The messenger's the message


IF CBS announced that it was adding another half-hour to the evening news or shortening the commercials or hiring a dozen new field correspondents, you might say that its viewers stood at least a marginal chance of being better informed.

On the other hand, the insertion of another superstar celebrity into its format might be viewed widely as a stunning news event in itself which could dramatically increase the show's ratings. So I don't have to tell you which alternative the network chose. Outside of signing Madonna to co-anchor nude with Tom Brokaw, I don't see how NBC can top this.

Not to be peevish -- Connie is sweet and Dan's a brick -- but is there going to be any time for news on this enhanced show? You see, after commercials there's only time for 22 minutes of world misery, chit-chat, significant trends, war, pestilence and catastrophe to be told on these shows. You've got 22 minutes to summarize everything really important that's happened in 24 hours on a major planet, and that's if you're lucky and the British royal family doesn't do something unmentionable that must be mentioned in a seven-minute report from London.

And of this 22 minutes, the superstar -- er, anchor -- usually consumes seven minutes. Now there'll be two of them. And unless you can imagine either of them settling for 3 1/2 minutes, that leaves only eight minutes for real news like Bosnian footage, stuff from reporters supposedly covering the Earth for CBS, shots of the grass growing on the White House lawn, even shots of President or Hillary Rodham Clinton doing whatever they do that day.

It's no use trying to squeeze much real news into the anchors' precious time because a lot of that is already blotted out with toothy greetings, sincere good nights and Dan Rather announcing breathlessly, "Straight ahead on tonight's 'CBS Evening News': new developments in how housewives in Peoria cope with stress and the amazing way it could affect you." Besides, Connie Chung and Dan will have to exchange chirpy pleasantries every evening just to show they're not feuding. And lord knows how much time will be taken up by Connie saying, "Straight ahead on tonight's 'CBS Evening News': an astonishing report from Dan live from the scene of disaster in Paraguay and how it'll affect you. But first this." (Fade to a hemorrhoid message).

I suppose Dan is serious about doing more of those earnest stand-ups of his, the ones where he bestrides some wind-swept field of butchery in an outfit from Banana Republic, hyperventilating like he's just witnessed the conclusion of the Battle of Austerlitz or covered a fight between two rattlesnakes in west Texas. We may never get to see another Herzegovinian corpse in our living room, even another well-informed piece of purchased British footage from the front at Sarajevo. And what with the constant threat that Donald Trump and Marla Maples could get married any day, we may never see another seven-second sound bite from the floor of the Senate.

The curious thing is that at a time when technology has given television immense new capabilities to bring the real nation and the real world into our living rooms, to film and transmit, often live, a huge new variety of action footage, to let the news tell itself, to present a broader, deeper message, it is instead the extraneous messenger's personality and celebrity which increasingly dominate network television news.

Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.

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