It’s popular to complain about the utter vapidity of television news and its propensity to entertain us instead of informing us about important things that affect our lives. At least Showbiz Tonight tells you what it is. While it’s distressing to see our informational outlets striving for frivolity, there’s a light-hearted flipside in seeing frivolity shooting for the importance of actual news.
Showbiz Tonight could be a hilarious parody of our obsession with celebrity culture if it wasn’t so boring. (Maybe I should state right here that I’m not above such pleasures: ET was my primary news source growing up.) Let’s start with the promo materials. “Lights! Camera! Action! Showbiz Tonight is back and better than ever on CNN Headline News. Showbiz Tonight is the only live, daily one-hour entertainment news show on TV.” CNN News Group Executive Vice President Ken Jautz elaborates in a press release, “Most entertainment news shows are taped several hours before broadcast, but Showbiz Tonight will be live and is so much more up to date… In fact, the show’s motto is, ‘If it happened today, it’s on Showbiz Tonight’.”
But the show copies its entertainment precursors, beginning with a bland busy set that uses the purple-blue-gold color template of Entertainment Tonight, with lots of flashing lights and scrolling text in the background. Hosts Karyn Bryant and A.J. Hammer read the day’s headlines in the shout-every-other-syllable delivery (“SIN city PACKED with A-list-ERS”) perfected by Pat O’Brien and Billy Bush. The main stories on the episodes I watched weren’t much different from those on regular news shows. Were you aware that Michael Jackson is on trial for something? Apparently a plot to kidnap David Letterman’s child was foiled.
The presentation also resembles a typical news broadcast, and the main stories are repeated within the hour. While largely scoop-free, they occasionally throw in fun trivia like Claudia Schiffer hiring Nepalese fighters to protect her children. Due to what I assume are budgetary constraints, the producers skimp on interviews and on-location segments are kept to a minimum. My primary complaint is the pace of their coverage. Not only do they not report anything new, they only report a few stories, then drag them out over the broadcast. Showbiz Tonight covers less ground in an hour than Extra does in five minutes.
The remainder of each episode is filled with field reports, quizzes, ratings, and box office updates, an interview, profile, and, best of all, bitchy commentary. A good portion of these segments are tie-ins with Time Warner magazine properties: People magazine’s “Picks & Pans” at the end of every episode, Tuesday & Thursday InStyle magazine “Fashion Segments,” and about half of one episode dealt with Time magazine’s momentous cover story [cue God voice], “Has TV Gone Too Far?”
The commentary portions are effectively campy. In the first, “Showbiz Showdown,” two talking heads take sides on a divisive issue. If the format is familiar, it’s a lot better when the topic is “The Apprentice Martha Stewart: Is It a Good Idea?” (Sample argument: “Her image is tarnished!” vs. “America loves her more because she went to prison!”) In the show’s final section, “Buzz Bench,” a panel of D-level shills (mostly magazine writers) on break from VH1’s I Love the Aughts comment on the news of the previous hour. (A format taken from “90-Second Pop” on CNN’s American Morning.) On the 18 March episode, the big story was an “exclusive” fawning interview with George Lucas. On the “Buzz Bench” that followed, the panelists trashed Lucas’ every word like a gaggle of middle school gossip hounds. “Like he needs money!” “What is he thinking?” “If Jar Jar Binks drowns, I’ll go see it.” At times they flirt with the absurd, “[Hillary] Swank seemed too smart to bring fruit into New Zealand.” This is entertaining for about a minute, but the panelists’ bad jokes are hard to stomach for the eight to 10 minutes they’re granted to pad out the show.
Bryant and Hammer have loads of experience in basic cable television hosting and ably preside over the discussion panels and pilot the show through its other segments. She has a loud glossy look and delivery; he has a fantastic schlock TV name (I have an idea for a cop show called Aspen Heat he’d be perfect for), but his delivery, except when solemnly discussing American Idol, is boring.
Showbiz Tonight is part of a re-branding effort for CNN Headline News’ primetime line-up. Apparently America’s Favorite News Source’s wonky brother needs bigger ratings. I can’t imagine whom they hope to attract with this show, outside their regular audience in airport lounges and gyms nationwide, when at least two better versions of the same show are airing on network stations at the same time. Perhaps they could try something new… like the news.