Sandy’s Unsung Victim: Action News


Within hours of its gaffe-laden Hurricane Sandy coverage,
Action News was the laughing stock of YouTube.

We mentioned this during the Hurricane Sandy ramp-up the other day, but it bears repeating: In times of extremely heavy weather and other crises, even the most Internet-savvy/addicted among us still winds up spending lots of time in front of local TV news — which, as we were saying, is usually anything but news. Fearmongering, yes; salacious and silly, of course; oddly comforting, sometimes. But actual real-deal news? Hardly ever.

And by a certain point on Monday night here in Philly, all that was left to do for many of us was to watch and wait. By then, most of the local network affiliate news crews had been going for well over 12 hours — all of them were getting a little, shall we say, punchy — and it was here that things began to fray. It was also when Action News, and venerable anchor Jim Gardner fully came apart at the seams.

Some background: 6ABC’s Action News isn’t just the local news still watched in corner bars and grandmoms’ kitchens around the city; it is a formula, originated here in Philly in 1970, that fully revolutionized the local TV news game back in the day. And to this day, ratings-wise, Action News is a monster; it routinely crushes the competition by leaps and bounds, to the eternal consternation of its competitors, forced to live in a cycle of constant revamping of their own news broadcasts in the hopes that one day, they’ll somehow get a leg up on Action News. Because Action News isn’t just the news; in fact, it is barely the news. What it is, really, is an icon, an institution.

But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.

For the longest time, ratings be damned, Action News has felt outdated, and, well, it is. But this is wholly intentional. From the set to the beloved theme song, part of what keeps people coming back to Action News is a sense that, even though it’s the news, it’s frozen in time, and at a very specific moment: Action News still, to this day, reflects the blown-out Philly of the 1970s and 1980s, a city perpetually on its knees. Frankly, this is a kind of comfort food to its older, suburban viewers. They tune in for the carnage. And on Action News, there is always, always carnage. And if it’s not downtown, they’ll find it in Bristol or some other godforsaken place. They always find it.

But these days, good old carnage is not enough. To watch Action News today is to watch a station that struggles with the Internet and the widespread availability of 500 other kinds of news options more than most. Their broadcast is laden with ads for their various apps (even as a try-anything-once app-addict, I would never put this garbage on my phone) and calls to action to engage with their stories on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, all in a clumsy Action News wrapper. They even have a social media reporter reading tweets on air, pushing around widgets on a giant touch-screen thing that looks like it came from Wal-Mart.

And on Monday night, it all came crashing down.

Much has been made of the Adam Joseph/Cecily Tynan “moron” incident that happened on some point Monday night, but for us, the more telling clip is Jim Gardner’s postscript above. You can glean a lot from the clip above. And most of what it relates to is how exhausted Gardner clearly is with this Twitter shit. Throughout Monday night’s broadcast, Gardner’s marching orders were clear: Push the social media. And so he did. Over and over and over again. But when the “moron” incident happened, so too did the unthinkable: Action News itself became the carnage. TV carnage, that is. From here, Gardner only continued to lose patience; everything became a struggle, from what the next story was to what camera he was going to. At one point he even had an exchange with a supposedly “live” reporter that felt oddly off until you realized: Where the reporter was, it was daylight, and where Gardener was, it was dark. It wasn’t live at all.

Twitter and Facebook lit up, channels flipped from wherever they were over to Action News, and what we saw was not good. Gardner was cranky for one million reasons. Tensions ran high between Joseph and Tynan. Gardner as patriarch trying to broker a peace, smiling on the outside, but all the while, just utterly seething with contempt. Contempt for the gaffe of his younger colleagues; contempt for the very notion of crowdsourcing the news and having to engage with that crowd, that whole crowd of all of us idiots in TV land; contempt, at root, for the footing local TV news is losing each day, like the newspapers before it. In one fell swoop, Action News became the kind of dippy family drama so many of us grew up watching on WPVI. It was its very own cancelled soap opera. It was sad, and fascinating, and honestly, just… weird. One way or another, come hell or high water (literally), Action News made great TV. It felt like a grand finale, and when it was all over, we could almost hear ourselves saying that we might not ever watch Action News again.

Why? Because we don’t need to.

  • PhabPhil

    But he IS a moron! Come on. Yeah I know he’s a big fancy professional meteorologist but when will he stop being that goofy muscle bound closet case and take a cue from Gardener and get some class???

  • http://twitter.com/arcticsplash Ryan Anderson

    When I was a young latch-key whatever in Lambertville and I’d walk myself home from school and put on the tv to wait for my mom to come home – somehow I’d always end up on Action News. It was petrifying. During and after the broadcasts I’d lock the doors and concern myself with the possibility of murder and fire and whatever other calamity must’ve been right around the corner. When I was 12 we moved to a much more crime-riddled area of Florida than where I’d grown up and I learned that however crazy the news was, it was always less crazy on the ground. I had been witness to events that the news covered as spectacular, which were not. Even the natural disasters were not as depicted. No one experiences disaster as a montage of disaster. disaster on local news is a dogpile of disaster. That being said, I was strangely comforted upon my return to the Philadelphia region in 1998, after 10 years of the purgatory of south florida (really, just ban chain restaurants already), to see Action News still at it. It was many of the same people. It was strange evolutions of the old frowny cloud and happy sun weather report. It was 10 murders in a row to start off the broadcast. From 2002 to 2008 I lived in Fishtown and watched Action News. It was the same feeling as I had in Florida. When bad shit happened, I shrugged it off. When family from the suburbs talked to me about it I was surprised that they didn’t get that Action News is not a good barometer of one’s safety or sense of anything, really, in Philadelphia. But you are right, they sell the song. They sell the nostalgia. They sell all of our insularity back to us. Now I get the sense that Philebrity is more of a hater than a lover of Philadelphia’s insularity and that it would prefer a Philadelphia that could deconstruct and then discard Action News, but…I think that is a mistake. Deconstruct it please, but please don’t discard our insularity or our sense that Philadelphia is somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, the center of some sick universe. We have an identity — and sad as it is — very few places have any such thing any longer. I lived in a world where people wished for a bigger better mall and hoped that their TGIF might someday be a Cheesecake Factory. I’m not saying that those are the only two options…but our lust for insularity and nostalgia for authentically Philadelphia things is what makes Action News the thing that it is. My fear is that if we lose these accidents of that – these accidents of our nonsense – we’ll become nowhere. It’s like, in order to have an identity, we have to make room for Rocky and Action News and Wing Bowl and whatever other misguided cultural icons we’ve shat into existence…but having endured elsewhere, I’ve learned to embrace them. They are ours, and they are better than the antiseptic bullshit everywhere else is peddling.

    - Action News apologist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1008264208 Joe Paone

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