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For the longest time, ratings be damned, Action News has felt outdated, and, well, it is.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.