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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  Light Snow
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Morning stars
A crabby critic takes aim at coffee-time talkers
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Credit:Jim Campbell

Israel and Iran have just declared war on each other, the Russians have landed on Mars and removed all our flags, and a Middleton man refuses to eat omelets not made with free-range eggs! Those headlines after this look at the weather.

Which will last 10 times as long as any of the news stories. Then there'll be a traffic report, around 240, uh, messages from local advertisers, more weather, a perky chitchat-laden interview with someone from the YMCA who's going to show us how to exercise our biceps using cans of soup much like those found in any home, more weather, more commercials, lots of grinning and brandishing coffee mugs bearing the station's logo, more weather, more commercials, more traffic, more weather.

Welcome to local television's early-morning news shows, whose audience is unmistakably persons wanting to know whether to wear their raincoat and galoshes, and if the route they usually take to the office is likely to be flooded.

To ridicule the desperately likable men and women who are the stars of these shows is to shoot fish in a barrel. Who wouldn't look bogus and inane having to switch from grave and authoritative one minute, while reading the actual news, to perkily ingratiating the next, while conferring 15 minutes (here typically downgraded to around 90 seconds) of fame on some wide-eyed local trundled before the cameras to provide Local Color? But this is the life they chose.

Watching the local morning news (and, for that matter, the local evening news), it's pretty easy to tell which on-air personality is probably just biding her time in Madison, ranked number 85 among American TV markets, and which may be trying desperately not to be banished to somewhere even smaller. If WMTV's Christine Bellport, for instance, were just a bit more gorgeous and a bit less plainly self-delighted, you could picture her making it one day to the bright lights of a market in the 70s, to Des Moines/ Ames, perhaps, or Rochester.

Anchoring a morning news show per se appears to have as much to do with journalism as ordering fondue at a restaurant has to do with dairy farming. Yes, yes, all the world's a stage, and all of us merely players, but the morning news anchor, though she may be called upon to affect great gravitas one moment and gaiety the next, isn't required to be nearly as vividly expressive as other actors - and all anchors are playing pretty much the same character.

The job doesn't seem to require an extensive skill set. Anyone who can read aloud (in the United Kingdom, what we call anchors are known, much more accurately, as newsreaders), pretend convincingly to be enjoying the hell out of his co-anchor and the weather person, and either sum up a thought or keep talking, depending on the director's signal, is in like Flynn.

Co-anchoring an early morning news program might thus be viewed as the last resort for the person who loves to perform and to be watched, but wouldn't otherwise be able to command attention.

Problem: Having to vacillate between grave and authoritative one minute and perkily ingratiating the next undermines the viewer's confidence in the anchors, of which there are two on every show. Obvious solution: Have one anchor handle the serious stuff and the other the frivolous. Number of Madison stations that have implemented this arrangement: None. Though little things like the relative gaudiness of their graphics and the anchors' coiffures may vary, it's nonetheless true that once you've seen one local morning news hour, you've seen the lot.

WMTV's Charlie Shortino, who was almost certainly president (and sole member) of his high school's Golden Barometers meteorology club, gets palpable pleasure out of using phrases and words like "heat index" and "dewpoint" on WMTV's very weather-heavy Morning Show. He looks overdressed in his coat and tie.

At one point, during a lite-moment comparison of vegetarian meat substitutes, he lets fly a quip so awful that neither of the two toothy blonds who are his co-anchors, Christine Bellport and Sarah Carlson, is able to convincingly feign amusement. "I just don't feel right," he says, and I'm paraphrasing slightly, "about eating soybeans that were struck down in their prime." Clang!

Bellport really does the hell out of that female news anchor vocal thing, the one Laraine Newman used to mock so hilariously in the early days of Saturday Night Live. Reading the sentence "Coming up, the latest on Jesse Jackson's remarks about Barack Obama," she manages to pack incredulity and reproachfulness, awe and disdain into the two syllables of Jackson.

In between real news - about a suspect in the Marino murder case, a local outbreak of necrophilia, California's wildfires, Iran testing missiles, Karl Rove testifying before Congress, Gov. Doyle flying over flooded areas in a helicopter and JonBenet Ramsey's parents' official exoneration - there's a lite segment about a west-side consignment shop where Madisonians can buy used designer handbags and whatnot at good prices, and the vegetarian products fiasco.

At one point, our three stars, among whom there is no chemistry, get into an adorable spat about the correct pronunciation of the surname of Mel Blanc, the anniversary of whose death they note. One vividly senses their director standing behind the camera making frantic stretching gestures.

The heard but unseen Kyla Morris reports periodically on traffic, informing us, for instance, that, at around 6:45, "we're starting to see a slight increase in volume on the Beltline." One wonders if that might owe to a lot of people leaving for work.

Here, there and everywhere, they happy-talk about the weather; one of the morning co-anchor's biggest challenges is to give the appearance of actually being engaged during countless exchanges of these sorts. Charlie, who owns a weather consulting business whose clients include Madison Gas and Electric, predicts that Friday will be unendurably humid, humid nearly beyond the ability of humans to conceive. "So everybody's going to want to stay indoors," Bellport murmurs tremulously, shaking her lovely head at the awful picture Charlie has painted so vividly.

Friday turns out to be pretty nice.

As we rub the sleep from our eyes and turn on the TV the following morning, the Milwaukee Brewers are dousing their teammate Corey Hart and his daughter with beer on WKOW's Wake Up Wisconsin to celebrate his having been named to the National League All-Star team. Oh, that Brew Crew! Don't worry about the child being traumatized.

The red-haired, bespectacled weatherman Brian Olson is stiff and awkward, describes things as "kinda neat," has been awarded a Seal of Approval not just from the National Weather Association, but from the American Meteorological Society as well, likes to say things like "rain event" and "thunderstorm activity," which make the phenomena sound a lot more momentous than mere rain and thunderstorms, and generally makes Charlie Shortino look like Colin Farrell in comparison.

WKOW is either doing really well in the ratings or selling its airtime cheap. Mid-broadcast, there's a positively numbing, uh, volume of commercials.

Co-anchors Roland Beres - an old-fashioned drivetime Top 40 DJ type, a happy face with a body, Mr. Exuberance - and Barbara Vaughn sit in front of a huge depiction of Madison with their apparently empty logo-bedecked coffee mugs meticulously angled for maximum readability before them.

It's a safe bet that, in ending a telephone conversation, Beres will, in the manner of servers in Wisconsin family restaurants, wish the other person nothing less than a great day, but his felicity is readily understood by anyone who has curled up with his résumé; before Madison, while stuck for two-thirds of a decade in Boise, he was one of the first reporters allowed into the deteriorating nerve gas stockpile at the Army depot in Umatilla, Ore.

He manages to put a small lid on his euphoria while describing the latest developments in a sexual harassment suit, but a moment later he and Vaughn are the two happiest people in Madison again as the Madison Mallards' general manager tells them how the team's fans will have a chance to glimpse the World's Longest Bratwurst at an upcoming promotion.

We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. We're in Wisconsin.

His mini-bio on the channel's website advises that the male co-anchor of News 3 This Morning, Rob Starbuck, "joined WISC-TV in 1990 and is still trying to figure out why he chose this career." After watching a few minutes of News 3 This Morning, you might share his befuddlement. "He...considers getting to work on time at 3:30 a.m. as his proudest journalistic achievement."

A point for candor, then, but not even a speck of a point's dandruff for charisma or energy. He might be viewed as living proof that running, which he professes to enjoy, may not be as energizing as is widely suspected. Maybe he should stop en route to the studio for a grande double espresso at the coffee house that bears his name. I could go on and on!

And would, if I were one of the purportedly hilarious stars of the syndicated Daily Buzz, over on CW, but of course I'm not, so a few words instead about Rob's co-anchor, the former ballerina and unrepentant Duran Duran fan Charlotte Deleste, who might be Madison's most engaging morning news personality; her work seems to give her pleasure without having rendered her manically perky. Jeff Smith, who looks a little bit like a young Carl Bernstein, is by far the market's least geeky weatherman.

Reporting on Hellboy's topping the just-concluded weekend's list of top-grossing movies, Rob, in his finest hour, drolly observes that the title character seems to have hunks of bratwurst protruding from his forehead. Earlier, you see, Deleste reported on The World's Longest Bratwurst having been served over the weekend at the Mallards' Duck Pond. In mid-July, no local morning news broadcast seems complete without mention of The World's Longest Bratwurst.

Elsewhere, as Deleste reports on a nine-mile-long tornado in Minnesota, the director apparently makes frantic stretching gestures of his or her own behind the camera, and Char and Rob have to marvel at length about the tornado's dimensions. "That is incredible!" Rob gasps, sounding nearly alive. Later, we're shown how the tornado disrupted what Deleste refers to as a herd of turkeys.

As opposed to a flock of cattle?

The nationally syndicated Daily Buzz is produced in Orlando, but, as seen on Madison's CW, features frequent Buzzed Into Madison segments in which Emmy Fink visits Little A-Merrick-A, an old-fashioned, family-owned amusement park in Marshall where young and old alike can enjoy an entire afternoon of affordable family fun, or interviews a young woman who plays soccer for UW, or fills us in on Paint-a-thon, which beautifies the homes of locals who couldn't otherwise afford it. According to the viewer profiles on its website, CW is watched exclusively by single white girls between 19 and 22.

Single white girls between 19 and 22 who are apparently vitally concerned with underarm hygiene. The highlight of the hour we spend with the show is a commercial for Secret deodorant in which a young brunette revels in being able to lift her arms high above her head in a variety of settings with complete impunity.

Over on the indigenous, Madison-specific broadcasts, what you get are spots for butchers, bakers and candlestick makers (and lawyers and plumbers and local merchants), spots apparently made by persons being paid on the basis of how many of their animation graphics programs' whiz-bang effects they can deploy.

Which isn't to fail to mention the ubiquity of spots for Arby's new sandwich, featuring their purportedly famous thinly sliced roast beef smothered in a creamy cheddar cheese sauce. I have been watching television since before the invention of radio, and can honestly say I've never seen a commercial for anything as revolting.

We are Americans in the 21st century, and are not easily entertained. We respond to bright colors and flashing lights, and have the attention span of a Drosophila melanogaster. At the Mallards game the other night, we were struck by the fact that there isn't just organ music between half-innings these days, but between pitches. If we are left unentertained for longer than a second and a half, we will become catatonic, and catatonics don't spend money.

But let us not get sanctimonious about the local morning news shows' not even pretending to be dignified. Let us instead be very clear that their prime purpose is to let us catch our breath between whiz-bang-laden commercials; a viewer who's given too many products and services to remember will remember none of them.

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