Friday, November 25, 2005

DileMMa

OK, NBC, you can stop pretending the "Today" show is a news program now.

NBC did not interrupt its broadcast of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade yesterday to bring viewers the news that an M&M balloon had crashed into a light pole, injuring two sisters.

In fact, when the time came in the tightly scripted three-hour program for the M&Ms' appearance, NBC weaved in tape of the balloon crossing the finish line at last year's parade - even as the damaged balloon itself was being dragged from the accident scene. At 11:47 a.m., as an 11-year-old girl and her 26-year-old sister were being treated for injuries, the parade's on-air announcers - Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Al Roker - kept up their light-hearted repartee from Herald Square, where the parade ends.

Ten minutes later, the upbeat broadcast ended without mention of the accident in Times Square. CNN carried a flash about the accident at 11:51, while the parade telecast was still going on. NBC's cable news network, MSNBC, followed two minutes later. And WNBC, the New York affiliate, carried the news at 12:30 p.m.

But Cameron Blanchard, a spokeswoman for NBC's entertainment division, which broadcast the parade, said that the anchors did not deviate much from the script because it was not clear at the time what had happened. "We had been alerted that there had been an incident," she said. "But no further details had been conveyed to us."

When the balloon failed to arrive at Herald Square at the appointed time, she said, "we rolled with some previously recorded footage."

That said, the situation made for a jarring confluence of scripted and unscripted reality.

At 11:47 a.m., about 7 minutes after the accident, the screen image faded from live coverage of a high school marching band from Kennesaw, Ga., to last year's tape of the M&M balloon. Ms. Couric, advising the audience that it was now looking at old tape, riffed on the balloon's concept of M&M's in distress.

"Now, because of today's windy conditions," Ms. Couric told viewers, "these characters are on video, and if we told you they were not in a panic, we'd be full of hot air."

Ms. Blanchard said she did not know what the announcers knew about the accident at the time.

They knew that their job is to read the teleprompter and go to the bank. What else is there to know? But how responsible of perky, pleasant Katie to tell viewers they were looking at old tape. So what if she didn't explain the real reason why? People have stopped looking to Katie Couric and the "Today" gang for real news long ago. And it's time for NBC to admit as much. Just because the show occasionally cuts to an anchor to read headlines doesn't make it a news program. NFL halftime shows often include local news updates, but I'd hardly call an NFL halftime show a news program.

OK, the parade wasn't scripted reality on the White House level, but it used to be unacceptable for a news organization to alter reality at all -- newspapers don't even flop photos. It's a slippery slope, and the ride isn't much fun.

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