Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ah, there’s good news tonight…possibly…

The editorial philosophy here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is this: if The Power That Be had meant for “reality TV shows” to flourish, s/he wouldn’t have provided the creative impetus for the likes of My Mother the Car or The Flying Nun. As a rule, I avoid these types of programs (the reality stuff, not Jerry van Dyke or Sally Field) because when I kick back to enjoy a vintage TV show or classic movie, it’s because I’m escaping from reality.

But after being influenced by a blurb on my cheap frien…er, boon companion Sam Johnson’s blog—as well as this column by Erin Rossiter in The Athens-Banner Herald a couple of Saturdays back—I made a point to check out Making News: Savannah Style yesterday on the TV Guide Channel. Savannah Style premiered on the TV Guide Channel on June 4 of this year, a sequel to an earlier reality show entitled Making News: Texas Style—which the cable channel touted as its highest-rated show in 2007. (Which, when you consider that most of Guide’s lineup is comprised of infomercials, isn’t much to blow one trumpet’s about.) If you’ve even a passing familiarity with The Pretty Lady with the Dirty Face, you’ll positively love it. (If you’re a native…well, more on that in a minute.)

Here’s the premise: Savannah Style is a thirteen-part, hour-long reality show about WJCL-TV/22 (and its sister station, WTGS Fox28)—an ABC affiliate that, according to news director Michael Sullivan, is “the worst-rated news station in the country.” And he’s not kidding, either: WJCL is a longtime cellar dweller when compared to its competition, the all powerful WTOC (which has been kicking ass in the ratings since Reconstruction), and perennial news bridesmaid WSAV. Sullivan, an Emmy and Peabody award winning news veteran who cemented his reputation in Chicago, takes charge of a news operation that consists of a staff mostly dedicated to padding their resumes and getting the hell out of Dodge. In the first episode, Sullivan quotes Walter Cronkite when he observes that local news will never survive unless its people can be convinced to stay—in episode two, morning anchor Trish Hartman announces her plans to depart for greener (and colder) fields in Scranton, PA. (Proving that even in retirement, Uncle Walter still has an impressive batting average.)

I have to admit that while reality shows normally fill me with complete revulsion, Savannah Style is pretty hooty to watch: as a former resident, I get a kick out of seeing familiar faces (I’d sometimes catch their10pm newscast before hitting the hay) and eavesdropping in on why the station continues to suck hind-teat in the ratings. While the station personnel’s general lack of self-esteem can be attributed to many factors (the building in which they work often features close-ups of leaky ceilings and Savannah’s official insect, “the Palmetto bug”; their equipment is of questionable pawn-shop quality, etc.) I think some of the reporters’ attitudes toward their work constitutes an iron-clad guarantee that many of them aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. News director Sullivan is a colorful (if a bit creepy) sort in the Jerry Nachman-mold, and I kind of like sports director Frank “The Big Man” Sulkowski—only because he appreciates the finer things in life, like Checkers, Krystal and McDonald’s (he brags that he’s the biggest—as in size—sportscaster in Savannah’s market…but I bet the late Mitch Glicken of WTOC could have taken him on any day of the week). At the risk of damning Sulkowski with faint praise, he is better at doing sports than WTOC’s Rick “If I had a stammer” Snow—but so is your everyday garden-variety orangutan. I also like Wendy McDew, too; particularly when she tells her cameraman (who’s just been pulled over for speeding) that she’s pretty sure he wasn’t stopped so that the cop could ask where he got his tires.

I’m curious as to whether this series will examine in further detail just why WJCL continues to bring up the rear, ratings-wise; viewers unfamiliar with the history of broadcast news in Savannah need to know that WJCL could offer up downloaded internet porn at 6pm and still not make a dent in WTOC’s vast viewership. WTOC’s newscast—or as I’ve often referred to it around my former digs, Mayberry Today—is a completely unstoppable juggernaut, and a wonderful example of Uncle Walter’s earlier maxim. Many of the reporters/anchors have been there for who-knows-how-long and longtime viewers know what to expect from the station: folksy, unthreatening news delivered by down-home individuals in sickly sweet, maple-syrup-fashion. (Shit, even random shootings, murders, etc. are delivered in a soothing "everything's-going-to-be-OK" manner.) Let’s put it this way: my parents are slavishly devoted to watching WTOC—and they hate it with the intensity of a thousand white-hot suns.

But I think the main reason that aspiring reporters and anchors look at WJCL/WTGS as a pit stop to bigger and better things stems from something I discussed with Sam Johnson in a phone conversation not too long back. Savannah has a reputation for hospitality—but only on the condition that you don’t stay too long. Unless you were born and bred in the State of Chatham, you can be there forever (my folks have lived in Savannah for over twenty-five years) and still never be fully accepted by the natives. (I love how Rossiter describes the city in her column as “polite-but-prickly.”) So I’m not too surprised that some of the station’s staff is just marking time after getting that sort of reception; hell, if John Berendt hadn’t written Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil he’d be just another Yankee tourist. (That book has been a gold mine for the city, and some of those bozos are still bitching about it to this day.) If you’re interested in taking a gander at the series, Hulu has the first four episodes up (and while I’m at it, let me give a shout-out to TDOY reader Dan for bringing this website to my attention—he sent me an e-mail in May and I carelessly forgot to thank him) for your viewing pleasure. Let's cook up somethin' good, y'all!


Sam said...

I truthfully haven't seen the show since its first airing due to the fact that I work in the building right behind them and one of their former camermen works for us. Whatever happened on the show usually comes to us first, so everyone else is watching second-hand news. Which is even better than "The Coastal Source" is reading out to viewers.

Jim's Journeys said...

With the title of your story I expected to read something about Gabriel Heater.

I find it interesting that a man twenty years younger than myself has such an interest in the past. I commend you for it. If it wasn't for people like yourself, much would be lost.

My blog has a few items about growing up in the forties and fifties. I hope to add more as I try to document my life so my children and grandchildren will have some idea of why I am what I am.

Stop by at www.jimsjourney.wordpress.com

By the way, I enjoyed your site so much that I'm going to add a link to my blog.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

With the title of your story I expected to read something about Gabriel Heater.

Yeah, it was a tip to ol' Gabe...but if you were misled, my humblest of apologies. (I have an unbreakable habit of using cutesy headlines for my posts: I still get quite a few hits from people searching for the 1973 film Harry in Your Pocket on DVD because I once used the movie's title on a post about silent comedian Harry Langdon.)

I find it interesting that a man twenty years younger than myself has such an interest in the past. I commend you for it. If it wasn't for people like yourself, much would be lost.

I've lost track of how many times I've told people I was born twenty years too late. My interest in old-time radio, classic movies and vintage TV began when I was a youngin' and back then people would point and stare at me like I was a freak. (They still do that, by the way, but I've learned to cope with it.)

By the way, I enjoyed your site so much that I'm going to add a link to my blog.

...and I have reciprocated in kind; there are some truly wonderful musings at your blog. Thanks for encouraging my behavior, Jim--and welcome to the blogosphere!

Anonymous said...

I had the unfortunate experience of working at WJCL 8 years ago and it was a nightmare.
Mitchell Maund was GM and was the Antichrist. The Antichrist just went to Federal Prison for 48 counts of wire fraud against the company.
Everything in the station was "afro engineered" thanks to Dave German, who is The Devil himself and happens to be black. Hence, the word "afro engineering" is appropriate even though it's not "PC". I don't care about being "PC".
Mitchell Maund and Dave German can burn in Hell as far as I'm concerned.

They are the lowest form of life.

Anonymous said...

ouch- While I don't care for your engineering comments I do agree with you on the MMaund comment. He was a cold bastard who absolutely had no respect for anyone. He was, and probably still is a classic ego hound in a fake Armani suit and cheesy shoes. He treated his family the same way he treated his employees- I unfortunately worked under him for a number of years and it took deep therapy to get back to normal. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy if you ask me.