1.08.2009

What It Takes To Look Like The Best...


A friend of a friend is a media insider who leaked that the recent layoffs at Gannett's NBC Affiliate WKYC Channel 3 are partially due to a decision to outsource all graphics and titling to a Nebraska company who specialized in the swirling whirling festival-of-graphics that has come to define television news.

I'm not a protectionist. Outsourcing doesn't seem inherently bad to me. And I admire the company who builds a focused niche specialization like this company in Nebraska seems to have done.

But I do think it's a shame that we're losing storyteller jobs to a state that's three states away from ours. And not even the storyteller jobs that should be far away (I'm thinking of National news or International news aggregators). But we've decided to pay specialists in Nebraska to design and package our stories for us. The stories that are supposed to be about our lives together here. Right? Because that's what local news is? Isn't it?

The most remarkable invisible factor in this shift isn't (to me) the technological wizardry of the internet and satellites that render the 850 miles between Cleveland, OH and Lincoln, NE irrelevant.

I don't think the most interesting invisible factor in this shift is media conglomeration and the inevitable vertical integration that follows (though that's all VERY interesting to me, and definitely at play in this story).

I don't even think that the most remarkable invisible factor at play is the deadly genius of Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor who made industrialization and specialization the definitive arts and sciences of the last century.

To me? The most remarkable invisible factor is upward mobility.

Seriously.

Keeping up with the Joneses. Looking professional. Putting on your best interview suit.

All these colloquial ways that we have of talking about what it is to desire to look and feel and be just a little more respectable than we suspect we actually are.

One of the first blog entries I wrote on the inbetween was about going to a little fundamentalist college that was trying to gussy up its frontis pieces and look a little bit more respectable. A little less Scopes Monkey Trial and Billy Sunday. A little more almost-ready-for-prime-time (or in this case the USNews College Rankings Issue).

Ironically, a few years later the little college where I teach now at has a new president who has similar (*ahem*)...commitments.

So far as I can tell, in the year and a half since he's arrived, he's most elated about a new college seal, a name change, a fancy new road, a new street address and...some benches that look more "collegiate."

This new president explained to the faculty body that the picnic tables we had been using for the last ten years to teach our classes, to gather with our colleagues for picnics, receptions and parties didn't actually look "collegiate." He assured us that the new benches he had personally ordered would look much more "collegiate." And that they would have the "curb appeal" that he was sure all of us valued.

The idea that there is some kind of measureable "collegiate" aesthetic that is singular, definitive and mass-recognizable amuses me. Not that I think he's wrong. In a culture where "Trading Spaces", "Pimp My Ride" and "American Chopper" have increasingly made acquisition, style and conformity the definitive characteristics of upward mobility, I'm sure that benches instead of picnic tables do conform to a sort of widely held, vaguely nostalgia tinged, ivy-league-aspiring notion of "collegiate"ness.

My friend Connie is preaching about a movement in the opposite direction. "A renaissance of the Small" she calls it. She has persuaded me.

That these small audiences. Small stories. Small dreams. Are worth our while. Maybe more worth our while.

The thing about titles and graphics in television news is that they are only one more instance of how our story telling has become so pervasively inflected by our desire to be aesthetically normative. To dream of the BigTime. So much larger than life. Our insatiable need to pimp ourselves in a kind of bland placeless accentless dialect that communicates our ability to see and mimic the ideals of our moment. To see and be just like something off of Madison Avenue or Rodeo Drive. Out of Hollywood or emerging from Broadway.

In such a world, of course our stories are going to be best packaged elsewhere. And our voices are going to sound increasingly similar.

The stories that dare to be small are not going to even catch our attention because we are so dizzy with trying to spot the upcoming trends and the Next. Big. Thing.

What does it take to look like the best? Ironically? It means looking like the rest. Which may not be exactly the way I want to look.

3 comments:

David Rudd said...

Ron Burgandy wouldn't stand for this. And he wouldn't sit on "collegiate" benches either.

Kristy O. said...

can i be more sad about the benches? i know they are only a *small* symbol of the over-reaching theme of this post, but i can't help but think that reading, sitting, talking, napping, cramming-right-before-class at those picnic tables were definitive of my "college experience". looks be damned.

Morisey said...

This is just one aspect of a post with much to think about, but I was at a SXSW film seminar when it struck me that the biggest bottleneck that keeps local and more intimate stories out of theaters is the distribution bottleneck. It's easier and easier to finish a film these days but distribution to theaters seems to be stuck in a national model. Austin is a little better off than other cities because of the festivals and what-not but I wish we didn't have to judge movies on whether they'd have national appeal. Trying to take both Texas and the Northeast into account when making marketing decisions helps encourage the fall to the lowest common denominator.

Hurray for small stories!