OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

One of the most-noticed spots to run recently on American

television wasn't created by an advertising agency, didn't promote a

product and disappeared faster than the smiles from the faces of Enron

shareholders opening their most recent 401(k) account statements.



The ad was produced in-house by the CNN cable TV news network, to

generate awareness for an upcoming programme featuring Paula Zahn, an

anchor wooed away from the rival Fox News Channel, to be called American

Morning. Never mind the hyperpatriotic title, which drew little comment

in a nation that has now taken up flag-waving again with a fervour once

reserved for tracking shark attacks at Florida beaches. The controversy

was confined to the spot, which ran over a weekend earlier this month,

because a male announcer tried selling the show with this pitch: "Where

can you find a morning news anchor who's provocative, supersmart, oh

yeah, and just a little sexy?"



To punctuate the peddling, the spot ended with an ear-catching effect

meant to invoke a needle skipping off a phonograph turntable - a device

used on the TV series Ally McBeal - but which many thought was the sound

of a zipper being opened.



Never mind that the commercial, which appeared only on CNN, was created

by a woman or that an accompanying campaign in magazines took a totally

different, straightforward tack, carrying the headline: "Shed more light

on your day." And never mind that Zahn is an attractive blonde, like

most women working as anchors for America's national television

networks. You'd have thought from the ensuing uproar - the kind of flap

pundits predicted would never happen again after 11 September because

the country was supposedly beyond such nonsense - that CNN had sought to

unmask the cast of Friends as secret agents for the Taliban.



The outpouring of complaints led to the commercial's immediate

withdrawal and apologies from the CNN top brass, who declared it wasn't

vetted by anyone outside the promotion department. Newspaper reporters,

never shy about seizing an opportunity to mock their generally

better-paid, better-dressed and - truth be told - better-looking TV

counterparts, went to town. They attacked CNN for sexism, using the flub

to point out the central role played in attracting audiences to

newscasts by what Joel McCrea, in the classic Preston Sturges comedy The

Palm Beach Story, refers to as "Topic A".



Fox News executives claimed the commercial was the outcome of a decision

last year to name Jamie Kellner as the chairman of Turner Broadcasting

System, overseeing CNN. Having run non-news networks such as Fox

Broadcasting, Kellner's expertise is in entertainment programmes infused

with megadoses of Topic A. Indeed, The New York Times reported last

spring that Kellner ordered CNN to "outfox" Fox News "by jazzing up

CNN's promotions", and the creator of the spot was hired from CBS, where

she worked on, yes, entertainment promos.



Katharine Hepburn once said the movies pairing Fred Astaire and Ginger

Rogers were so wonderful because "he gave her class and she gave him

sex".



Almost seven decades later, most Americans are too squeamish to admit

the same transaction, usually beneficial to both sides, takes place in

TV news, which is just as much about entertainment as it is

enlightenment.



Perhaps it's time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all

over again.



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