The news: When scandal fails, television will need more than a News Bunny

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The Independent Culture
So the come back kid came back. The American mid-term elections are in their way a stunning story. But not, for television, as stunning a story as Bill Clinton's previous fall from grace.

While the news bulletins here gave adequate coverage to the election results, it was far less than they gave the various episodes of the Monica Lewinsky story. Power may be the great aphrodisiac, as Henry Kissinger said. But sex trumps politics. Even the most rapturous scenes of Democratic rejoicing on election night don't have the televisual appeal of a zaftig young woman throwing her arms round the President's neck with that special look.

In an intelligent two-way with Julia Somerville, ITN's authoritative Washington correspondent, James Mates, described clearly how this week's election results give a twist to the story that few anticipated until the last few days. So far from the scandal driving the election results, the election results may have damped down the scandal.

Others will be saying elsewhere in the paper what this means for American politics. What concerns us is what it says about the relationship between politics and television. Or rather, what it confirms. The people who control television news have decided that politics as we used to watch it has less and less appeal. And in their own terms, and on certain definitions of "politics", they are quite right.

The evidence of falling audiences for news bulletins is only part of the story. Television is impatient of detail, or impatient of all but the most dramatic and telling detail - the baby's shoe left behind after the earthquake. A new generation of viewers will be even more impatient of lengthy, complex explanations, of talking heads, of "issues". But democratic politics are inevitably about detail. They are complex. They consist, all too often, of middle-aged men talking about issues.

Now and then, traditional Westminster politics delivers just what television wants: the Falklands debate, Geoffrey Howe's assault on Margaret Thatcher, David Mellor's "up your hacienda, Jimmy!" or some other memorably raw confrontation.

Mostly, though, what has been served up as political television, is televisual death. And now we are barrelling into a multi-channel world where to be dull will be even more deadly. British television news is going to be in the position of a fairground barker desperately calling back an audience that is melting away. Certainly editors act as if that is what they feel. For them, Monica was a godsend.

Crime, too, is an easy alternative to being boring. In Britain, scarcely a night goes by without grim-faced police on screen quartering waste land in the hunt for some missing girl's body. Poor Ron Davies could never have got a hundredth of the coverage by being chief minister of Wales that be got by cottaging on the common, if that is what he did.

Many years ago, I wrote about the contrasting styles of the Republican and Democratic campaigns. I went first to the Republicans, sober men of business in those pre-Gingrich days. A nice man in a grey suit assured me that Republicans put the issues before the people as fairly as they could.

I went to the Democrats, and found the campaign director sitting on the floor with two good-looking women, all three splitting their sides as they inflated giant red-white and blue condoms inscribed "For maximum protection, Vote Johnson/Humphrey". The Democrats won, in a landslide.

We are all in greater or less degree voyeurs, all bored with the rituals and rhetoric of what we disparagingly call "Westminster politics". We will always want drama and scandal. But when scandal and drama fail, how will television news find new ways of bringing us real politics?

So far, innovation has been largely limited to such bold strokes as putting the female anchor in front of the desk. Wow! That journalistic genius, Kelvin McKenzie, came up with the news bunny, alternately bopping or cringing behind the news reader's back as the news was good or bad. Channel Four News broke new ground by explaining how the Bank of England had to get the policy mix just right by showing a plump actor in a shower with mixer taps: too cold, be shivered, too hot, he yelped.

If news is to grab and hold a new audience, such gimmicks won't do. The challenge is the same as for politicians: to find out what the new audience cares about. If the news barons can do that, the families of murdered girls can be left to grieve, and the occasional Monica or Ron will be sheer bonus. Aggressive reporting and determined investigation will be part of the winning formula. But the key will be to treat the viewers, not as "the punters out there", but with respect. For we have met the viewers, and they are us.

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