While "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" continues to ascend to a spooky legitimacy, feeding off the same absurdities that news anchors report with a straight face, entertainment news remains stubbornly unlampooned. Why doesn't Comedy Central, for instance, do an "Access Hollywood" spoof as a companion to Stewart? You could call it "Showbiz Tonight," and you could give the host a name like A.J. Hammer, and Hammer could kick it out to Sibila Vargas for pre-Oscar coverage, saying, "It's all coming together, Sibila, isn't it?" And Sibila would say, "Everything is coming together for Hollywood's big night, A.J. Here's what's happening in Hollywood."
At this point I feel obliged to inform you that this show is already on, although very few people are tuning in so far, judging by its bargain-basement cable ratings during initial airings. Still, "Showbiz Tonight" is part of a rollout of prime-time programming, dubbed "Headline Prime," begun last week on CNN's sister network, CNN Headline News. You know Headline News, it's where you go to get nuance on the Islamist platform of the United Iraqi Alliance while you're on the treadmill at the gym. Now the network has scheduled "Showbiz Tonight" at 4 and then again at 7, a beguiling hour of entertainment industry nonsense, followed by "Nancy Grace," which is pitched as a tough-talking legal affairs program, but is closer in spirit to "America's Most Wanted," not to mention Maury Povich, Sally Jesse Raphael and Jerry Springer. Grace, a former criminal prosecutor, alternates between fulminating rage and tears (and sometimes fulminating tearful rage) at the day's most sensational criminal cases.
Then follows a spruced-up, hourlong version of Headline News' bread and butter, called "Prime News Tonight." Co-hosted by Mike Galanos and Erica Hill, who are trying for a news-magazine feel, the show spends four minutes on the bird flu story instead of one. It means to be more serious, to slow down Headline News' usual Orwellian loop of national and global misery and fear, and it does this job in a serviceable way. But the rubric is still the world as infotainment: Should we be scared of this bird flu? And what's this latest identity theft scam? Now here's our tech guy to tell you about some new gadgets.
Headline News isn't CBS, or even CNN, but in the landscape of broadcast news, this new trio of programs neatly represents the slow but steady march away from perspective, balance and a genuine interest in the world outside of what might immediately affect you and your lifestyle, or what might stimulate for you some primal feeling of outrage or pity or disgust.
Of the three shows, "Showbiz Tonight" may be the lesser evil, if only because, being about celebrities, it doesn't involve real people. Still, the program illustrates why you can't touch Hollywood reporting as comedy: The format is its own outsized joke, with nothing really at stake except viewers' brain matter. Because there's an hour to fill, co-hosts Hammer and Karyn Bryant anchor a dizzying array of segments, including the punditry of the "Buzz Bench" (in which I learned that J.Lo is "trending downward") to the "Crossfire"-like "Showbiz Showdown," wherein two C-list entertainment media types debate the topic of the evening. One night last week it was, Should Chris Rock host the Oscars? "He is the flavor of the month, but it's the flavor of Rocky Road -- nothing but trouble," Martin Grove of Hollywood Reporter Online said. Rocky Road, flavor of trouble. I wrote that down.
I also wrote down, Here is what we know right now, which is how reporter Brooke Anderson introduced the story of Jessica Simpson's reported stomachache, and Look at Arnold, will you go into politics? which was what Hammer wanted to know from actor Alan Alda, because he appears -- appears, A.J. -- on "The West Wing."
"Showbiz Tonight" is followed by "Nancy Grace," which sounds like a CBS drama starring Sally Field as a crusading doctor or teacher or ambassador to the Hague, but which in fact stars Nancy Grace as Nancy Grace. She is the host of "Closing Arguments" on Court TV. On "Nancy Grace," she begins each show by getting terrifically emotional about the most sensational case her staff can find on that given day, then she turns take-no-prisoners as a peanut gallery of talking heads is assembled -- defense lawyers, prosecutors, expert shrinks, who under Grace's no-nonsense command conduct a kind of kangaroo court based on what thin information is available about the case.
Laci Peterson murder cases don't grow on trees, but the show's launch is timed nicely with the Michael Jackson trial, and in her debut week Grace caught a programming break -- the murder in Texas of Lisa Underwood and her 7-year-old son, Jayden, allegedly by a boyfriend. Grace seemed to be fighting back those tears as she interviewed two Underwood family members.
"Shortly we'll be joined by Jayden's first-grade teacher -- it hurts me just to even say that, first ... grade ... teacher," Grace emoted. Twenty minutes later the talking heads were going at it. "We don't really know if he killed them," defense lawyer Daniel Horowitz said of the accused.
There commenced much kibitzing, and I thought of the Underwood loved ones, who were in a studio in Texas, listening to this. Like "Showbiz Tonight," "Nancy Grace" is all showbiz, all the time -- only with lawyers shouting back and forth and victims brought onstage for cameo appearances. Beneath them runs the crawl.