I’ve worked in three print, one newsagency and four television newsrooms over the past 46 years (subtract five as a teacher), and none was like The Newsroom of Aaron Sorkin, the HBO series now going to air on the new Foxtel channel, SoHo.
Okay, he does try hard to make it realistic, but if he ever captured the essence of a real newsroom, viewers would be turning off in droves … and ratings would plummet. And we all know what happens to a program that doesn’t rate – it gets axed.
Why? Well, real newsrooms can be exciting, but you don’t get a BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico every day, and when you do, you’re so busy, you don’t have time to go to the toilet (no, I’m not making that up. I wish I were!).
And viewers don’t want to know how difficult it is to put together an award-winning bulletin, or as Clive James put it in one of his wonderful early reviews, he didn’t want to know what problems the producer had putting the show to air, he only looked at what the viewers saw – the final product.
News anchor Will McAvoy’s new executive producer used to be his girlfriend, so we know right away this can’t be like real life. News presenters don’t have time for love affairs.
But Sorkin nails it when McAvoy comes back from holidays to discover his former deputy is leaving to do his own nightly news show, and taking Will’s staff with him. Anyone who has worked in television will know the surest way to get fired or lose your staff is to go on holidays … or in this case, to get a new EP without being told about it first … and then learn it’s your former lover.
Australian television has a litany of such incidents, where a new presenter replaces an older one (and usually they are old), who doesn’t find out about it until after it’s been revealed in the media. And when management says the presenter’s job is safe, that usually means it isn’t. Remember the “boning” of Jessica Rowe by Channel Nine in 2006. She thought she was safe, too. It’s almost as if television executives believe the only way to sack someone is to do it behind their backs. A strange tradition, but widely followed. The evidence is the jokes many people who have worked or are working in television make about the knife wounds in their backs.
Back to The Newsroom, where Will McAvoy blows a gasket when he finds out about his new EP, and we’ve already learned about his temper in the opening sequence as he takes strips off a uni student who dared ask him and fellow panellists at a journalism forum why America is the greatest country in the world. It isn’t, but it used to be, he tells the audience, adding a few “f” words to reinforce his rant, filled with facts to prove his point. (Maybe they should try this on Q & A! There’s also a sign in the audience which will be revealed later.)
Presenters do sometimes take it out on the staff, but the person on camera is the one who winds up with egg on his or her face, so you have to sympathise with them. Well, I did, and it didn’t help to get angry in a control room as it just made things worse. The love-hate relationship between Will McAvoy and his new EP (pictured above) would have driven the control room crazy!
So The Newsroom is not realistic; on the other hand, if you told the truth about how TV news gets to air, viewers wouldn’t believe it. That’s why I wrote a novel about television.
Yes, for regular readers, that’s the unpublished and thrice-rejected one – the one I keep rewriting and putting on hold, because I want it to be a good novel, and not just a tell-all about television.
At least Sorkin has written a series about television that actually got to air. That opening sequence with tracking shots around the forum and closeups of Will (played magnificently by Jeff Daniels) and the audience is fantastic, and sets the scene for the rest of first episode, which moves at a cracking pace. The triumphal music comes up at the end of his rant, and is played full volume under the wonderful opening titles with black and white stills of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite (including that famous shot of him taking off his glasses after announcing the death of JFK), and Chet Huntley, mixed with news bulletin graphics and crews — without whom none of this would happen. I’m hoping in future episodes, Sorkin will pay homage to the editors, the cameramen and women, the directors and their assistants, the technical staff, the graphic artists, the audio and lighting directors, the production assistants, master control, et al, as well as the presenters, producers and news directors because they are the ones who really deserve the credit. (And any future series of The Newsroom will have to take into account new technology, which will mean remote editing from newsrooms and the end of edit suites. Alas, poor edit suites, I knew them well.)
There were some nice touches, too. In every newsroom, there’s a bloke like Neal (played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel), who sits in front of his computer, stays on top of everything, and when something happens, he lets everybody know. He’s the unsung hero, the journo behind the scenes who, like those mentioned above, makes the newsroom work. He is usually underpaid and overworked, but loves his job. In this case, ironically, he happens to write Will’s blog (Will thinks he’s the IT guy, he doesn’t know he has a blog), but he won’t be doing that for long. This applies to women as well, like Maggie Jordan, the young assistant to the outgoing EP, Don Keefer, who also happens to be her boyfriend. She surprises everyone, especially Will McAvoy, by responding well under pressure in the climactic last minutes of the bulletin.
PUTTING A SHOW TO AIR IS FUN
Producing from a control room is fun, as long as things go well, as happens in the first episode of The Newsroom, with all the live crosses working, communication between the producer, presenter and the director and the d.a. and everyone else spot on (in the communications industry, that’s usually the first to go), and the bulletin coming out on time. Unlike The Newsroom, spontaneous applause seldom breaks out in a control room (in the ones I’ve worked in, there weren’t that many people!). You’re usually so exhausted, you collapse into the back of your chair, and think of that first beer. And if you’re working on a 24-hour news channel, you hope you have time to go to the toilet (again, I’m not making that up!).
But if it’s a good bulletin, and you’ve managed to break news and cover several live events simultaneously, the staff will tell the producer it was a good show, after he or she has told them the same thing and thanked them for doing the impossible, and says something like: “That was fun, let’s do it again next week (or tomorrow or later today, depending upon the kind of news show it is).”
So Sorkin’s The Newsroom telescoped all that monumental work into an hour bulletin, and Will McAvoy and his team were able to analyse and lay the blame for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on BP and Halliburton and got an inspector from the US Government’s Minerals Management Service to admit the first well he ever inspected — only 19 days previously — was the one that blew up. It actually took the head of a US presidential panel seven months before he laid blame on companies during hearings into the disaster http://bit.ly/c1DCym.
At the end of the bulletin, the newsroom applauds; and the Atlantis Cable News (ACN) news director, Charlie Skinner, (played well by Sam Waterson, except he was too nice) comes in with a bottle of scotch and has a cup (another nice touch, since it was labelled ACN) with Will, sharing this philosophy: “In the old days, or about ten minutes ago, we did news well. You know how? We just decided to.” The last four words are the title of this episode – of course.
Last but not least, since this is television drama and we must have a love interest, Mackenzie McHale (a role made for Emily Mortimer) has a gleam in her eye as it’s revealed she was in the audience at the journalism forum, with a sign that looked suspiciously like an autocue. Will McAvoy thought it was vertigo. Exit screen right.
If I worked in a newsroom like The Newsroom, I’d still be working. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist, except in Sorkin’s mind, the HBO series and the SoHo Channel.