On the Media: KCET still delivers the news — or does it?
KCET’s daring and possibly foolish flight away from the PBS network has been in force only since New Year’s Day, but it doesn’t seem too early to guess that one program in the station’s new lineup will not win a lot of fans.
“Newsline” takes the place of the dependable and time-tested “NewsHour,” the staple nightly news program that public television viewers see as the civilized antidote to the loud and contentious world of cable TV.
Now, KCET viewers get half an hour of “Newsline” and half an hour of “BBC World News.” There’s nothing at all wrong with the former, at least if you’re a resident of Asia or a swath of the western Pacific, or if you have a particular fascination with traditional Korean wedding ceremonies, the finer points of conveyor-belt sushi, Japanese trade policy or men in diapers wrestling over a large ball.
That’s a partial roster of the stories that arrived, front and center, on the news program Monday, the first weeknight of regular programming since KCET unveiled its post-PBS lineup. The longtime Los Angeles flagship for PBS announced last year that it would leave the public TV network in a dispute over about $7 million in annual dues.
Most PBS programs migrated to Orange County-based KOCE on Jan. 1. The bosses at KCET in Los Angeles, meanwhile, have constructed an alternative that is long on foreign imports, travel shows, cooking programs and British comedy and drama.
It’s one thing to ask audiences to watch English crime dramas from a decade or two ago. At least “Prime Suspect” (Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on KCET) offers a track record of rave reviews and a tough, sexy Helen Mirren early in her prime.
Much more difficult will be the station’s attempt to fob off Asia- and Euro-centric news of the day on an audience that may be interested in a worldwide reach, but would much prefer it delivered by known personalities.
We can all use an occasional view of the news as it appears from other points of view. And, to be sure, there are nearly 5 million people of Asian descent in California. But “Newsline,” from Japan’s NHK network, forces a form of total foreign immersion — with a Japan-based anchor introducing stories and pitching to correspondents who tailor their stories for audiences much closer to home.
The problem is not language, at least entirely. “Newsline” anchor Yuko Fukushima could give English lessons to a few news anchors here in L.A. But some of the NHK program’s correspondents are not so facile — sounding like they are reading phonetically from flash cards.
Monday’s news (airing in its regular 6 and 11 p.m. time slots) opened with a series of stories related to North Korea’s shelling of South Korea and the tensions it has caused in the region. Fair enough. But the piece focused on defense ministers from South Korea and Japan, with the implications for the rest of the world only implied. A story on WikiLeaks centered on a Japanese whaling dispute, not the much more dramatic revelations found in other cables released by the controversial website.
“Newsline” felt even more provincial when it ventured from news into feature reporting. The show devoted four minutes to couples opting for traditional wedding garb and ceremonies in South Korea. That revelation arrived as a bit of a non sequitur, unless you knew (or cared) that weddings previously had been trending in a more Western direction.
The script for the story on sushi conveyors might as well have been written by the manufacturer. While Japanese-style Muzak set the promotional mood, a reporter plumbed every detail of moving raw fish through a restaurant. We learn, importantly, that “the optimum distance between the conveyor and the table was finally determined after trying many different combinations.” Domo arigato. But does anyone other than a sushi master really care?
Like most everything on Monday’s “Newsline,” the weather report began in Asia. We learned about rain and snow sweeping Mongolia and eastern China, before getting a quick once-over on weather events on our own shores. In a further disconnect, all temperatures arrive in celsius, with precipitation rendered in millimeters.
The show closed with a series of bits on New Year’s celebrations in Japan. That included footage of traditional puppets being used to ladle sake to celebrants. Then the bit about the shirtless, diapered men. A few hundred of them appeared at a 2011 rite, wading into water and passing each other a “sacred wooden ball.” A touch of the sphere is believed to confer good luck in the New Year.
That night’s “NewsHour,” airing on KOCE (newly dubbed PBS SoCal), meanwhile, spent the same hour breaking down stories that seemed a bit more pressing on this side of the International Dateline. One looked at how new governors in California, New York and Ohio will deal with hopelessly unbalanced budgets. Another wondered whether Facebook’s recent $50-billion valuation is really warranted. Other pieces analyzed how society will cope with the baby boomers’ retirement years and what college graduates are doing to weather the abysmal job market.
KCET viewers heard a faint echo of domestic news on the “BBC World News” broadcast. But the stories could not escape their distinctly foreign origin — news delivered, at arms length, about a far off, exotic place. The reporter covering the gubernatorial inauguration in Sacramento, for instance, offered a hackneyed metaphor about the transition from Arnold Schwarzenegger, “the fading star,” to Jerry Brown, “the new leading man.”
It’s no wonder that KCET’s promotions for its current-affairs lineup focus closer to home. The station has been touting the numerous awards won by its primary home production, the news magazine “SoCal Connected.”
A press release Tuesday announced that the news magazine would partner with American Public Media’s radio show “Marketplace” on a program about the housing crisis. The show will look at one home locally and how it and its owners have coped through boom, bust and foreclosure. The show, “Lot 354: A Tale of America’s Housing Meltdown,” will premiere on “SoCal Connected” and public radio’s “Marketplace” on Jan. 13.
That kind of collaboration holds out some promise for KCET. Maybe station execs should also try passing that sacred wooden ball.
In the meantime, viewers will be reaching for the remote control for a more consistent, comprehensive look at national and foreign news.