Faced with a brave new world of Internet alternatives to the traditional TV newscast, network and local station executives are wondering what the future holds.
I have seen the future. And it is naked.
A Toronto-based site called NakedNews.com has celebrated its first anniversary on the Web by claiming more than 5 million hits as of January 2001. Not enough to threaten CNN.com or MSNBC.com, but far more than most local TV news Web sites, which don't generate enough traffic to figure in the Media Metrix count of unique users. Naked News is credited with 406,000 unique visitors in December 2000.
Never mind the critics -- including one OnlineJournalism.com commentator -- who complain that newscasters in the nude represent a further blurring of the line between entertainment and information. How's their journalism?
The naked truth is... it's not bad.
Four minutes of international headlines is more than you're likely to find on most U.S. local stations -- or even the major networks on many nights. The difference here is that by the time news anchor Victoria Sinclair gets through the El Salvador earthquake and the Israeli bus crash, her blouse is off.
Political bulletins from Serbia, the Philippines and Zambia take her down to her lingerie. Her hair starts out in a prim-up do, but it tumbles around her shoulders toward the end of the 10-story segment. By the time she reaches the kicker story she isn't wearing anything but a microphone and a smile.
The national report on the Monday-through-Friday daily Web cast includes top stories from the U.S. and Canada. The content of the business report sounds like the latest update from CNBC. Except that on this network, it's always a bare market.
Less ambitious are the sports round-up and the weather segment, featuring a travelogue of the selected country du jour and a few temperature maps.
The four-minute striptease occurs only during the international report, with the rest of the segments featuring full frontal nudity and the occasional rear shot as the presenters walk out of frame. Like news producers everywhere, the writers who prepare the copy for the naked newsreaders want to keep the show moving, and a well-choreographed strip routine takes time.
Sinclair, whose bio indicates that she once worked as a 'copy editor,' is the only member of the four-woman news team to claim any background in journalism. Diane Foster, the spunky weathercaster, is a medical technician. Business reporter Carmen Russo is a former fashion model with a merchandising background. Holly Weston, the sportscaster, is a dance teacher who 'considers her body a temple.'
Speaking of bodies, none of these women appears to be on a first-name basis with a plastic surgeon. They range in age from 30 to 42 and Holly is proudly pregnant. It's more like news from your local nudist colony than anything you'd see on the pages of Playboy, which, according to a February Variety story, is planning to add nude weather babes to its new hardcore channel. The potential competition doesn't worry the women of Naked News, who claim they are not selling sex.
'We are bringing the North American continent a European sensibility, in which there is a much greater acceptance of the naked body,' says Kathy Pinckert, the Naked News' Los Angeles-based spokeswoman.
The site, owned by eGalaxy Inc., is the brainchild of two Canadians; creative director Fernando Pereira and Web developer Kirby Staysna. They hired Sinclair and writer-producer Elliott Shulman, conducted six months of marketing tests and debuted live on the Web in December 1999, several months ahead of a much-publicized Russian news and comedy broadcast that also featured a stripping newswoman.
Media Metrix and the site's own figures put the viewing demographics of Naked News at more than 80 percent male and concentrated between the ages of 18 and 35. A disclaimer warns that the site is not intended for children.
Pinckert believes that couples watching together account for much of the female audience, but that could change soon. Naked News is currently holding auditions for male Webcasters and planning to add on-location reporters of both sexes. The expansion is part of long-range strategy to put Naked News on cable TV.
More than 78 percent of the 330,000 viewers who responded to a survey on the Web site indicated they'd like to see the program on television. One reason for this may be the inconsistent experience of downloading the 20-minute program. It took more than an hour over my home cable-DSL linkup, with both RealPlayer and Windows Media Player delivering jerky images and delayed sound.
The Naked News team claims a substantial cult following on college campuses where users tend to have better Internet connections and a young, hip audience that tends to shun traditional newscasts.
Naked News currently survives on ads hawking online gambling, lingerie, sexy swimsuits and nudist vacation tours. But it's only a matter of time before a big time sponsor gets on board and an established newswoman with network credibility cashes in on a lucrative opportunity to take her clothes off.
With network news divisions and local stations scrapping to hang on to their share of a dwindling TV audience, it wouldn't surprise me if a broadcast channel tried to sign Ms. Sinclair to read the headlines with her clothes on. With her classy Canadian accent and the occasional 'oot' and 'aboot,' she could give Peter Jennings a run for the money.
Let's applaud the Naked News for doing what the Web does best: confronting and pushing back the boundaries of conventional media. It's a reality check for an industry where all three network evening newscasts and most of the prime time cable news offerings are dominated by male anchors. It's a wake-up call for every paunchy, over-60 anchorman who shares the news desk with a woman less than half his age. In the future world of naked news, women will rule.
It's pretty hard to accuse Naked News of journalistic prostitution when TV news already has put its own integrity up for sale. CBS network and local stations are devoting large portions of their news hole to plugs for 'Survivor: The Australian Outback;' MSNBC frequently cross-promotes the so-called political coverage on Saturday Night Live and in Jay Leno's monologue; and ABC outlets rarely hesitate to tout the latest Disney offering.
The same corporate bean counters whose cost-cutting contributed to the election night exit poll fiasco will embrace the opportunity to eliminate the anchors' clothing allowance in favor of newscasters who need only a good bikini wax.
So if the future is naked, bring it on. Viewers would be better served if everyone tried to put on a newscast 'with nothing to hide.'