In News Ratings Game, Giant Yap Closes the Gap

In television news, as in life, the most successful people are often the ones who never seem to shut up.

In television news, as in life, the most successful people are often the ones who never seem to shut up.

For example, Al Roker.

“So you’re saying the brown waffles are better,” Mr. Roker asked a nutritionist who was trying to explain the health benefits of whole grains to six million Today show viewers on April 14. For four minutes at the bottom of the 7 o’clock hour, the poor woman chuckled along while Mr. Roker turned her service segment into a jaunty racial parody. “The browner, the better,” he burlesqued, to laughs all around.

The word for that magical bit of morning programming is “banter.” Known alternately within the industry as “anchor rapport” and “unscripted dialoguing,” it is a highly valued and often overlooked skill in television news. Anyone can read a leaden headline. Precious few can alchemize that headline into non-news gold.

“These shows are gestalt in excess,” said Steve Friedman, the executive in charge of cbs’s Early Show, which he helped create, and a two-time former executive producer of NBC’s Today. “People who say they remember the good old days of ‘All news, all the time’ don’t remember what was actually done.”

Much ink has been spilled recently on the subject of seriousness: whether she has it, where she’s taking it if she does, and whether she can convince viewers she’s got it once she gets there.

But as internal network polling and industry wisdom suggest, good banter is far more likely to draw and hold viewers than experience, authority or the much-vaunted-of-late “hard-news chops.” (We demur to discuss “gravitas” further in this space.)

The weighty stuff certainly has its place. But it is the ability to carry on essentially meaningless conversation at interminable length and with immeasurable frequency that can really propel a person to stardom in broadcast news.

Edward R. Murrow chatted with his correspondents long before Bob Schieffer got credit for the innovation on the CBS Evening News. David Garroway would vamp with jazz musicians in the earliest days of Today. Syndicated news and chat programs took the cue and have made a mint with marginally clever repartee over the last two decades. Bad banter, meanwhile, has lost money and stalled careers. Mariette Hartley and Rolland Smith—she an actress, he a newsman—torpedoed on CBS’s morning show when they hosted it in the 1980’s because the two were not inclined to talk. Rumor had it that Connie Chung’s reluctance to banter got her booted as a fill-in anchor on the Bryant Gumbel era of Today.

“I think of it like hacky sack,” said Carl Quintanilla, the NBC correspondent who co-hosts three hours of live business analysis every day on the CNBC show Squawk Box.

Carl: Thinkfast!

“The ball, if you’re not careful, it will hit the ground. So you gotta get your foot up quick. There’s always that split second where, if you miss, if you’re not as reactive as you could possibly be, the ball will hit the ground.”

BANTER CAN BE SUBSTANTIVE, or so devoid of substance as to effectively erase the news value of whatever headline liminally provoked it. It can be funny. It can be somber. It can be inadvertently revealing. The conventional wisdom inside news organizations is that it can be anything except: forced, elite, scripted-seeming, insidery or slow-witted.

You will never hear—not now, nor when she brings her gifts to the CBS Evening News—Katie Couric bantering about the $6 million house she is reportedly looking to purchase in the Hamptons, for example. Or Diane Sawyer telling a joke she heard from her doorman on Fifth Avenue on the way out of the house with hubby Mike Nichols.

As with anything in television, opinions diverge on how best to orchestrate the effortless-seeming banter that has become a feature on most morning news and cable shows. What no one suggests, however, is that the process is effortless.

On one end of the spectrum is Jim Bell, the executive producer of Today, who believes good banter is all in the hiring. His network just plunked down $10 million a year to bring Meredith Vieira, currently of ABC’s The View, to replace Ms. Couric, and another $13 million a year to hold on to Matt Lauer through 2011.

At the April 6 press conference announcing Ms. Vieira’s hiring, NBC president Jeff Zucker sat in a high chair next to the stepmother of America’s first family as she needled Mr. Lauer and said words like “orgasm” without sounding lewd. Ms. Vieira has been lauded for her journalistic accomplishments, including her work as the first woman correspondent on 60 Minutes, and this is due praise.

But by the way Mr. Zucker was nodding as she talked about their first meeting in the back of his car (titter!), the message was clear: NBC just bought itself some banter.

“Bob Costas used to say: In a one-hour football pregame show, if everything broke—the feeds for the guests, the remotes, the cameras, the tapes we were supposed to run—if everything stopped working and you just had a camera and a microphone, would you have a show? If you do—and I think we would—then you’re golden,” Mr. Bell said.

Do banterers have to like each other?

“I don’t think it hurts,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s necessary.”

It is just one part of a multi-faceted show, said Mr. Bell—a big part, certainly, “but I don’t have a mathematical breakdown.”

Mr. Friedman, on the other hand, does. He helped invent modern televised banter when he created the Today show’s outdoor Rockefeller Center set in 1993, where Mr. Roker and Co. now repair periodically to yammer with their sign-wielding fans.

“This is not the Joe Friday–Dragnet school of television,” he said. “You’ve got to have personality to make it in morning news.”

Mr. Friedman’s plan for moving the distant-third Early Show up in the ratings features copious banter—or, as he calls it, improving the program’s “talkability quotient.” He said he has a series of stunts planned for June, including one where the anchors switch jobs with their spouses and as-yet-unscripted hilarity ensues. (Incidentally, one of those anchors, Julie Chen, happens to be the spouse of Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS. Mr. Friedman said that Mr. Moonves hasn’t committed to the switcheroo, but one imagines the former actor to be quite adept at chitchat.)

Mr. Friedman is of the school that believes in partially planned banter.

“What you try to do is, you try to be loose enough that if they feel they need to do it, they can—but tight enough that you don’t depend on it to fill the time,” he said. “You never want to be in the position of saying, ‘O.K., at 7:51, we’re gonna have two minutes of banter.’”

Which is what they do, to ample if second-place ratings, at ABC’s Good Morning America. That show’s producers regularly schedule in time for a “water-cooler chat,” which is another way of saying “talkability quotient,” which is another way of saying “several minutes of viewer-engaging banalities.”

On the opposite end of the banter-theorizing spectrum, 180 degrees away from Mr. Bell at NBC, is the vast world of cable news. Equipped with the same dozen or so headlines but a luxurious 24 hours over which to read, analyze, reformulate and contextualize them, cable news has revolutionized the art of banter for the 21st century. Perhaps nowhere is this more in evidence than on Fox News Channel’s morning show Fox and Friends, which is about 98 percent banter to 2 percent news.

“It may look to the viewer as if it’s totally off the cuff and we’re just yakking about whatever comes to mind,” said David Clark, the show’s executive producer. “That is far from the case.”

Mr. Clark’s staff and anchors spend hours each morning poring over the day’s stories and working up “talking points” for the top and bottom of every hour. The whole process is highly intellectualized and extremely labor-intensive. “The point is to make it look easy,” he said. “You don’t want to make it look as if you’ve got everything down to the last detail.” Even if you do.

Mr. Clark said that he’s watched the networks try to ape this viewer-ingratiating tactic, expanding the time they spend on banter and reducing the time devoted to serious news. Indeed, banter is often what critics cite when they accuse television news—both cable and broadcast—for polluting substance with fluff. What do the medium’s most accomplished practitioners have to say about that?

“TV news has gone where the audience is,” said Joe Kernen, a former Wall Street broker and another anchor of CNBC’s Squawk Box. “You can see what’s happened to mainstream news, even nightly news. Theatrics have seeped into all news. That’s where ratings are. This is not the Red Cross. We’re in a business here.

In News Ratings Game,  Giant Yap Closes the Gap