Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Toss me the Keyes
Brendan Nyhan thought I might be interested in his American Prospect article about Alan Keyes' new MSNBC show, the name of which I can't say with a straight face. (Ever since Bill O'Reilly called it "Alan Keyes is Changing Clothes", I just get a giggle fit every time I think of it...) (Brendan also sent me a link to another detailed analysis of the series thus far.) You were right: I am interested.

I only mentioned Dr Keyes in passing as an interesting punctuation mark -- of what kind, I'm not sure -- to the flurry of talent poaching among the 24/7 news networks. I said that MSNBC had "elevated the average IQ of the room", and I stand by that. Keyes seems to think the viewing public will sit still for an hour-long program with a common thread throughout (other than bombing Afghanistan, I mean), and such a bold experiment deserves time to gel. As Brendan said, "Keyes finds a moral question related to an issue in current events, asks his panelists for their views, and then suggests a conclusion based on the principles articulated. That conclusion then becomes the focus of debate for the remainder of the show."

At that rate, we might begin to inch beyond "democracy good, bin Laden bad." Keyes says he thinks people are smart enough to manage it. I agree.

Back when there were only three networks, and even the largest cities only had four or five channels, it wasn't that unusual for the news divisions to borrow a prime-time hour for an extensive treatment of a single subject. How interesting that now, when broadcast journalists have all the time they could possibly need, they typically pack an hour with six short segments that barely get around to stating questions, let alone approach an answer. No wonder Jay Leno passes for reasoned political discourse: He has fewer guests, and spends more time talking to each of them. If for no other reason than that, I'm rooting for Alan Keyes' experiment to succeed.

About the sweater thing (I'm sure Alan Keyes is reading small-time blogs for fashion advice, doesn't everyone?): Yes, for those who haven't seen the show, Keyes does change into a comfy, non-threatening cardigan sweater for his "People Just Like You" segment. That's not the silly part. The silly part is that he begins the show in a normal suit jacket, changes into the sweater for the one segment, then changes back into his suit jacket for the remainder of the show. The illusion of television is that all this stuff Just Happens, and the camera Just Happens to record it for our entertainment. The sweater thing is too artificial, too calculated, too obvious: It shatters the illusion. Start the show in the sweater and stay in it throughout, or lose it. Or close the flippin' window behind you, in the set wall.

Or do the show in a golf shirt with the MSNBC logo on the breast pocket, if you want. Changing clothes in mid-program just draws attention to the showmanship, and away from the intellectual content (though I don't always agree with Keyes, at least he's trying to raise the bar).

Oh, and there is one other trend I'm happy to see Keyes avoid: So far, most of his guests have actually been physically present in the studio with him. Have I mentioned how annoying I find multiple split-screens full of talking heads pretending to make eye-contact with each other? Ah, I remember the good old days, when talk show hosts and their guests used to be in the same room...

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