Struggling to put a brain to a face

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The Independent Culture

Thomas Sutcliffe

"When I started, our economic equals were policemen, firemen and city clerks," said Walter Cronkite in Naked News (C4). "And that didn't do us any harm at all." These days news anchors don't have many economic equals - the odd oil sheik perhaps, or Bill Gates. Top performers will be earning around $8 million a year and this awesome salary is commanded not by any special sagacity or judgement. "An anchor is just someone who sits at a desk and reads off a teleprompt - it's hardly a job for a grownup," said Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes and a mordant presence in Nicholas Kent's fascinating film.

I have to report that, notwithstanding Hewitt's distinguished record in American television journalism, his remarks may not be entirely disinterested. I couldn't help noticing that you can't see his top teeth, and this rules him out as a potential anchor. Richard Leidner, the leading agent for newsreaders, explained: "If you have an upper lip that totally covers your upper teeth I'm gonna be very uncomfortable with that kind of feature". And if Mr Leidner is unhappy, you might as well resign yourself to reading out feed prices in Cowchip, Indiana.

If, on the other hand, you have the dentition of a chipmunk and the eyes of a newborn calf, then the world is yours, or at the very least the potential of a job in Los Angeles, the hottest market for television news in America. Naked News shrewdly didn't start there, but out in the farmland of Pennsylvania where Fox was launching a new news programme and Donya Archer was starting her long march westwards. Donya, who's recently been signed by Mr Leidner, gave you access to the world of anchor consultancy, in which ambitious young people are trained to expunge every last trace of individuality from their person. The vacant space is then filled with a synthetic alternative, specially formulated to twinkle beneath the television lights.

Kent's film implied, by means of a slightly fudged non sequitur, that the anchors' rise in the celebrity was to blame for the degradation of television news values. But despite the fact that their huge salaries drain programmes of resources, it seemed more likely that they are another symptom rather than a cause, one more reflection of the obedience of American television to commercial imperatives. The predominance of action television in American bulletins - live coverage of arrests, pursuits and accidents - has nothing to do with the anchors and everything to do with an unresisted public appetite for simple stories. Kent made the point inadvertently when he showed you some aerial footage of a gunman being pursued. He cut away halfway through and as various talking-heads bemoaned the dumbing of American journalism you could feel yourself itching to get back on the baddy's tail, to see how the chase would end.

The Baldy Man (ITV) began as a commercial and remains entirely commercial in spirit. Presumably inspired by the global success of Mr Bean (no cultural or verbal translation needed, huge sales from Yakutsk to Yogjakarta) this is a straight clone, an assembly of messy slapstick and blow-torch facial mugging. It isn't quite silent, unfortunately, but it naturally resorts to silent movie narrative technique - including a number of clock- shots to convey the passage of time. This is unwise, reminding you that the 30 seconds of a cigar commercial is about 60 times less likely to overstay its welcome than a half-hour programme. Honesty compels me to admit that I giggled once, when the baldy man ran out of false tan just as he reached his head - the effect was that of an overweight traffic cone, a white cap on a fluorescent orange body. But the rest was pretty glum. Spare a thought for the poor sods in Burkina Faso, for whom this will probably constitute the autumn season's headline offering.