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Jewish World Review May 12, 2000 / 7 Iyar, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports


Why news executives are hoping this 'woman' is a hit -- THE PEOPLE who have been trying to figure out the meaning of Ananova's debut seem to be missing the point.

Ananova is a newscaster -- she's very attractive. Except she's not human.

Devised by executives at Britain's Press Association news agency, Ananova made her initial appearance last week on the Internet. That's where she lives and works -- people around the world click on to her Web site, and she delivers the news to them.

She's like a wire service -- but she has human qualities. One of the news executives responsible for her said: "She's a lot more than a talking head that reads the news. She's a computer with a face in front of it, not a face with nothing much behind it."

As you might expect, there was considerable controversy about the advisability of letting a non-human anchorperson deliver a serious newscast.

Ananova's information is fed into her with digital codes on each story, so that she can show the proper emotions. If the story is lighthearted, she will smile and perhaps chuckle; if it is about warfare or violence, she will appear grim and concerned.

Focus groups determined what her voice should sound like; the Press Association's division in charge of creating Ananova even came up with a fictional description of the type of woman she is. She is supposed to be 28 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, "quietly intelligent," a woman who enjoys sports statistics, "The Simpsons," Mozart and the British rock band Oasis. Everything from her haircut to her eyes has been designed to make viewers trust her; news executives decided that in talking to viewers, she should "look up slightly, and directly into the camera" (although, of course, there is no camera; Ananova exists only on a screen). Her designers made her eyebrows less full and her lips more full -- it was decided that viewers would like that better.

So the criticism of Ananova has centered on the idea that this is all so contrived -- that a respected news organization has descended into this silliness, and that the whole thing is beneath the honored concept of serious journalism.

Which is where the critics, although well-intentioned, may be missing the point.

Ananova is, in fact, a news executive's dream employee.

She will never ask for a raise. She will never become so full of her own popularity that she begins to demand to run the newscast. She will require no vacations and no days off; she will be asked to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and will not complain.

She won't grow old, unless her bosses decide that it is time to make her a little older. She won't argue with news selection, or question her bosses' priorities, or insist on rewriting the lead story. Regardless of how successful she may become, she will not be able to leverage her standing with her fans into a contract advantage for herself, or threaten to switch networks.

The open secret in the news business is the frustration some executives feel about the power that is gained by men and women who excel on camera. It has nothing to do with physical beauty -- it has to do with news executives fearing that their own control will slip away. In many cases, they believe that they find a journalist, give that journalist the chance for widespread exposure on television -- and soon enough the balance has shifted, and the journalist is demanding big money and a big say in how the whole operation is run. News executives don't often talk about this out loud -- but the bane of their existence is that they may be the bosses on paper, but the people they put in front of the cameras develop the real influence with the public.

And now here comes Ananova. She is the potential answer to every network news division president's innermost wish, to every local news director's dilemma: an anchor who will do exactly what he or she is told, who will never bring an agent in to negotiate a raise no matter how high the ratings climb, who can develop a huge following, yet never challenge the bosses' decisions.

You don't think news executives around the world are silently cheering for Ananova to succeed? If she does, you'll see them bringing in their own Ananovas -- male and female -- in every broadcast newsroom on the planet.

(Newspaper editors would love to do the same thing, but being attractive or personable is not a job requirement for those of us who work for them. We're just sort of here, slouching around; our editors aren't worried we will ever take over. Our bosses know that creating cyber-versions of us would be more trouble than it would be worth.)

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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