format newscasts can run opposite points of view simultaneously, or show running text to provide context for images.
Something like what The NewMusic’s audience is accustomed to. There, on any given night, the screen is split, with one half showing a concert or video clip and the other an interview with the artist. Text is juxtaposed over everything. Graphics and images shrink and grow. Music, words, natural sounds fill the speakers. “I don’t think they’ll be thrown by a moving camera coming in, or an extra graphic coming up, or a transition, or all that eye candy,” says The NewMusic’s producer, John Marshall. “People can digest all that and still understand the main conversation, the main message.” And indeed, for The NewMusic, whose bread-and-butter is artist interviews, the fractured screen adds an almost tactile depth to the conversation by complementing speech with video clips, concert footage and other visual representations of the conversation. “TV works best when you design it so that it’s working on a lot of different levels,” he says.
“A lot of people seem to complain that these new forms of TV are too engaging, which really fascinates me,” Stephens expands. “As if it would be better if our minds wandered. I think what’s wonderful about television is that it can be so remarkably engaging. All we have to do is figure out ways to communicate significant, powerful ideas through this medium, but the fact that it is so engaging should make it easier, not harder, to do that.” And it is precisely this difference that distinguishes new-format shows from the mainstream. They accept and embrace their medium’s engaging qualities rather than hiding behind the reputation of another.
But what distinguishes Channel Zero’s “Electronic Eye” from the new-format shows is that it appeared in the context of traditional newscast. Big Life,The NewMusic and Ooh La La, whose content is explorations in pop culture, and Undercurrents and MediaTelevision, which look at media culture, appeal to the young. “Electronic Eye” was aimed at a mainstream audience covering a mainstream concern, and in doing so, it represents a seminal crack in a crumbling orthodoxy.
As for Channel Zero itself, in the end, it seems to have imploded. In October, Holiday Phelan, heiress to the Cara Food fortune and Channel Zero’s main backer, moved to San Francisco with three of the editors and any of Channel Zero’s assets that hadn’t been repossessed (hopping in a motorhome for the journey in order to, as one ex-Channel Zero employee told me, “exorcise themselves of Stephen Marshall”).
Marshall, following a string of what he and many others say were “character assassinations” in the Toronto press, fled to New York for “political exile.” After living on friends’ couches and pitching various show concepts to all the major media conglomerates, he travelled through Latin America and studied the works of Che Guevera and JosÈ MartÌ in Cuba. He is now living in Toronto. In its two-year life, Channel Zero released two independent documentary videos and produced the three spots for TheNational.
“When we made The National videos, we had the top DJs in Canada, top animators,” Marshall says. “We spent $150,000 on the three videos, but only got paid $60,000. This was our chance to show what the news could be.” Tony Burman described the audience reaction this way: “Some people found them intriguing, while others scratched their heads and wondered if the future was creeping up on them too quickly.” It’s a sentiment we’ll undoubtedly be hearing more often.