Sunday night's episode of HBO's The Newsroom picked up with News Night gaining steam after breaking a big story about the BP oil leak. With the ACN cable news show resting on its newly-donned laurels, a train wreck of a broadcast about Arizona's immigration law unfurls, leaving many worried that the new team is destined to fail. While the entire group floundered, key characters were also victims of their own personal catastrophes, as past and present romances saw their own public misfortunes. Despite the calamitous sub-plots, the episode itself was clunky, as writer and producer Aaron Sorkin struggles to find the focus of his latest show. "Is it going to be about what happens in a newsroom, or is it going to be about a love story, and whatever happens in the newsroom doesn't matter as much?" asks Jessica Stuart, a 15-year television veteran who has worked in cable and network news.
In Sunday's episode, News Night's executive producer MacKenzie McHale outlines for her staff "News Night 2.0," her strategy to reboot cable news. Planning a big broadcast on SB 1070, Arizona's immigration law, brings out the staff's political views, with young staffers voicing their concerns for the welfare of undocumented young people (prototype "DREAMers"), and anchor Will McAvoy barking (as seems to be his only mode of expression) concerns about American jobs taken by illegal immigrants. "I think personal politics do get subtly integrated into how staffs cover the news today. However, it's certainly not as blatant or inflated as it appeared in this episode," explains Stuart, who discussed the accuracy of Sorkin's portrayal of a cable newsroom in E-mail and over the phone.
In assistant producer Maggie Jordan's pre-interview with a representative of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who is scheduled to appear on News Night to defend the law, it's not Maggie's political views that cause problems, as her supervisors warn. Rather, a dig she makes on the Brewer staffer's sexual history (Maggie briefly dated him in college) costs the broadcast its star guest. That the pre-interview carries high stakes is accurate, according to Stuart. "Over the years, as the power shift has changed, in my opinion, between the networks and the interviewee, I think that the pre-interview has become more of a political dance….A botched pre-interview can definitely cost a guest." However, Stuart has a hard time believing that Maggie would have been so reckless. "If you are a young and hungry associate producer, as they're trying to make her out to be, you're not going to screw that up. You're not going to do anything to jeopardize that live television interview."
MacKenzie also lets her personal concerns compromise her professional reputation, sending Will McAvoy an E-mail about the demise of their romantic relationship that instead hit every inbox the media company holds. (We later learn 178,000 people received the embarrassing note.) "That E-mail situation is really common," says Stuart, stressing that everybody in the business could tell a story of an E-mail sent to the wrong recipient.
When the episode puts aside all of the heartache to focus on business of news, we see Will worried about the ratings, meeting up with the network ratings expert, even as MacKenzie has instructed him to be more concerned with the quality of the show's content rather than its viewership.
The content-verse-ratings debate is "the most fascinating," according to Stuart. "Everybody is watching [the ratings numbers]. For an anchor, it becomes a negotiation tool for the next contract. It is a business. When the ratings go down, it is easy to blame the anchor."
The tension between Will and MacKenzie grows as the show prepares to go live. Brewer has canceled her appearance after Maggie's gaffe, leaving the staff scrambling to assemble a haphazard panel—a beauty pageant runner-up, a racist professor, and a militia man—to discuss the law. "In this day and age you get that last-minute cancellation and you have to fill the time. That 8 o'clock hour, that 9 o'clock hour is going to come no matter what, so you have to fill it," says Stuart. Will tries his best to "carry" the interview, a challenge real anchors sometimes face."You'll notice how he actually handled it...[anchors will] stop asking questions, and start making leading statements," Stuart explains. Not even Will can save the doomed broadcast as the rest of the staff watches in horror. "I have been Maggie, thinking, 'This is the end of my career.'" says Stuart.
As the episode ends, the disastrous broadcast is used as a vehicle to further the romantic plotlines. Senior producer Jim Harper falls on his sword for Maggie—but chooses to lecture her on her lack of "courage" years ago in college, instead of her current lack of professionalism. A drunken Maggie, drowning her sorrows after her mistake, breaks up with Don (a producer who has left Will's show for another broadcast) over his lack of support in her struggles. But rather than let a pining Jim pick up the pieces of her whiskey-soaked heart, she vows to make up with Don.
In our other subplot of the night, MacKenzie and Will blur the lines of a personal and professional argument, one that ends in MacKenzie giving Will a professional ultimatum about buying into her plans for News Night. As MacKenzie sulks in the corner of the bar, Will phones MacKenzie, and dramatically lifts her spirits by side-stepping their personal issues and telling her he's "in" for her new approach.
As bright as the future looked both the fictional News Night and real-life The Newsroom in last week's premiere, it only takes an hour (or an episode) for everything to come crashing down. When the characters (and Sorkin, for that matter) decide to focus more on the professional side instead of the personal, the crew at ACN (and viewers) will see what quality programming can look like.