Vivid: Medium is the message

Annurag Batra of exchange4media Group talks about the trailblazers in the skyscape of journalism where the 'Medium is the message'

e4m by Annurag Batra
Updated: Jun 17, 2013 9:51 AM
Vivid: Medium is the message

It is the character and credibility of the media person that instils confidence in the viewer. The viewer develops a sense of participation and rapport with the media person. In print media, the reader develops an empathy with his favourite author and looks forward to the next instalment of his contribution.

A picture is worth a thousand words, goes the proverb. After the advent of TV, each frame of the show has that effect. The viewer is drawn into the show as a passive participant as if in fiduciary capacity, that being built upon trust, confidence and a relationship of confidentiality.

The pioneer of such TV presentation was Walter Cronkite known as ‘The Most Trusted Man in America’. From 1962 to 1981, Cronkite was a nightly presence in American homes and always a reassuring one, guiding viewers through national triumphs and tragedies alike, from moonwalks to wars in an era when network news was central to modern urban life in America. He became an institution by himself with an unflappable delivery, a distinctively avuncular voice and daily benediction: “And that’s the way it is”.

Cronkite was the first of the celebrity anchormen. When he retired from CBS Evening News, a TV Guide poll ranked him No. 1 among television journalists.

Other media men to emulate Cronkite developed the personal style to greater heights with global viewership levels of astronomical numbers. In this despatch, let us glance at career highlights of the most prominent men of the genre where the audience relies upon the medium to believe the message. The respectability of the media man is the worth and weightage the viewer gives to the message he or she conveys.

Before we cite such glorious exponents, a shocking news has broken about a newsman who transgressed the limits of ethical boundaries. Radio talk show host Howard Sattler has been sacked after asking Australian Prime Minister Julian Gillard about her partner Tim Matheison’s sexuality and whether he was gay as rumoured. Having faced demeaning questions about her partner, Gillard expressed her concern that women may avoid public life if media keeps on asking demeaning questions, according to Sydney Morning Herald.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick declared that certain level of demeaning attitudes women who hold public offices have to deal with in course of their tenure is an occupational hazard. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd exploded in outrage and said Sattler should hang his head in shame, the newspaper said.

The tradition of the TV interviewer asking direct unrehearsed questions has crossed the limit in the above case. The prominent proponent of this genre who never did such violations of ethical limits and was highly respected and rated was Tin Sebastian. He began his career at Reuters in 1974, moving to the BBC as a foreign correspondent in Warsaw in 1979. He became BBC’s Europe correspondent in 1982, for Moscow in 1984 until he was expelled from the erstwhile USSR in 1985, taking up Washington as his base from 1986 to 1989.

He coined his talk show ‘Hard Talk’ but was careful not to provoke hard feelings. Currently Sebastian is the chairman of ‘The Doha Debates’, a Qatar Foundation programme that is broadcast monthly on BBC World News, where it is the highest-rated weekend programme.
While on this subject, let us take a look at the source of the tradition of freedom of speech which the practitioners ought to remember: The First Amendment to the American Constitution which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

American talk show hosts who have abided by the spirit of the Constitutional provision and improvise their work with dignity and grace were led by Larry King of ‘Larry King Live’ fame.
The programme became the first international TV call-in interactive show. Over the course of the next 25 years, King developed a loyal audience who tuned in to watch the talk show host interview presidents, athletes, actors, national heroes, foreign dignitaries and obscure individuals who were thrust into the limelight.

The show soon became the highest-rated talk show on air, and a requisite stopover for celebrities plugging any project. King’s direct, non-confrontational interview style has proven to be a hit with audiences and guests alike. As a testament to its influence, Ross Perot chose to announce his 1992 presidential bid on Larry King Live. In addition, King has also used his show as a portal for other fundraising events, including the support of disaster relief in New Orleans and Haiti.

In June 2010, King announced he would be ending his reign as host of the CNN talk show after 25 years. In September the same year, CNN named British media personality Pier Morgan as King’s successor.

Outside his career as talk show host, King has appeared as himself in several movies and television shows. He has also done voice work in animated films such as Shrek 2 (2004), Shrek, The Third (2007), and Bee Movie (2007). He has also written several books on heart disease after he suffered a heart attack in 1987. King’s autobiography ‘My Remarkable Journey’ was published in 2009.

Another trailblazer is Oprah Winfrey. American television host, actress, producer and philanthropist, Oprah Gail Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi. After a troubled adolescence in a small farming community, where she was sexually abused by a number of male relatives and friends of her mother Vernita, she moved to Nashville to live with her father Vernon, a barber and businessman. She entered Tennessee State University in 1971 and began working in radio and television broadcasting in Nashville.

In 1976, Oprah Winfrey moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where she hosted the TV chat show ‘People Are Talking’. The show became a hit and Winfrey stayed with it for eight years, after which she was recruited by a Chicago TV station to host her own morning show ‘AM Chicago’. Her major competitor in the time slot was Phil Donahue. Within several months, Winfrey’s open, warm-hearted personal style had won her 100,000 more viewers than Donahue and had taken her show from last place to first in the ratings. Her success led to nationwide fame and a role in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film ‘The Color Purple’, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Winfrey launched the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ in 1986 as a nationally syndicated programme. With its placement on 120 channels and an audience of 10 million people, the show grossed $125 million by the end of its first year, of which Winfrey received $30 million. She soon gained ownership of the programme from ABC, drawing it under the control of her new production company, Harpo Productions (‘Oprah’ spelled backwards) and making more and more money from syndication.

In September 2002, Oprah was named the first recipient of The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Bob Hope Humanitarian Award.

Winfrey campaigned for Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama in December 2007, attracting the largest crowds of the primary season to that point. Winfrey joined Obama for a series of rallies in the early primary/caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. It was the first time Winfrey had ever campaigned for a political candidate.
The biggest event was at the University of South Carolina football stadium, where 29,000 supporters attended a rally that had been switched from an 18,000-seat basketball arena to satisfy public demand.

“Dr (Martin Luther) King dreamed the dream. But we don't have to just dream the dream anymore”, Oprah told the crowd. “We get to vote that dream into reality by supporting a man who knows not just who we are, but who we can be”. The power of Winfrey's political endorsement was unclear (Obama won Iowa and South Carolina, but lost New Hampshire). But she has a clear track record of turning unknown authors into blockbuster best-sellers when she mentions their books on her programme.

They are the trailblazers, the comets in the skyscape of journalism where the ‘Medium is the message’.

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