In this week’s New York Observer, Felix Gillette had an interesting article about the most recent —and most prominent— examples of news anchor off-camera meltdowns preserved on tape and served up for viewing across the universe.
On 14 May, Torrey Meeks, a young freelence writer and producer in Las Cruces spent a couple of hours working on a comic “dance remix” of the Bill O’Reilly blowup that had already achieved astronomical YouTube numbers. He posted it on YouTube with a link to his MySpace page and turned in for the night. Within thirty-six hours, Mr. Meeks’ 1:37 magnum opus —“Bill O’Reilly Flips Out — Dance Remix”— had received more than 600,000 hits. (It is now closing in on 850k and has spawned a mini-industry including soundtrack downloads and a t-shirt. The non-faint-hearted can watch it here.)
Misery loves company, and a few days earlier some of the heat had been taken off Mr. O’Reilly’s foul mouth when the veteran and venerable New York NBC News local anchor Sue Simmons dropped an f-bomb of her very own when she thought the audio was off (although unlike Mr. O’Reilly’s, which was accompanied by one of his legendary tantrums, Ms. Simmons’ was dropped placidly and in as ladylike a way as any f-bomb can be dropped).
These kinds of off-air and usually off-color moments used to be aired only on gag reels at a station’s staff Christmas party. But things are very different now:
…for those with a taste for the genre, it didn’t take long to realize that we are now living in a golden age of anchor meltdown.
Type “anchor” into YouTube and you can spend hours watching TV correspondents being heckled by drunken sports fans, walking into street signs, falling down snowy slopes, being bitten by animals, knocking laptops off desks, sputtering, cursing and falling off chairs.
Decades worth of material is free for the taking. Last week as the anchor-meltdown coverage had just started to gain steam, Richard Blakeley of Gawker composed a compilation video of them, which hit the Web on Tuesday, May 13, and with the help of links from Fark, Digg and the Drudge Report quickly stoked the interest in angry anchors into a full-blown frenzy.
The next day, page views on Gawker were the second-highest in the history of the site.
“Thank you, Sue Simmons and Bill O’Reilly,” wrote [Gawker editor] Nick Denton.
The golden days of anchordom are long past. I know Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams is no Tom Brokaw; and the ghouls continue the Couric countdown over at the Schadenfreude (formerly Tiffany) network. The internet is the great leveler and, as Mr. Gillette notes, posting these embarrassing videos is an act “typically infused with a populist undercurrent—a friendly reminder to the well-paid on-air talent that just because you have your head plastered on a billboard over the highway doesn’t mean you can’t, say, get bit by a snake on the morning show. And now that the populist undercurrent has taken over media completely—well, it’s not an undercurrent anymore, is it?”
Mr. Gillette wisely goes directly to the source and interviews Harry Shearer, the grandfather and godfather of raw footage. Mr. Shearer —a performer (Saturday Night Live), actor (Spinal Tap), voiceover king (The Simpsons), legendary radio host (Le Show), and proprietor of his own damn channel— has been collecting off-air snippets since the days when it required a dish the size of his house in his backyard and rooms full of reel-to-reel equipment.
Over the past two and a half decades, Mr. Shearer has become the Johnny Appleseed of unpolished anchor clips. How exactly he gets the material has always been something of a trade secret. But over the years, Mr. Shearer has incorporated unflattering footage of the likes of Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw into his public radio show, his comedy routines, even into museum exhibits.
The mission continues to this day. Recently, Mr. Shearer created a couple of massive hits on his Web site, My Damn Channel, by posting extended clips of Katie Couric waiting to go on the air, endlessly obsessing over her wardrobe, poking fun at Dan Rather and famously pondering Cindy McCain’s “husky” eyes.
Mr. Shearer said that the appeal of such footage had changed over the years. “When I first started airing … such footage of Peter, Tom and Dan, we were still living in an era when those guys were authority figures, an image much buffed and burnished by their networks,” Mr. Shearer explained. “What this kind of footage did was chip away at the statuary a bit, and demonstrate their lack of omniscience—my Jennings clip had him getting coaching from the crew on how the Constitution is amended. These days I think it’s become part of the larger phenomenon of celebrity inflation and deflation.”