Busybodies Sap TV's There-ness

NINE p.m. on Sept. 11 and everything was ready in the House of Representatives. The seats were filled. The gatekeeper was primed for his ceremonial announcement. President Bush was about to enter for a special address on the Gulf crisis to a joint session of Congress. It must have been an exciting moment. I say ``must have been'' exciting, because those watching it on TV would never have known it. All they could hear were the commentators and their and nonstop talk.

It was another case of a rampant problem: the busybody syndrome - the penchant of commentators to crowd the airways with evidence of their own research and wisdom. They won't allow viewers to savor key moments - including the silences. On the night of the presidential speech, the TV coverage would not let us simply be there - to hear the anticipatory murmur just before the President's entry, to sense the hush in the hall and the contrasting burst of cheers as he strode in.

Instead, pundits filled the time backgrounding us on events in the Gulf. They suggested what the president might have to say. They talked about recent steps in Congress and statements by Saddam Hussein. They chattered so continuously, in fact, that the true nature of the occasion was never conveyed.

They were worried, of course, about that hobgoblin of broadcasting: dead air. Yet the ambience in the House that evening was anything but dead. It was electric, and the show should have conveyed a little of that reality along with the reporters' comments. If the TV medium is a communicator, what better to communicate than the thing itself - especially when it's right in front of the cameras to be recorded. When you turn off the set, you should say to yourself, `I saw it,'' not ``I saw it covered.''

That busybody syndrome has come close to ruining some of the best talk shows on the air, probably to deal with the other hobgoblin of broadcasting, ``talking heads'' - unrelieved shots of people speaking. That format can certainly be a bore and needs to be ``opened up,'' as filmmakers used to put it, with action shots.

But some talking heads shouldn't be fooled with - not when in the process you destroy a creative intimacy that's just made for the medium. Andy Rooney, resident humorist on the CBS weekly series ``60 Minutes,'' is a master at funny little talks that are idiosyncratic gems. But when I missed his feature for a while and then came back to it, I found him explaining, with great earnestness, his 10 recommendations for improving pro football. They seemed very sound. They were also distinctly unfunny.

The busybodies must have gotten to him, because he had deserted his desk and gone on location - mugging, doing takes, playing multiple roles. One week his topic was trash disposal and he went to the dump to see the way people throw things out.

The show wanted viewers to visualize what Rooney was saying. But that's what you do when a speaker needs it. When he's self-sufficient, busybody visuals don't ``open up'' a segment, they close it down. In Rooney's case, they wiped out his quirky chemistry, that pearl of great price for which producers should give up all the other production devices so useful elsewhere.

The same thing happened for a while with the conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. For years he just sat there on TV with his clipboard and a guest or two, lighting up the air with rhetoric. Then recently the ``improvements'' began. The show boasted introducers and ``examiners,'' and toward the end of each discussion, the camera closed in on Mr. Buckley, framing his head to prepare us for The Words. Then he would utter some definitive summation.

Fortunately that tack has been abandoned, and I won't even start in on the big offender - sports coverage, with its compulsive spewing of statistics - except to recall that when John McEnroe tried a comeback in the recent tennis US Open, most of the human drama was obscured by prattling analysis. You couldn't detect the emotions of fans in the seats as the former champion struggled to win a set - and to keep his own temper in check. You really never witnessed the growth of his hope and its collapse. Ah, well....

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