Back to you in the studio: Fictional news on TV

Everyone’s favourite ego-centric, catchphrase-uttering 1970s news anchor, Ron Burgundy, returns to cinemas for a second outing this christmas in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. With that in mind, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look behind the cameras, the faux-confidence, the visage of television shows about news production.

News broadcasting has changing a great deal since its origins, and even 20 years ago a fair amount of what was normal practice would seem alien to a modern viewer. But some things have stayed resolutely unaltered, and that is why a show such as The Hour (2011-2012) demonstrates how things have changed yet stayed the same, and is relatable to viewers. Mad Men addicts watch the award-winning drama series for the trials and tribulations of Don Draper and his colleagues in an advertising agency in the 1960s.

Times were different (women’s place in the workplace, the omnipresence of smoking) yet it is no less intriguing as a sociological study of the period. The Hour, in its own way, showcases the BBC newsroom in the 1950s and though technology is dated and unwieldy, the process, the formula of gathering news burns bright.

This selection dates back to the 1950s through to the present day and is only a small sample of my favourites in this genre. Our correspondent has more:


Drop the Dead Donkey

British comedy hit a boom in the 1990s, with Father Ted, The Fast Show, League of Gentlemen and I’m Alan Partridge being just a handful of the hilarious gems that found both and audience and acclaim. Yet one of the forgotten members of the comedy family in this decade is also one of the funniest. Drop the Dead Donkey ran for six series, beginning in 1990 It offered a glimpse behind the scenes of GlobeLink, an independent network that receives a sudden takeover by Sir Roysten Merchant (no prizes for guessing the allusion to a satellite television mogul whose influence was escalating at this time).

Bumbling editor George, chief executive Gus “I’m not here” Hedges overseeing (and manipulating) proceeedings, veteran anchor and ladykiller Henry and sensationalist field reporter Damien ( the teddy bear he carries in his bag to place at disaster sites is dark humour of the highest order), the laughs flow. The most impressive part is how the stories are made to feel current despite being twenty years old – sexual abuse, expenses scandals and English cricket’s reliance on South Africans for the team. The message offered by this BAFTA-winning comedy is news doesn’t always just happen, it can be a work in progress.

(Series 1-6 available on DVD, 4OD and Netflix)

The Newsroom

Aaron Sorkin has a great reputation within the television industry – the creator of political saga The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is the man if snappy dialogue if what you are after. And that is why The Newsroom has been such a success, already renewed for a third season to air in 2014. Jeff Daniels shines in the lead role as Will McAvoy, a news anchor at fictional Atlantic Cable News, who as with most central characters on these shows, manages conflicts in his professional and personal life. Among the other key cast members are Sam Waterston, of Law and Order fame, as ACN President; British actress Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale, executive producer for ACN and Will’s ex-girlfriend, and rising star Alison Pill, whose character Maggie Jordan’s transformation across the first two seasons is heartwrenching.

Daniels has won a Screen Actors Guild and Emmy Award for his portrayal, and although critical reception to the first season was mixed, in season two – as the show matured – reception became much more favourable.Like Drop the Dead Donkey, The Newsroom grabs its news stories from real headlines – the BP Oil Spill, Obama’s re-election and the Syrian Crisis being big points of discussion within the show. But the plots outside the news are also intriguing and gripping enough for a casual viewer without vast current affairs knowledge to enjoy.

(Season 1 available on DVD, season 2 coming to DVD soon)

Sports Night

Sorkin was no stranger to the behind-the-scenes-on-a-TV-show game when he made The Newsroom. His first television venture (after lukewarm films A Few Good Men and The American President in the early 1990s) imagined what life was like for presenters and staff working on a burgeoning cable sports network. Sports Night, which is also the title of the in-show broadcast, only ran for two seasons, and has not retained the same aura as Sorkin’s The West Wing that debuted a few years later. Its origins on the ABC network were troubled – the first few episodes of an often serious drama were compelled to use a laugh track due to channel restrictions on half-hour output,  but this was quietly shelved after several weeks.

But Sports Night is an excellent piece of television – the two leads, Peter Krause as egotistical anchor Casey McCall and Josh Charles as his co-anchor Dan Rydell  are perfectly cast. The duo have since gone on to star in Parenthood and The Good Wife respectively and their star potential was evident in Sports Night. Again, relationship strife (particularly Casey’s with producer Dana Whitaker, played by Felicity Huffman) add meat to the bones. For non-US sports fans, even at the time the sports storylines may have fallen on death ears, but it perhaps works even better now as a study of the 24 hour sports news cycle, where almost everything is a story.

(Seasons 1 and 2 available on DVD)

Best of the rest

Back to You lasted only 17 episodes, but the show from 2007 features a wealth of stars – Frasier’s Kelsey Grammar, Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond and future Modern Family alumnus Ty Burrell among them. Michael J. Fox’s return to a regular television role for the first time since being diagnosed with Parkinsons is worth the wait – he plays Mike Fox, a former news anchor struggling to adapt to the changes when he returns to work. The Day Today and BrassEye come from the pen and warped mind of The Day Today’s Chris Morris and is a thought-provoking classic – you will never look at documentaries or newsmaking the same way again. The Hour took the Mad Men route, a period drama set in the BBC news-room of the 1950s. And Onion News Network delivered the sensationalism and made-up headlines you’d expect from The Onion.

Daniel Matcham, The Breaker news.

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