- - Friday, April 29, 2011

Kate Middleton wore her hair down, just like Anderson Cooper knew she would.

“We were told it would be hair down,” Mr. Cooper said as he discussed the coiffure issue live on CNN. “I don’t know why we even know that.”

Mr. Cooper was part of the massive team deployed by CNN to cover Friday’s wedding of Ms. Middleton - sorry, make that Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn, and Lady Carrickfergus (yes, Carrickfergus) - to Prince William. Coverage kicked off at 4 a.m. here in the former British colonies, two hours before the wedding began. The broadcast networks and their cable-news counterparts paid tribute like loyal subjects of the crown, sending teams of experts and most of their top on-air talent to cover the event from London. On the broadcast nets, whose news departments in the era of corporate consolidation and media fragmentation have become emaciated versions of their former selves, coverage lasted for about six hours. On the 24-hour cable channels, it lasted, well, longer.

But did Americans, whose entire national identity is based on not having monarchs of our own to support with our tax dollars, really want all that coverage? Turns out we didn’t. A Pew Research Center poll conducted prior to the wedding found that 64 percent of Americans believe that the event has received too much media attention.

Alex Weprin, editor of MediaBistro.com’s TVNewser blog, believes that the networks misjudged audience interest in the story.

“The last royal wedding, between Princess Diana and Prince Charles, was huge,” Mr. Weprin said. “But back in 1981, the TV landscape was totally different. Cable was brand new. Everyone watched broadcast TV, and there were three networks that people watched. There was definitely a significant amount of interest in this, but I suspect that it’s probably less than the interest that you saw back when Charles and Diana were married.”

According to Mr. Weprin, the royal wedding presented the networks with a rare and ultimately irresistible opportunity - the chance to monetize news coverage. Despite the early start time, the wedding allowed the networks to prepare hours-long, feel-good broadcasts that would prove attractive to advertisers. But with so much invested in turning a story about two wealthy socialites into the TV event of the century, there was little bandwidth left for news of genuine import, such as the aftermath of tornadoes that ravaged the American South on Thursday.

“When very serious stuff is happening - 300 people are dead, that’s more than the Oklahoma City bombing, for comparison’s sake - that is real news and closer to home,” Mr. Weprin said. “That certainly deserves lots of coverage. I think absolutely the networks deserve some criticism for not dedicating as much resources to the situation as they would have were this wedding not happening.”

Donald Reick, executive director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University says that it’s a subjective call whether the media made too much of the royals, but defends the decision to take “a short time out” to cover news that is “charming and entertaining.” He also notes that the Pew poll numbers are ironic, given Americans’ fixation with celebrity trainwrecks such as Anna Nicole Smith and Charlie Sheen.

“It’s hypocritical of Americans to frown on two weeks or 10 days of the royal wedding in England,” Mr. Reick says. He concedes, however, that the wedding has crowded other stories out of the public eye. “It can’t help but crowd out.”

But with the king- and queen-in-waiting now married, and the media given the weekend to shake off its post-wedding hangover, we can now return our attention to more serious matters - or at least we can try.

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