Column: Let’s pay attention to those television news backgrounds

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 1, 2002

With the arrival of the fall season, the folks out here between the cornrows could have an interesting opportunity to see if the weather is really changing in our nation’s capital. I’m making this comment because so many of the television network and cable news channels like to use the capitol building in Washington, D.C., as part of their scenic and super-patriotic backgrounds.

For a real touch of reality and honesty, I suggest we all watch the Weather Channel to determine the actual outdoor conditions in and around Washington, D.C. Once this fact for the day is established, then viewers in Albert Lea can just move up a few channels to those cable outlets specializing in news and/or commentaries.

If there’s a rainstorm, or blizzard, or even high winds, then the scene in the background should reflect the very same weather conditions. If the trees in the background are forever green and never moving, then what we seeing is

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just a great big mural. Also, if there’s no movement of traffic or pedestrians, or leaves stirring in the trees, then it’s safe to assume the background is just plain fakery. In other words, some of those backgrounds showing the nation’s capitol building or its dome and the adjacent scenery are just permanent parts of the studio’s setting.

Flags are also very popular items for background scenery. The stars and stripes really add a patriotic touch. Perhaps the very best example of this type of background was in the film, &uot;Patton.&uot; Standing on the stage in front of a huge American flag, George Scott (portraying General Patton at the start of World War II) gave a rousing pep talk to the troops at the start of this film.

Yet, sometimes the political characters can overdo this flag detail. If one politician is on the podium in front of four flags, his or her rival will try to top this with six flags at the next appearance. Before long the battle of the background flags is underway. One of the television comics once counted 18 flags lined up behind one candidate for some obscure political office.

A very popular background for any major city featured in a newscast is based on either the skyscraper skyline or a snowcapped mountain. For Portland, Ore., for example, it’s Mount Hood. For Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., it’s Mount Rainier. And maybe there’s a little rivalry involved with the choice of those two mountains for the backgrounds.

Those two mountains, the skyscraper skylines, and even the nation’s capitol building, have to be considered as either standard scenes, or as part of the live shots through the studio’s windows or for outside events.

Years ago I spent five weeks at Fort Lewis, Wash., during the months of January and February. Winter in that part of the nation was based on daily rain, fog, consistent cloudy conditions, and the most miserably high humidity I’ve ever encountered.

There was a rumor that Mount Rainier wasn’t too far away (in reality, about 40 miles). Yet, all we were seeing each day was rain, fog, and the clouds covering the supposedly nearby Cascade Mountains. Just once during those five weeks did the clouds clear away enough so we could see this spectacular 14,411-foot-high peak.

Yet, I have a hunch some area television station in Seattle is using a daytime cloud-free scene of Mount Rainier during the late evening newscasts.

Sometimes the background portion of a television newscast can be more interesting than what the newscaster in the camera’s focus is trying to do.

My favorite example of this is based on a newscaster who was outside a courthouse a few years ago. As this reporter was updating the news from a famous trial, a man with a big poster was walking back and forth in the background. His poster had absolutely nothing to do with the trial. This man was obviously trying to get national attention for his particular cause. It wasn’t long before the cameraman and the newscaster were playing a goofy game of trying to avoid the persistent stranger with the poster.

And here’s where the background in a live telecast became more interesting than what was in the foreground.

Tribune feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears Fridays in the Tribune.