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As TV returns to a more normal state, what can we learn from its ability to thrive during pandemic? | COMMENTARY

Co-anchors Jason Newton and Mindy Basara shown back on WBAL-TV set this week. Photo: John Baldwin/Courtesy of WBAL
Co-anchors Jason Newton and Mindy Basara shown back on WBAL-TV set this week. Photo: John Baldwin/Courtesy of WBAL

It was a seemingly small moment in the 24 hour crush of information and analysis that makes up a normal day in the world of cable news. But it touched on something larger.

As the 2 p.m. hour opened Tuesday with co-anchors Victor Blackwell and Alisyn Camerota returning to the CNN Newsroom set and side-by-side seating, Camerota turned to Blackwell and said, “I just want to take a moment to say that you and I are on the same set within six feet of each other. It’s a new day here.”

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“Look at the vaccines working,” Blackwell replied.

It is a new day not just there, but in TV newsrooms around the country.

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WBAL-TV, the Hearst-owned NBC affiliate in Baltimore, brought its anchor teams back into the studio sitting side by side only a few weeks ago for all of its local newscasts, according to Dan Joerres, president and general manager of the station.

“The pandemic forced local TV operations to pivot in many different respects,” Joerres said. “We had to model safe behavior for the viewing public while keeping our employees safe as we covered and reported the news. That meant reporters needed to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines while out in the field and anchors needed to broadcast from different parts of the building often in special standup positions.”

Joerres said that for the last 15 months there were only about 12 persons in the WBAL broadcast building on TV Hill at any one time.

“We are just starting to get back to what it was like before the pandemic,” he added.

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The return to pre-pandemic behavior is happening not just in newsrooms, but also in offices, restaurants, movie theaters, basketball arenas, ballparks, golf courses and beaches as the nation eases back into life before COVID.

As much as the CNN moment was a snapshot of TV reflecting life, what is also made me think about was how adroitly TV had adapted to and then thrived during a pandemic that shut down so many other aspects of American culture and society for the past 15 months.

“TV is eternal,” I thought to myself, reflecting on the way the medium has defied both media and academic critics who labeled it a dinosaur and predicted its demise in the digital age decades ago.

Late-night studio shows had to abandon the theaters in which their shows were staged, show hosts and news crews had to leave their Manhattan stages from which their shows were broadcast, and prime-time series shut down production altogether.

Yet, when we turned on our TVs, there was almost always something worth watching. And it was at a time when many of us truly needed something to engage, entertain, amuse, inform or enlighten us as we were suddenly cut off from normal social connections of friends, co-workers and some family members by mandates against gatherings, travel, school, office and community life.

Yes, Stephen Colbert, who will return to the Ed Sullivan Theater with a full audience to tape his show starting June 14, was perhaps not as funny from his home as he was in the theater with a band on hand. And, no, some news programs did not feel quite like they were coming from the center of the media universe when you heard a dog barking in the background while an expert was being interviewed from her or his home.

But consider some of the outstanding programs from the last 15 months that TV delivered.

Think back to the uplifting way “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,” executive produced and hosted by LeBron James, spoke to the disappointment many high school graduates and their families felt in May 2020 as graduation arrived but COVID precautions shredded most of the rituals traditionally used to honor those who were to receive diplomas.

Zoom and the TV screen were merged to create a global choir of young graduates that celebrated diversity and helped generate a sense of community and joy at a time when many young people were feeling alone and even isolated by the restrictions needed to remain safe.

Since its earliest days in the 1950s, analysts hailed the new medium for its promised ability to bring us together. The metaphor they often used was an electronic campfire or hearth. I liked the electronic campfire with its suggestion of us coming together and celebrating our shared values like some of our ancestors might have done. But, sadly, the narrowcasting that arrived with cable TV as it matured in the 1980s has helped turn us into many little groups warring with one another. “Graduate Together” transcended that fragmentation as it realized the promise of the medium at a scary time in our lives.

Or, how about TV’s coverage of COVID and the 2020 presidential election while the pandemic raged through American life? I did not feel network and cable news coverage was any less intense than it was in previous elections as a result of limitations placed on journalists by the pandemic. Just because analysis often came from persons sitting in their homes didn’t make it any less informed. In fact, I would argue that stripping away the makeup, lights and glittery studio sets led to more focus on the content of what was being said rather than the cosmetics used to package it. To me, that’s a good thing.

As for coverage of the pandemic itself, I will never forget the reporting by CNN national correspondent Miguel Marquez and his team as the first U.S. journalists in emergency rooms and hospital COVID wards showing us the kind of horrific suffering and death the virus caused. This came at a time in March 2020 when some, including President Donald Trump, were characterizing the disease as being less dangerous than the flu. The sounds and images of those infected with the virus were a powerful and badly needed antidote to the dangerous disinformation coming from the White House.

Or, just think about the excellence of some of the prime-time entertainment programming that the medium produced and delivered during the last 15 months, like HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” which ended its seven-week run Sunday. I can’t think of many acting performances in recent years that were stronger than that of Kate Winslet as a small town detective trying to solve the murder of a young woman. Beyond the performances, the production captured with granular precision life as it is lived in many Rust Belt communities.

“The Underground Railroad,” a limited series streamed on Amazon, is a landmark re-examination of slavery and the Black experience in America. It is one the most sweeping and powerful screen productions in a decade.

Streamed content on outlets like Amazon or Netflix is still television to me. The same programming formulas are followed, such as sitcoms and dramas, and we still watch on screens in our homes, most often TV screens. The main difference is in the business model, which employs subscription fees. Streaming is TV adapted to the digital age by the culture companies that control both TV and streamed content.

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Adaptability, resilience, being nimble and the willingness to improvise are some of the lessons TV can teach us from the last 15 months. But there are deeper aspects of our relationships to the screen that bear further thought, such as how important those screens and the stories told on them have become to our lives.

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There is a reason TV viewing and streaming subscriptions soared during the pandemic. We relate to those screens in deep and fundamental ways. That’s about us, just as much or more than it is about TV. As our lives also go back to a more normal state, our relationships to the screen during the pandemic also seem worth a few moments of reflection.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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