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Tuned In: TNT's 'Breaking News' deserved better chance

Thursday, December 13, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Many offices bubble over with political machinations and personality conflicts. But for whatever reason, TV producers prefer using the same settings over and over: law firms, police stations and hospitals.

Yet the TV newsroom is a natural environment for conflict, given the inherent drama in putting a newscast together, the egos involved and the pressure to get high ratings.

Last year at this time, TNT was readying its own attempt at such a show. Set in the newsroom of a Chicago-based national cable network, TNT's "Breaking News" was supposed to premiere in January, then got bumped to June. Then July. Then August. Then never.

In a fairly unprecedented move, TNT spent upward of $20 million producing 13 episodes of "Breaking News" and ultimately decided never to air the series.

Bummer. I've seen four episodes, and "Breaking News" is an above-average drama that tackles the weighty issues facing broadcast journalists today. Maybe that scared TNT. Past TV news dramas (CBS's "WIOU" and UPN's "Live Shot" in the early '90s) haven't been hits, why would "Breaking News" be?

Last summer, Turner Broadcasting CEO Jamie Kellner said programming executives felt the program "was not going to be a show that was going to last and work on their network." Couldn't they have figured that out before spending millions of dollars and filming more than a dozen episodes?

Regardless, "Breaking News" is better than "Crossing Jordan," "The Education of Max Bickford," "The Agency" and "Citizen Baines," just a few of the hourlong shows that premiered this fall.

Gardner Stern, a veteran writer/producer who's worked on "Law & Order" and "NYPD Blue" and is now a consulting producer on "The Practice," created "Breaking News." He attributes the series' demise to a confluence of factors.

Stern said because all the episodes were produced prior to its premiere, TNT had only research about its potential, no actual ratings numbers to use in making its decision. That, coupled with a changing of the guard and inexperience with original drama series, may have led to the show's stillbirth.

Before "Breaking News," TNT ordered 22 episodes of the sci-fi series "Crusade," then halted production halfway through. It aired all 13 episodes in 1999, but a year later TNT only televised half the produced episodes of its acclaimed Wall Street drama "Bull."

" 'Bull' was not doing that well in the ratings while we were shooting our episodes," Stern said. "I think because that show was a workplace-based ensemble drama and was not doing well, it caused them to sort of lump us with them and gave them a great excuse."

Money also may have been a factor. It's possible that TNT, which is owned by AOL Time Warner, found a way to write off the series come tax time. Or maybe bigwigs thought this fictional image of TV journalists would damage real-life sister-network CNN.

That's all speculation. No one from TNT called to tell Stern "Breaking News" would never air, and TNT executives declined to comment for this story.

"They were telling me throughout the year, 'We love the show, we're behind it.' " Stern said. "People called me and said they loved the 13th episode, and five weeks later, we found they were never going to air this thing."

Shameless to a fault, TNT still uses the slogan, "We know drama."

Stern said he chose to immerse himself in the world of fictional news channel I-24 because of the importance TV news plays in the lives of Americans. It's where most of us get our news. But with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, there's little time for newscast producers to think about stories before they hit the air.

"How should we word this report? How much background should we provide about this news story? How far should we go to beat our competition?" Stern said, ticking off the issues explored in "Breaking News." "Because of the tremendous pressure they're under, you have something that at once has a huge impact on the audience yet, at the same time, is something you have no time to contemplate. If drama is conflict, that's a lot of conflict right there."

Stern did research at MSNBC and ran stories by friend and former CBS News correspondent Jane Wallace. Staff writer Janet Tamaro worked in local news and for syndicated tabloid shows prior to writing TV dramas.

"Breaking News" certainly has more authenticity than ABC's ridiculous summer series "The Beast" (although the newsroom sets look surprisingly similar). News director Peter Kozyck (Clancy Brown) tries to balance doing what's right with what will get the best ratings in "Breaking News."

Should he run a report on a sister network's sleazy reality show? Whom does it benefit to report the vice president was having an affair after he's been killed in an avalanche? Should I-24 report a rumor on why a commercial jet crashed or wait for verification?

"Breaking News" isn't just about ethics, it also shows the ways of the modern TV newsroom. When ratings for primary anchor Bill Dunne (Tim Matheson) begin to drop, a consultant suggests an attractive young reporter (Myndy Crist) join him at the news desk, even though she's not ready for the promotion. That move flops when subsequent research shows she's damaging the image of the senior anchor. The consultant suggests a "wandering minstrel routine," distancing her physically from Dunne by having her stand elsewhere on the set.

One particularly prescient episode features an Osama bin Laden-type who kills a U.S. congressman in a car bombing. Dunne and a producer (Scott Bairstow) agree to meet with the suspected terrorist in Paris, only to find themselves held against their will.

New Line, another division of AOL Time Warner, produced "Breaking News" with Trilogy Entertainment. New Line has been trying to sell the show to another broadcast or cable network, but with the contracts of the actors set to expire at the end of this month, Stern isn't optimistic it ever will air.

Anybody out there have $20 million to spare? And a network to put "Breaking News" on? I can assure you at least one positive review.


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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