JESSELL AT LARGE

This Jersey Boy Applauds WWOR’s ‘Chasing’

The new New Jersey-centric news show airing on Fox-owned WWOR New York and WFXT Philadelphia has taken some hits from politicians and others, but it’s just the kind of fresh, provocative approach to news that local television is in dire need of. Sure, it could stand some tweaking  — even creator Dennis Bianchi says it will evolve — but Fox should commit serious resources and promotion dollars into this promising experiment.

It’s far from perfect, but Fox’s new Chasing New Jersey is the freshest, most provocative approach to local TV news I have seen since I started watching TV news with a critical eye in the 1990s. The daily half-hour newscast debuted last Monday on two O&Os — WWOR New York at 10 p.m. and WFXT Philadelphia at 4 a.m.

If you have not watched it, do.

If nothing else, it may get you thinking about new ways of presenting the news, ways that might actually appeal to younger viewers or any viewer who is looking for something different. I forget the source, but remember the quote: “Broadcasters are like the shoemaker who has had the same pair of shoes in the window for 30 years and wonders why business has dropped off.”

Those outside the New York and Philly markets can see clips on the WWOR website here.

As our Diana Marszalek pointed out in her pithy review on Tuesday, the star of the show is the format, which is borrowed from the Warner Bros. syndicated entertainment magazine TMZ. Standing in for TMZ‘s Harvey Levin, Chasing “Ringleader” Bill Spadea introduces the day’s enterprise stories by calling on reporters or “chasers” who have gathered around him. After the pieces air, they sit around and talk about them.

I share some of Marszalek’s reservations about Chasing.

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For starters, it is too frenetic.The graphics, editing and pace work against the storytelling. It plays to the belief that young people are being pulled so many ways so quickly by all the media that surrounds them that they must want television that emulates that. Why are the graphics always moving?

A show can be fast-paced and energetic without being spastic. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report demonstrate this in the faux-news context four nights a week.

Much of the show does not ring true. Unlike TMZ, Chasing seems scripted and staged. The bullpen sessions are held not in a real newsroom with the gear and detritus of working reporters and producers, but on a set that looks like a cartoon version of a newsroom. I also like that the TMZ reporters are dressed as if they are really chasing news and that they are not all anchor-pretty. If you want to be hip, be authentic.

Adding to the contrived feel is the camera work. It’s based on the trite idea that if you keep shaking the camera and fiddling with the zoom, viewers will think, “Hey, this is really newsy.” Chasing scored an interview with Newark Mayor Cory Booker, one of the most important, up-and-coming politicians in America. The interview deserved a stationary shoulder and a steady hand. The reason the TMZ video is bouncing around is because the reporters really are chasing celebrities through the streets of Los Angeles.

My principal criticism of Chasing is that it is not live, which means that much of what’s shown isn’t news. That’s a function of the format. The bullpen session is taped between noon and 2 p.m. The rest  of the afternoon and early evening are spent editing it so that it is ready for the 10 p.m. WWOR broadcast. Fox has partially solved the problem by inserting a two-and-a-half minute “wrap” for headlines as a prelude to Chasing. It also plugs in a weathercast near the end. The insertions are clumsily done.

But I don’t want to be too negative. The newscasts are filled with some solid stories — some light, some serious. The Booker profile wasn’t the only piece to wade into the morass of Jersey politics. On Thursday night, reporters Ronica Cleary and Bill Anderson did a story on the politics of gun control featuring State Senate President Stephen Sweeney. I’ve read about Sweeney in the Star-Ledger many times, but have never seen him on TV before.

Now the purists will say it is not good journalism for reporters to be commenting on the stories they just presented. But the talk provides a quick means of raising important issues that spring from the stories. If it will help, we can call it news analysis. With the lighter stories, the chatter is just fun. Nothing wrong with that.

For some reason, Fox chose not to promote  the show in the media beyond issuing a single press release the week before its debut. Perhaps it was anxious about its reception or perhaps it was worried about the political blowback. To make room for Chasing on WWOR, Fox last week dumped a conventional newscast.

WWOR has long been the target of criticism from state politicians and local public interest groups. The critics contend that the station licensed to Secaucus inadequately serves New Jersey with news and public affairs. The complaints have put the station’s 2007 license renewal in limbo and stalled a waiver of the broadcast-newspaper crossownership ban that Fox needs to continue owning the station while common shareholders own the New York Post. It’s one of those legal-regulatory messes that the FCC doesn’t know what to do with, so it does nothing.

If blowback was a cause of concern for Fox, it shouldn’t have been.

When it inevitably came, it served to keep Chasing in the news. The heat came mostly from Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Frank Pallone, who is running against Booker in a Democratic primary for the Senate seat that opened up with the death of Frank Lautenberg earlier this year.

Pallone is on the House Communications Subcommittee, but he is not moving up to the Senate where he could cause real trouble for Fox. He has about as much chance of beating Booker as Barbara Buono does of beating Chris Christie for the governorship. Who’s Barbara Buono? Exactly my point.

Rather than condemning Fox for retiring a worn-out newscast, the critics should be praising Fox for trying something new. From the opening to closing montages, which recall the classic opening of The Sopranos, Chasing is nothing, if not stridently Jersey. There must be a memo somewhere that says to drop as many Jersey place names and images in the newscast as time and rapid-fire editing will allow.

I have to say, as a Jersey guy for the past 15 years who makes a point of regularly watching the local New York evening news, it is flattering to be the focus of a newscast rather than just one of many regions that might get a mention.

Chasing is a product not of Fox, but of an outside production company, Fairfax Productions, and Fairfax VP Dennis Bianchi, who also happens to be GM of WTXF. Yesterday, I spoke with him while the fourth installation of Chasing was being cut. He sounded like a man on a mission.

“I don’t want to sound too highfalutin’, but we’re trying to break new ground, trying to innovate, trying to disrupt a little bit, do things I think we all as an industry absolutely need to do,” he said. “How it ultimately ends up and what form it takes and where, time will tell. The product will evolve.”

Bianchi said he is flummoxed by the charges that the switch to Chasing means that WWOR is somehow abandoning its commitment to the state. “Jersey is our life blood.  I mean the show is just all about Jersey. It’s just 100% Jersey, Jersey, Jersey. You know; you have seen it. “

Indeed, it is.

Fox should go all-in on this. If it is simply looking to save money by outsourcing the news (WGA East is upset by the loss of in-house jobs), it’s cheating New Jersey viewers and itself. Chasing clearly has potential. But it will need resources and promotion if it is going to evolve as it needs to do and attract viewers.

Other broadcasters need to pay attention. I’ve liked the TMZ format since I first saw it back in 2007 or 2008. It’s engaging, it puts the focus on reporters and producers where it belongs and, if done right, it lends credibility. I’m pleased that Fox has brought it into the local TV arena.

Chasing has a tag line: “The world is changing and so is your news.”

If it isn’t, perhaps it should.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.


Comments (1)

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Tony Alexander says:

July 14, 2013 at 4:23 pm

But, Harry, I don’t live in the coverage area of WWOR. What am I to do? Is it streamed on the Internet? I’m guessing not. So, the world is changing, but not too much. This is called provocative??? Has anyone ever told you Harry that broadcasting is about content and distribution? Content is good and I’d like to watch the TV Newscasts from many stations across the country but sadly I cannot. Why, Harry?


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