Is It News? Or Is It Entertainment? Or Is It Bor-ring?

We here at CJR Daily love a challenge. Go ahead and try us. Challenge us to a softball game, why don’t you? We will meet you on the field and play our hearts out, ragtag bunch that we are. (Seriously — please challenge us to a softball game.)

Given our friendly but competitive nature, we got a little riled when Virginia Heffernan made the observation in her review yesterday of ABC News’ new five-part documentary “Hooking Up” that the show felt closer to reality TV or a dating show than anything typically labeled as news, then followed that up with the statement “Look, I’m just pointing this out. I’m not the Columbia Journalism Review.” Sounds like a challenge to us! So we set our TiVo to catch the show’s premiere last night, and got ready to pass judgment.

Within minutes of turning on the tube this morning, we were all hooked on “Hooking Up.” Ten minutes in we had picked out our favorite characters. Halfway through we were shouting things at the screen, enraged by Lisa’s insistence on hiding that she’s a doctor and Claire’s hang-up with a guy whose first kiss with her was more like an open-mouth head-butt. And by the end, we were sorry it was over — in part because it meant we had to go back to, you know, work, and in part because it meant that it was time to step up to Heffernan’s challenge and weigh in on how to categorize this elusive beast. Turns out it’s not such an easy task. In fact, “Hooking Up” raises more questions about the lines between “reality TV” and the news than it answers.

From watching the first episode of “Hooking Up,” even a discerning eye would not be able to distinguish it from a standard reality show or dating show. (In fact, one CJR Daily reporter watched the entire thing out of the corner of his eye without ever realizing it was pegged as news.) There’s no telltale voiceover chiming in with facts and context for the images on the screen. There are no expert interviews — save those with the expert daters themselves. There’s not even a morning show anchor facilitating an awkward couch-bound conversation.

If you slapped a few sassy pop-up bubbles on the screen, “Hooking Up” would just be a new “Blind Date” with better camera work and less interesting date plans. (Presumably producers aren’t setting up the dates for “Hooking Up.” If they are, can’t they do a little better than bowling and Mister Softee?) As is, “Hooking Up” looks a whole lot like WE’s “Single in the City.” Even the Web sites have the same gimmicks — profiles and pictures of the singles involved, and advice for daters visiting the site.

But those are just issues of format, and who are we to begrudge ABC its attempt to use a spicier, more attractive new format for a news documentary? After all, large news outlets left and right are coming up with trendier ways to market the news — CBS has its new blog, the Washington Post its new online home pages. If it’s okay to cater to the younger market by mimicking the success of online formats, why shouldn’t ABC News feel free to take cues from the rampantly successful reality television genre?

The problem, as we see it, isn’t that the show looks like something other than news. The problem is that the content itself is not worthy of being called “news.” In fact, the content is downright stale. Joanne Ostrow laid out the actual news offered by the show in her review for the Denver Post:

Some singles looking for dates online occasionally lie about their ages.

Shocking revelation No.2: Some of those looking for dates online post what might be called flattering (i.e. misleading) pictures of themselves that tend to disappoint or anger their hopeful dates upon meeting.

… If those facts come as news, you’re probably out of the dating pool.

Not just out of the dating pool — out of the reading pool. The New York Times has been covering online dating for over five years, with an in-depth piece headlined: “Cupid Goes Online for Romances That Click” running back on October 25, 2000. Other papers have been on the trend for about as long.

So although we’re fine with ABC’s choice to infuse their latest news documentary with the trappings of a reality TV show (all the better to get the kiddies hooked), we would have liked to see that recipe applied to something a little more worthy than a five-year-old dating trend.

We hear there’s some pretty dramatic tales unfolding over at the White House … “Leaking With Karl” could shape up to be the next reality-show-esque TV news hit.

Samantha Henig

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Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.