As TV critics pick apart the new HBO drama series "Newsroom" (here's the Variety review), there's no shortage of shortcomings being cited. But for me it came down to its parallels to another riveting drama about the news business currently playing out at Time Warner.
CNN finds itself at a fascinating, perhaps tragic moment in its existence. Primetime ratings dipped to record lows in April, far below arch rivals Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Those woes have triggered publicly voiced disappointment from Turner Broadcasting CEO Philip Kent and speculation that CNN chief Ken Jautz could find himself replaced.
Maybe the network should replace the news with "Newsroom," which follows Will McAvoy a cable-news anchor and self-described "ratings whore" played by Jeff Daniels, as he attempts to take his primetime program in a new direction. He's prodded along by Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the news-division chief who orchestrates the reawakening of McAvoy's conscience by hiring MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) to be his producer and moral muse.
It's a nifty dynamic for drama, especially considering McHale also happens to be McAvoy's ex-girlfriend. But let's get real. In this day and age, would CNN or any news operation have the luxury of believing that getting ratings is nice and all, but restoring integrity is a higher priority?
The notion that a news-division chief would decide to overhaul an otherwise successful primetime cable news program in the spirit of restoring good ol' fashioned journalism while disregarding the ratings is so divorced from what actually happens in the media business that "Newsroom" loses an authenticity it otherwise strives to achieve.
The more realistic dilemma to depict is essentially a reversal of the "Newsroom" equation: Instead of brushing aside ratings concerns to pursue integrity, isn't journalists compromising integrity to chase ratings a more common occurrence?
That's not meant to be an indictment of anyone working in TV news today, just an acknowledgement of the irreconcilable dual goals of serving both the public interest and stockholders in the company that employs them. As long as eyeballs are being converted into advertising dollars, news programs are under immense pressure to amass an audience using methods they wouldn't bother with were they not-for-profit enterprises.
CNN has resisted those same pressures by not pandering to partisan interests the way Fox and MSNBC have done for conservatives and liberals, respectively, which only serves to keep an already polarized country further apart.
But perhaps taking that high road has taken too high a toll at CNN, which finds itself at a crossroads. Can its business recover as long as it sticks to the traditional principles of objectivity? Is it time for CNN to change its ways and try a programming approach that indulges in sensationalism or partisanship--though what would the latter even look like given the country's political parties already have news networks to call their own?
If Sorkin ran CNN, my guess is he'd argue that as long as the news was reported with passion and a distinct point of view, everything would be just ducky. As long as modern-day Murrows deliver the news, viewers would lap up un-sexy subjects from overseas wars to financial reform.
That's the rather pat piety at the foundation of Sorkin's fantasy of What News Should Be, at least if the first four episodes of "Newsroom" are any indication.
But that means the show is ignoring the examination of what could be an uglier truth: TV news has become the watered-down pap it largely is today not because the broadcasters unilaterally dumbed it down, but because viewers by and large don't flock to quality coverage the way Sorkin himself does.
That's a reality that could be staring CNN in the face right now. And that's what makes the way Sorkin romanticizes audience receptivity to news a bit jarring if you've followed CNN's travails over the past decade. Like Will McAvoy and Charlie Skinner, the network tried to do the right thing. But it didn't do CNN any good.
There's an inevitable comparison to be made between the fictional cable news network in "Newsroom" and the real one owned by Time Warner. And that's just the problem: There's such a fundamental disconnect between the two given where CNN is at right now that "Newsroom" suffers by comparison.