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SitComs Not Always a Laughing Matter

9:32 am in Uncategorized by brasch

by Walter Brasch

 

My favorite new TV comedy is “Growing Up Fisher.”

Sitcom

Sitcom set

It’s the story of a blind lawyer, his 12-year-old son, a mid-teen daughter, and an ex-wife who is trying to return to her adolescent years. The show is based upon the experiences of D.J. Nash.

J.K. Simmons portrays Mel Fisher; for most of his life after he became blind at 12, he tried to make others believe he wasn’t blind. Jenna Elfman  is his ex-, Joyce Fisher, who extends the role she played on the hit series, “Dharma and Greg.”

Because television is a repetitive medium, “Growing Up Fisher” has the look and feel of “The Wonder Years,” complete with a love interest for its pre-teen child.” In this newer SitCom, instead of an older Kevin Arnold (voiced by Daniel Stern) narrating the story of his younger self (portrayed by Fred Savage), it’s an older Henry Fisher, narrated by Jason Bateman, who reflects upon his own younger self, portrayed by Eli Baker.

In “Growing Up Fisher,” as in “Dharma and Greg” and “The Wonder Years,” the father/husband is conservative and strait-laced; the wife is more of a free spirit,”  common in many comedies, including Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” which had a half-season run on ABC in 1970 after being a successful Broadway play and film.

The pilot of “The Wonder Years” aired on ABC following SuperBowl XXII; the pilot for “Growing Up Fisher” aired on NBC following the Olympics. Network executives counted on dragging the huge audiences into strong ratings for the neophyte comedies.

It’s not for the similarities I like “Growing Up Fisher.” Nor is it for the acting, directing, and writing, all of which are above average for a modern TV comedy. Or even because of Elvis, the Guide Dog. It’s because “Growing Up Fisher” doesn’t have an annoying laugh track.

Charley Douglass, a CBS-TV sound engineer invented the first laugh machine. Its purpose was to improve the studio audience laughs, some of which were raucous and too overbroad, some of which were far less than what the producers wanted. With the change from comedies airing live to the use of tape delay, post-production, including canned audience reaction, became critical for how the producers wanted audiences to perceive the finished product. Ever since the early 1950s, most TV comedies have used a laugh track, even when the show was “taped before a live audience.”  Eventually the Douglass “Laff Box” had more than 300 different canned laughs.

Instead of developing plot and character, many TV comedies are little more than a series of one-liners stuck together by writers and producers who are too young to know and appreciate the writing of James L. Brooks,  Sam Denoff, Larry Gelbart, David Isaacs, Ken Levine, Bill Persky, Carl Reiner, Gene Reynolds, and dozens of others who were craftsmen.  The laugh track now shows up every one or two lines, even if the line isn’t funny.  And it’s not just subtle laughter or mild chuckles. Even the lamest line gets an all-out decibel-popping presence.

The escalation of the laugh track has become the producers’ way to manipulate the audience to believe every word is a gem, every sentence uttered is golden. In the past few years, the laugh track has become invasive. On “Two and a Half Men,” a lame but popular rip-off of “Three’s Company,” and “2 Broke Girls,” both of which push sexual suggestiveness to the edge of lewdness, the laugh tracks make the shows almost unwatchable. They’re not the only ones.

At first, the insertion of canned laughter was non-intrusive. Some comedies, including “My Three Sons” and “The Brady Bunch” used less laughter; others pumped laughter at almost every line. Several comedies went without laugh tracks. NBC reluctantly dropped the laugh track mid-way through the second season on “The Monkees,” after all four actor-musicians demanded it, according to historian Paul Iverson. CBS had required “M*A*S*H” to use a laugh track, over the protests of its creators. However, as the comedy’s ratings and subsequent advertising revenue increased, CBS executives relented a bit—laugh tracks during scenes in the operating room were optional, and other laughter was toned down.

Almost none of the classic cartoons had laugh tracks; they didn’t need it—the audiences knew when and how to laugh, even if network business executives, few of whom were ever in the creative part of show business, didn’t.

Also not needing much “sweetening” are “The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report,” and the late night talk shows. Although all are taped a few hours before airing, live audiences provide the genuine laughter and applause, with the hosts reacting to it rather than delivering a line and waiting a couple of seconds to allow digital laughter to be inserted in post-production.

For “The Wonder Years” and “Growing Up Fisher,” which first aired more than two decades apart, the producers wisely decided that comedy, if good, will bring its own laughs; the merit of the show will rise or fall based upon writing, acting, and directing, not upon forced laughter.

[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, satirist, and author. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation into the process and effects of hydraulic horizontal fracturing.]
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Tragedy in the 24/7 News Media

7:02 am in Uncategorized by brasch

 

by Walter Brasch

CNN is the 24/7 media trumpet for news about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that is presumed to have crashed in the Southern Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia. On that flight were 227 passengers and 12 crew members.

CNN grabbed every iota of information, pumped it full of digital frequencies, and broadcast it to what it thought was a world salivating for every syllable of thought.
CNN Satellite News Truck - Atlanta
When there was news, CNN broadcast it. When there was no news, CNN broadcast it. When there were outrageous theories, CNN was the source to find out who was saying what. When there was a rumor, CNN broadcast that, only to have to retract it hours later. Through chatter and repetition, CNN kept the story alive.

This wasn’t the first time the media became fixated on a story. It certainly won’t be the last. There was non-stop coverage of the death of Princess Diana, the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials. Fox News grabbed onto Obamacare, President Obama’s alleged birth in Kenya, and the Benghazi story, even when the facts didn’t support its preconceived conclusions. More recently, MSNBC’s evening anchors have given non-stop wall-to-wall coverage of the Chris Christie “Bridgegate” story, another story that was hyped by constant repetition.

“All News-All Day” isn’t new. During the Yellow Journalism age and circulation wars in the late 19th century, media giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer often sent to press several editions a day. Hearst, whose jingoistic determination helped bring about the Spanish-American War in 1898, was not adverse to publishing as many as 30 editions a day to “update” his million subscribers and millions more readers of the New York Journal, all of whom were willing to pay three cents per edition to get even more news each day.

In the early 1960s, the radio medium developed all-news stations. However, the news package was often a prepackaged cycle that ran every seven, nine, 11, or 20 minutes, with new content every now and then.

The 24/7 news cycle, as we now know it, was initiated by CNN more than three decades ago, and became a necessary part of information dissemination during the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. CNN had correspondents in Baghdad; the coverage was critical in keeping Americans, especially family members of combat troops, informed of the reasons for the war and numerous issues that developed from that war, as well as hour-by-hour coverage of the war itself.

Since then, the CNN concept of all-day coverage, which had been spoofed and held as an example of what not to do in news, has been successfully copied by MSNBC, Fox News, other cable news operations, and dozens of web-only news-commentary operations.

Newspapers, which have often lagged in innovation, began to go 24/7 by a combination of once-a-day print production and continuous updates in their web editions. Reporters at one time wrote a story, turned it in to the “desk,” forgot it and went to other stories. Copyeditors often improved the story, gave it a headline, put it onto the page, and sent it to the “back shop” where it became a part of pre-press composition and the “press run.” However, in the “we want news right now—and make it short because we don’t have the attention span” world, reporters are writing the story for the print edition, while also recording it on cell phones and digital cameras, sometimes narrating the footage, for the web edition. If anything changes during the day, the reporter then spends the rest of the day juggling other stories and updates on the original story.

But there is a major problem when the media—print or visual—become fixated upon one story, such as Flight 370. Other stories are swept aside. The mudslide near Oso, Wash., that killed 30, with at least a dozen still missing, is one of those stories that should have dominated the news media. The cascade of a 600-foot hillside is the most deadly landslide in U.S. history. Yet, it was often the second or third story on evening news, behind what still wasn’t known about Flight 370.

Dozens of stories, both breaking news and features, could have—and should have—been written and broadcast. While local media did exemplary work in keeping the story fresh, the national news media—apparently believing Washington state is only on the fringe of the continental United States—gave significantly less coverage to the mudslide than to the missing flight or the latest Hollywood gossip.

Among stories that should have been reported, but were either given minimal coverage or shoved aside for the airline story, were reasons why the hill collapsed and the ecological and environmental harm it caused. There should have been stories about why the hillside wasn’t protected and the political reasons why. There should have been stories directed to people in other parts of the nation on how to protect yourself against various kinds of natural disasters. There should have been stories about the emergency management agency and its responsibilities, about the first responders and the 400 search and rescue workers, including their training, what they were doing, how they were doing it, and how they overcame innumerable problems. There were dozens of unreported stories about the work of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other social service agencies. There should have been extensive reporting about the psychological trauma affecting workers and residents. There should have been stories about the city itself, its businesses, and how they responded. There should have been stories about the effects of the mudslide upon the schools, and how the youth unselfishly helped. Yes, there were dozens of stories that could have, and should have, been reported to a national audience.

Both Flight 370 and the mudslide are tragedies. But, CNN was fixated on a missing airline, taking a few hours off to cover the Fort Hood shootings; Fox was fixated upon attacking President Obama; and MSNBC was fixated upon a New Jersey scandal.

Although those stories may be important, not one of them matter as much as what happened in Oso, Wash.

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and author. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation into the process and health and environmental effects of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to mine gas.]
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Delayed Deliveries Are Not a Crisis

9:26 am in Uncategorized by brasch

by Walter Brasch

 

It’s been about two weeks since the news media began smothering the nation with stories about UPS and FedEx delivering packages late during the holiday season.

A short shopping season of less than 30 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, combined with extraordinary numbers of deliveries and extreme weather problems caused thousands of packages not to be delivered by Christmas. For some media, this was the top story.

FedEx says it delivered more than 275 million packages in that one month period. UPS doesn’t say how many it delivered or how many were late. But it does say that if customers sent their packages by ground and hoped they would arrive by Christmas, the cut-off date was December 11. For air service, UPS temporarily added 29 planes to its fleet.

Understandably, there are several hundred thousand senders and receivers who are unhappy their packages were not delivered by Christmas. However, people got their gifts, even if a day or two late.

It doesn’t require myriad news stories, many of which led the nation’s TV news. It doesn’t require a U.S. senator to be indignant and demand that UPS and FedEx refund all costs for all packages.

A crisis is that more than 125,000 people in Michigan, New England, and parts of Canada suffered more than a week without electricity after a major storm took down power lines. Electric company employees, emergency management staffs, the Red Cross and other social service agencies worked with little sleep to help the people. A second storm this past weekend added to the myriad problems.

A crisis is that 25 have already died from effects of the storm.

A crisis is that more than a million are homeless, many of whom are still on the streets in bitter cold.

A crisis is that almost 50 million Americans, almost 17 million of them children, live in poverty.

A crisis is that Congress increased the federal minimum wage by only $2.10 an hour in the past 15 years, but in the past decade found enough tax funds to increase its own salaries $20,000 a year to its current $174,000 minimum plus expenses.

A crisis is that Congress abandoned its job and went home early without passing legislation to continue unemployment benefits for more than a million Americans who, even in an economy that is in recovery, still haven’t been able to find work.

A crisis is that this may be the least productive Congress in history—and that includes the “Do-Nothing Congress” that had infuriated Harry Truman in the late 1940s. By comparison, that Congress passed more than twice the number of bills than the current Congress, including legislation to create the Department of Defense and initiate the Marshall Plan to stimulate economic recovery to Europe after World War II.

A crisis is that this Congress, led by a minority of the minority party, succeeded in shutting down government, blocked critical judicial appointments, spent much of its time whining about the Affordable Care Act and brought up more than 40 votes, all of which failed, to repeal the Act. This is the same Act that had been passed by a previous Congress and ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court.

A crisis is that more than a year after the murders in Newtown, Conn., there have been more than 12,000 deaths by guns—and politicians are still swayed more by an affluent special interest lobby than by the people who elected them.

A crisis is that the nation’s infrastructure has deteriorated to a point that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave it a D+. More specifically, the ASCE gave grades of D-, D, or D+ to the nation’s dams and levees, inland waterways, drinking water quality, hazardous waste systems, roads, transit systems, airports, school facilities, electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems. Only bridges, ports, and railroads received C ratings.

The only bright spot is solid waste recycling improved to a B-. If anyone is to blame for the nation’s below-average performance it’s the elected politicians who decided they didn’t want to raise taxes to take care of the nation in order to appear to be fiscal conservatives, but spend lavishly on junkets and pet projects that only special interests that dribble campaign funds care about.

These are crises.

A late Christmas gift, while annoying, isn’t. Read the rest of this entry →

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Depth Takes a Holiday in Mass Media

2:35 pm in Uncategorized by brasch

by Walter Brasch

 

The mass media have a fixation upon throwing up lists.

Sports editors run innumerable lists of the “Top 10” high school and college teams.

Arts and entertainment editors run lists of the top books, movies, songs, and even video games.

Financial and business editors tell us who they believe are the “most important” moguls, and rank each on a scale that has no meaning to anyone, especially the moguls themselves.

Fashion editors love making lists of “best dressed” and “worst dressed” celebrities.

News editors love making end-of-the-year lists of the “Top 10 Headlines.” Like the other editors, they don’t tell us why their pick of the top news story was more important than the No. 2 story—or why the No. 10 story was any more important than the thousands that did not make the list.

TV Guide also loves lists. This month, it threw out a list of what some of their editors irrationally believe are the “60 Greatest Shows on Earth,” complete with a sentence describing each show. And, like most lists, it’s little more than annoying static.

The top three shows, according to TV Guide, are “The Sopranos,” “Seinfeld,” and “I Love Lucy.” Squeezing into the list at the bottom are “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “The Good Wife,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” In between—and completely without any logic, except for the editors’ over-ripe egos that they actually know something—are numerous shows, some great, some better than mediocre. For instance, “Saturday Night Live,” which believes stretching out a good one minute comedy sketch to five minutes makes it five times better, is the 18th best “greatest show on earth.” The editors, who seem to be in a time warp that left them in junior high, placed “SNL” above “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (no. 20), “The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson” (no. 22), “Friends” (no. 28), “Taxi” (no. 35), “Barney Miller” (no. 46), “The Bob Newhart Show” (no. 49), and “The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart” (no. 53.) No one at TV Guide can explain how “The Daily Show” was 35 places below “SNL” or why “The Colbert Report” never made the list. The editors also didn’t explain how “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” by all accounts one of the best comedies on TV, was rated no. 7, while Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” a 90-minute live comedy show in the early 1950s that exposed America to the acting and writing talents of Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Howard Morris and dozens of others, was 37th on the list, 19 below “SNL,” which should have used the Sid Caesar show—or even its own first half-dozen years—as models of comedic genius. Missing from the list of the “60 Greatest” is “The Tonight Show, with Steve Allen,” which established the standard by which all other late night show operate.

“60 Minutes,” which has often been the top-rated show, made the list at no. 24. But, “See It Now,” with Edward R. Murrow, one of the nation’s most important and influential journalists, did not make the list, an oversight that could be attributed to the fact that TV Guide editors probably slept through most of their college journalism lectures, days after their after drug-induced high while watching “SNL.”

“Sesame Street” made the list, but “The Muppet Show” did not, nor did “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Captain Kangaroo,” “Howdy Doody Time,” “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” and the pioneering, “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” from the 1940s.

Soupy Sales, who showed how to reach two different audiences—youth and adults with the same gags—isn’t on the list, possibly because his humor was more sophisticated than some of the mindless prattle of “SNL.”

Also missing from the “60 greatest” list—and indicative of TV Guide’s lack of understanding that America extends beyond the polluted Hudson River— is “NCIS.” TV Guide editors freely mark the best prime time shows to watch each day; they usually don’t give “NCIS” that distinction. Only in the past couple of years, exhausted by seeing “NCIS” at the top of the ratings week after week, have they published major features about “NCIS,” while constantly gushing over shows and stars that have no chance of lasting a decade in prime time.

For 10 years, the actors and crew of TV’s most-watched show have just done their jobs, and they have done it well.  Every actor is someone who could be on Broadway or handle a major film role.

The writing on “NCIS” is fast-paced and thought-provoking, wringing emotion from its 20 million viewers each week. Unlike many procedural dramas, this CBS show’s writers layer a fine coat of humor that is far better than what passes as half-hour sitcoms these days.

The production values exceed most other shows—from lighting to camera movement to even prop placement. The behind-the-scenes crew may be among the best professionals in the industry.

Behind the scenes, the cast and crew are family. They work together. They care about each other. Numerous shows claim this is true with them. But, the reality is their claims are little more than PR sludge. With “NCIS,” the claims are true.

There are no scandals and there doesn’t seem to be much ego among the actors.

In 11 seasons, Mark Harmon, who can evoke an emotion in the audience merely by a slight look and no words, has never been nominated for an Emmy. As every good actor knows, true acting is when people don’t know you’re acting.

Portraying the fine nuances of a character is a quality that sustained James Garner’s career for five decades. Like Mark Harmon, Garner never won an Emmy, and his popular show, “The Rockford Files” never made it to TV Guide’s “60 Greatest” splash of nonsense.

Mark Harmon and James Garner, both masters of their craft, may not even care they’ve never won an Emmy. They, like millions of us already know, a spot on TV Guide’s “60 greatest shows on earth” is not the recognition they crave – but probably deserve.

[Dr. Brasch, a journalist four decades, is also a media analyst and critic. He is also the author of 18 books, most fusing history with contemporary social issues. His latest in Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation not only of the economics, environmental, and health impact of fracking in the country, but also the Collusion between the oil/gas lobby and the nation’s politicians.]

by brasch

Government Should Not Define What a Reporter Is – or Isn’t

6:13 pm in Uncategorized by brasch

Sen. Diane Feinstein and a horde of members of Congress of both parties want to decide who is and who isn’t a reporter. Sen. Feinstein says a “real” reporter is a “salaried agent of a media company.”

aka Silence Do-Good

She mentions the usual suspects—New York Times, ABC News. She dismisses part-time staff. She dismisses freelancers. She dismisses those who write, often without pay, for the hundreds of alternative publications, and often break news and investigative stories well ahead of the mainstream media. She dismisses anyone who, she says, “have no professional qualifications.”

The reason she wants to define what a reporter is or isn’t is because there’s a federal Media Shield Law that protects reporters from revealing their sources. She wants to amend that to take away existing First Amendment protections from anyone not involved in—apparently—salaried establishment media.

There are people who have minimal qualifications to be a reporter. Many write nothing but screeds. Many have problems with basic language skills. Many have little familiarity with the AP Style Book. Many have an inability to ask probing questions of government officials; many merely transcribe what they’re told, whether from the president, a council member, or a local reader who is the focus of a feature. Some of them are paid salaries and are agents of media companies, which Sen. Feinstein believes are acceptable requirements.

There are also those who frequently allow “deep background” and “off-the-record” comments. Many news media won’t allow sources to go “off-the-record.” If the information isn’t available to the general public, it shouldn’t be available only to reporters. Access to news sources is something reporters enjoy that the average reader doesn’t; but there is a responsibility to the reader and viewer and listener not to hide information.

There are those who overuse the “veiled news source,” which is a part of the Shield Law. A veiled news source could be someone whom the reporter identifies as, “Sources close to the Governor state . . .” Often, the reporter doesn’t question a source’s motives for why she or he wants to give anonymous information, or if it is merely a “trial balloon” to use the media to put out information; if the people agree, sources become identified; if the public disagrees with a proposal, no one traces the “leak” to politicians or their staffs.

On more than a few occasions, reporters—whether “salaried agents” of a media company, part-timers for that company or for any of thousands of alternative publications or electronic media, or freelancers—have filled in holes in their stories with false identities—“A 55-year-old housewife in Podunka, who asked not to be identified, says . . . ” Good reporters seldom  use a veiled news source and then have to protect them should there be a court order to divulge the source of information.

On rare occasions, however, a reporter, in consultation with an editor, will allow a news source to be anonymous. Granting veiled news source status should not be given unless a source’s information and identity puts her or him into significant personal jeopardy—and the information can be verified.

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The Fluff Factor: Today’s Journalism

7:13 am in Uncategorized by brasch

by WALTER BRASCH

Marshmallow Fluff

(Photo: Mr T in DC/flickr)

Will someone please buy gags for Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford?

It makes no difference what the color is.

Plain or polka-dotted.

Painted or sequined.

Scented silk, Egyptian cotton, or an auto mechanic’s oil-soaked rag. Just as long as it can be stuffed into their mouths.

When their mouths are open, the personality-drenched hosts of NBC’s fourth hour of “Today” are swilling cocktails, blathering about themselves, or interrupting their guests.

It makes no difference who the guest is. Cookbook or romance author. Relationships or nutrition expert. A-list actors. No one gets more than a couple of seconds without cross-talk with one or both of the hosts. They may think it’s funny. Or, maybe, like authors who are sometimes paid by word, or doctors who are given bonuses for scheduling myriad lab tests, these babblers have to justify their seven-figure annual incomes by the jabber rate of words per minute. It may be time for NBC to move all four hours of the “Today” show from the news division into the entertainment division.

Almost as bad as the GabFest at 10 a.m. is what has happened to news shows. At one time, news anchors, assisted by newswriters and producers, went into the field, got the news, wrote it, edited it, and then broadcast it. They sat in anchor chairs because they were excellent journalists. But broadcast journalism—and those two words should seldom be put next to each other in the same sentence—with a few network and regional exemptions devolved into yet another mess of Reality TV.

The co-hosts, known as anchors, are usually a tandem of a wise middle-aged older man and his pretend trophy wife, both of whom spend more time in Make-up and Hair Dressing than they ever spent in journalism classes. Their reporters and correspondents may have studied journalism in college, but their interests were undoubtedly more focused upon voice quality, delivery, and personality than source building, probing, and fact checking.

On air, the anchors open with something serious. A fire. A mugging. A supermarket opening, reported by freshly-scrubbed 20-ish field reporters and recorded by videographers with digital cameras and almost no knowledge of what video is. In all fairness, it’s hard to know what videotape is when your best friend is an iPad.

If a story doesn’t have a “visual,” it probably won’t air. That’s one of the reasons why stories about the foolishness of state legislatures aren’t broadcast. The other reason may be that Public Affairs Journalism isn’t usually a required course for college students majoring in Broadcast Journalism. By the end of the first news block, the co-hosts lighten up. Coming back from commercials—there are eight minutes of them in a 30-minute news cast—the co-hosts may have more news or a script that directs them to “throw it to Weather.”
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Fewer Words; Less Filling

9:31 am in Uncategorized by brasch

                        

                                                              by WALTER  BRASCH 

The Reduced Shakespeare Co. cleverly and humorously abridges all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays to 97 minutes. Short of having a set of Cliff’s Notes or a collection of Classic Comics, sources of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, it may be the least painful way to “learn” Shakespeare. The critically-acclaimed show, in addition to being a delightful way to spend part of an evening, is a satiric slap upside the head of the mass media.

The condensation of the media may have begun in 1922 with the founding of Reader’s Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 17 million world-wide subscribers happy by a combination of original reporting and mulching articles from other magazines. Books also aren’t safe.

For more than six decades, Digest editors have been grinding four books into the space of one, calling them “condensed” or “selected,” and selling them by subscription to people with limited attention spans. These are the people who actively participate in society’s more meaningful activities, such as watching Snooki and JWoww on “Jersey Shore” or swapping lies with the gentrified folk at the country club. However, most media condense life to save money and improve corporate profits.

Book publishers routinely order authors to reduce the number of manuscript pages, saving production and distribution costs. The printed book will always have a place, but publishers are now deleting print production and putting their books onto Kindle and Nook, reducing page size to a couple of sizes smaller than the first TV screens. Because reading takes time, and time needs to be abbreviated for the MTV Go-Go Generation, chapters are shorter, and book length has been further reduced to adapt to e-book format.

Movie industry executives, eyes focused upon their wall safes, dictate shorter films, with more “action-paced” scene changes, an acknowledgement that Americans need constant stimulation. It isn’t uncommon for writers, faced by corporate demands to reduce the length of a screenplay, to indiscriminately rip out three or four pages in protest, only to find that the corporate suits instead of being appalled are, in fact, pleased.

Scripted half-hour TV shows were once 26 minutes, with four minutes for promotions and commercials. Now, the average half-hour show is 22 minutes; the average hour show is about 45 minutes, with at least two sub-plots because producers believe viewers don’t have the attention spans to follow only one plot line.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves usually top out at 90 seconds, about 100–150 words. An entire newscast usually has fewer words than the average newspaper front page.

An exception is the music industry. At one time, popular songs were two to three minutes, some of it because of the technological limits of recordings. During the past two decades, with the development of digital media, pop music has crept past four minutes average. The downside, however, is that writers are taking the same cutesy phrases and subjecting listeners to nauseous repetition.

Long-form journalism, which includes major features and in-depth investigations that can often run 3,000 or more words, has largely been replaced by short-form news snippets, best represented by Maxim and USA Today.

USA Today condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today’s format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories. Thirty column inches maximum per news story, with 12 to 15 inches preferred, is a common measure.

When the newspaper industry was routinely pulling in about 20–30 percent annual profits, the highest of any industry, publishers were routinely delusional, believing that was the way it was supposed to be and would always be. Instead of improving work conditions and content, they increased shareholder dividends and executive bonuses. When advertising and circulation began to drop, they made numerous changes to keep those inflated profits.

Publishers downsized the quality, weight, and size of paper. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches. Newspaper page width has dropped to 11–12 inches, from almost 15-1/2 inches during the 1950s.

Faced by advertising and circulation freefall the past decade, publishers cut back the number of pages. More significantly, they began a systematic decimation of the editorial staff, cutting reporters and editors.

Faced by heavier workloads and tight deadlines, many reporters merely dump their notebooks into type, rather than craft them and then submit the story to a copyeditor to fine tune it so it is tight, has no holes, and no conflicting data. In the downsized newspaper economy, stories often pass from reporter to a quick scan by an editor and then into a pre-determined layout, all of it designed to cause fewer problems for overworked editors.

The solution to the “newspaper-in-crisis” wailing, with innumerable predictions that print newspapers will soon be as dead as the trees that give them nourishment, may not be in cutting staff, and replacing the news product with fluff and syndicated stories that fill pages, but are available on hundreds of websites, but in giving readers more. More reporters. More stories. And, most of all, more in-depth coverage of local people and issues, with each article well-reported, well-written, and well-edited.

[In a 40-year career in journalism, Walter Brasch has been an award-winning  newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, syndicated columnist, multimedia and TV writer-producer, and tenured full professor of mass communications. He says he’ll keep doing journalism until he gets it right. His current book, BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW, is an autobiographical mystery novel that includes a number of media observations.]