When the BBS launched its first daily TV news program in 1954, reporter Richard Baker did not appear onscreen as he read the news.
The thinking was that seeing an anchor would be distracting. Fifty years later, that policy is nowhere in evidence. We have the Naked News and fake news and, even on the allegedly serious shows, anchors like CNN's Anderson Cooper loom larger and larger while the news shrinks.
Ex-veejay George Stroumboulopoulos, in the promos for his latest vehicle, CBC Newsworld's The Hour, seemed ready to challenge all that. He promised a news hour that would be all about the story. His show would be about the message, not the messenger.
This might be a difficult promise for him to fulfill. His tenure at Much and Citytv's The New Music earned him a strong fan base, and it's to this group that the CBC show is mainly geared. Certainly not to my feminist friend who objected to him being called a "chick magnet" on one of the early shows. So is chick magnetism the new gravitas? Should CBC brass be distributing black T-shirts and nose rings all round?
Fortunately, Stroumboulopoulos is an affable fellow who doesn't take himself or all the hype too seriously. He says his intro to political issues came from one of his favourite bands - Public Enemy. He asks his questions and gets out of the way, letting his subjects speak; and some of them are well worth listening to, like the Independent's fearless Robert Fisk.
The original messenger, Mercury, and his avatar the Flash would've been happy with the show's "mile-a-minute" section - fast news bites to get you through the slow apocalypse. Perfect for the new millennium, Attention Deficit Date 2005 A.D.D.
But media expert Murray Pomerance, head of the sociology department at Ryerson and author of Johnny Depp Starts Here, isn't so thrilled with the pacing. "He talks really fast. There's a tremendous amount of verbal material per minute, but not a lot of ideas. The speed of the surface is the primary content of the show and is contradicted by a lack of deep coherence - there's no single idea or frame of reference that he's enunciating. It's extraordinarily bogus."
And he thinks the producers lack a clear sense of their viewers. "They're really pandering and talking down to some conceived audience that's not the actual audience. They're not as mindlessly hip as the producers seem to think. I wouldn't be surprised if there's some resentment eventually."
On the other hand, Max Valiquette, prez of Youthography, a youth marketing firm, positively gushes. "I think he's the most authentic, the most relatable young host they've ever had on the network. I just hope CBC gives him enough time to really cultivate an audience."
What that youth audience wants, according to Valiquette, is news that hasn't been pre-prioritized. "If you go to a popular news blog like Fark, you'll notice that every category is given equal importance, whether it's a hard news flash because a tsunami just hit or Duke's unbeaten streak has come to an end. They're all given the exact same level of importance. Then you go in and make your own decision about whether or not a tsunami is more important."
The same with TV news. That's one of the reasons he likes Stroumboulopoulos. "Every reporter has a look or a tone that reflects the level of seriousness of his or her particular news segment. Typically, young people tend to view all these segments as having equal importance, and one person who has the kind of tone they like can deliver them all."
Now, some might reason that the whole point of professional newscasting is that it's prioritized and mediated and that the reporter has spent years on a beat and can separate the wisdom from the wank. For sure, some of Stroumboulopoulos's rants can seem, if not dumbed down, then just plain dumb. Consider these comments on a U.S. soldier refusing to return to Iraq for a second tour of duty.
"I think it's time you just remembered one thing: you joined the army, the American army. This is a country that goes to war from time to time. Now, when you were signing up, did you give any thought at all to the saying 'War is hell'? Another quick reminder: it's called the military, not the 'get me an education fund.' If you don't wanna go to school and you still wanna get a degree, you can always go to jail."
Hey, George, did you hear that UN head Kofi Anan called the war in Iraq illegal? Did you ever hear of the Nuremberg trials - as in a soldier's duty not to carry out an immoral order? Well, the former music host doesn't claim to be toeing a party line. One of the show's mottoes is "Nothing is sacred."
In fact, someone must finally have put the CBC censor out of our misery. It's all "bullshit" this and "bullshit" that, the occasional "arse," and Bob Geldof actually said "fuckin'" in prime time.
And as his many fans will attest, Stroumboulopoulos is very watchable. He has a kind of self-mocking Sorcerer's Apprentice vibe that gives him a humble authenticity. You get the feeling that he asks questions not to set up someone's spin, but because he wants to know the answers. That's not to say there's no spin in The Hour - there's lots of it, but it's George's homespun variety.
When he complained in an interview with David Suzuki that he was dying to get an alternative-fuel car but was holding out for one that looked good, Suzuki lit into him with a stern lecture on priorities. This was a point where you could say Stroumboulopoulos's gravitas didn't get in the way. To his credit, he took it well. His charm carried the moment. Suzuki got to thunder, and Stroumboulopoulos experienced a public teaching moment on behalf of all of us. Very infotaining.