Stand-ups

A few weeks back I alluded in passing to my general contempt for the "stand-up" — a modern practice of TV "news reporting" where instead of actually showing you something revealing about a news story, the camera instead simply rests on the "on-air talent" while they stand in front of someplace where actual news and possibly reporting once took place (or maybe just nearby). This month's digitaljournalist has a story about one news shooter's experience doing stand-ups here in San Francisco. One local channel (probably others), our NBC affiliate, prides itself on LIVE stand-ups — each evening's 11 PM newscast is overloaded with reporters standing around in the cold night air, usually in front of a court building or other news-intensive locale that's been closed for five or six hours already.

It's hard to imagine the stand-up in any media other than television. Even the old movie newsreels didn't have it. The appearance and nightly re-appearance of the reporter-as-demi-celebrity is purely a television invention and it doesn't work anywhere else. No one writes a newspaper headline in first person. We don't open and close magazine stories with photos of the reporters and photographers. We don't care what they wear.

We don't see stand-ups much on non-western broadcasts, either — watching the edited daily feed from Arabic news TV, for example, we see coverage thankfully devoid of on-air "personality" and "talent." The camera does not linger on the correspondent's compassionate face as the actual subjects of news are speaking.

Only here, in the land where coverage of "Friends" is acceptable to the FCC as "news." The nightly presence of the good-looking non-participant celebrity is, in many ways, more important than the stories they cover. After all, the newscasts are almost identical from station to station — program managers know that on-air personality is the distinguishing feature that will give them differentiated market share. News Content is secondary.

In the earliest days of American movies, the producers tried to suppress the advent of recognizeable stars — they'd already seen the effects stardom had brought to live theatre, where shows could be labelled "BARRYMORE" across the top of the bill and you really didn't even know if old Maurice was doing Hamlet or some current melodrama. It didn't last, and before long we had the theatre folks moving in with America's Sweetheart and no looking back.

Today, when movie actors can be replaced with digital doubles with impressive fluidity, it's still the stars whose agents are pulling in a percentage of those eight-figure contracts plus points on gross. The artists and programmers who actually created every pixel? Salaried.

It's astounding to me how quick we are to attribute creativity to the face on the screen, even if that face's "owner" is actually absent. Years ago I tech-directed an animated music video for Mick Jagger. Within a day or two a review appeared in the supposedly media-savvy L.A. Times, praising Jagger for his skill as an animator. Urggg.

Games have seemed like a redoubt for animators — one really doesn't care that much about who supplies the voices for Unreal Tournament — Lara Croft and Gordon Freeman are "stars" whose incomes go back to the folks making the games, not toward building a grand house atop Mulholland for someone who only shows up for three weeks during a two-year production.

*BRRRZT!* Wrong answer. Thank you for playing. While franchises like DOOM and Half-Life keep moving, the gradual infestation of celebrity culture has been progressing steadily. At first it was sports figures, whose input might actually made some sense in evaluating game play, like Tony Hawk or Tiger Woods. When we play games like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter we expect to see the characters looking reasonably like the actors from those films. But now we have Vin Diesel telling the Wall Street Journal that he enjoys designing game levels, while The Olsen Twins are busy suing Acclaim for paying more attention to "boys' games" than to fine entertainments like Mary Kate and Ashley's Mystery Mall or Marty Kate and Ashley's Crush Course, where the goal of the game is to find out just who is admiring the adorably interchangeable celebrities.

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