Morning in the Vast Wasteland

28 Apr

The inside baseball of morning television shows apparently has itself become fodder for the shitstream of babble and blather that runs rapidly through how John Kennedy’s FCC commissioner Newton Minnow characterized television—a vast wasteland. The infelicities by Matt Lauer, Robin Roberts’s battle with cancer and the generally nasty competition to further moronize America are now commonplace tidbits of the news cycle.

My cognition of the American invention, the morning news hour (or two) goes back to Dave Garroway and his simian co host Fred Muggs

Dave_Garroway & J Fred Muggs of the Today Show

Dave_Garroway & J Fred Muggs of the Today Show

to John Hartmann to Jane Pauley to Katie Couric.Nothing really distinguishing about these tv talking heads except their participation in moving many Americans to begin their daily viewing practically the first thing of the new day.Not exactly an advance of civilization.

WD Wetherell (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

WD Wetherell (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

WD Wetherell’s 2001 novel Morning (Pantheon) is ,as far as I know, the only novel about the early days of the television morning show. Wetherell is, of course, one those vastly under appreciated writers(of which there is no shortage) whose dozen or so books have been unaccountably un-noted by people who should know better (which is not to claim that I know better—uh, maybe it is) To the New Yorker’s credit Wetherell was awarded a few words in its Briefly Noted

Back in the nineteen-fifties, Dave Garroway—the pleasant, bespectacled host of NBC’s fledgling “Today” show—was a star, and one of the true innovators of early television. Wetherell’s new historical fiction, in which Alec McGowan hosts a show called “Morning,” perfectly captures the Garroway era—the mixture of news and entertainment, the excitement of a new medium, even the on-air stunts with a baby chimpanzee. But, rather than merely restage the birth of morning television, Wetherell reimagines the fifties as a dark and morally ambiguous time; McGowan is a drug addict and a compulsive womanizer, and he is eventually murdered on the air by his sidekick, Chet Standish. The story is narrated by Alec Brown, Chet’s son, who is writing a biography of McGowan, and “Morning” might seem pretentious if Wetherell were not so completely in control of its elaborate structure

Morning by WD Wetherell

Morning by WD Wetherell

The rich possibilities of the Universe are to be found on the Internet and thus you may read an exceprt of Morning here

Top of the Morning by Brian Stelter

Top of the Morning by Brian Stelter

The subtitle of Brian Stelter’s Top of the Morning(Grand central), “Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV” pretty much tells you the perspective of this account of that peculiar subculture—prominent, of course, is the recent flap of the firing of one morning show hostess reportedly at the behest of another host—this comic opera we are told was entitled Operation Bambi by its perpetrators). Here’s the publisher’s claims for the book:

When America wakes up with personable and charming hosts like Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Robin Roberts, and George Stephanopoulos, it’s hard to imagine them stealing each others’ guests at the airport. But that is just part of the crazy reality New York Times staff writer Brian Stelter reveals in TOP OF THE MORNING-an examination of the most competitive time slot in television, complete with Machiavellian booking wars and manic behavior by the stars. Stelter is behind the scenes as Ann Curry replaces Vieira on the “Today” show, only to be fired a year later in a fiasco that made national headlines. He’s backstage as “Good Morning America” beats “Today” for the first time in a generation. And he’s there as Roberts is diagnosed with a crippling disease-on the very same day that her show is toasting its hard-earned victory.

Readers will be fascinated by the never-before-told stories about past hosts (Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson) and by the present-day battle for first place before dawn, when every single viewer counts and where there are new competitors all the time (Stelter also rides along at CBS as Charlie Rose and Gayle King try to reinvent morning TV). The book is based on all new reporting at the highest levels as well as juicy, well-sourced gossip.

Currently reading The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam (Knopf)

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