Yes, celebrity journalism has begun to take up more airtime and editorial space. But for today's audiences, rich and famous means real news. Thanks a lot, Brangelina
Just minutes after the latest issue arrives in cardboard boxes, a boisterous Weekly Scoop office falls to a dead silence. It’s just been delivered from its Quebecor-owned printer in Aurora, and the editors and staff writers eagerly devour the result of their week’s work. At the recently established downtown Toronto headquarters on Peter Street, this is typical Wednesday behaviour. Associate copy editor Ryan Porter sits at his computer and reads with his feet kicked up onto an adjacent desk, perusing his handiwork. Nearby, four women – all Scoop editors and writers – gather in an impromptu circle to sit and flip through the magazine before it hits newsstands the following Monday. One writer says, “This is a good issue,” to no one in particular. Another quips, “I love Johnny Depp,” pausing at a two-page spread of the actor.
Because Weekly Scoop is sold exclusively at checkout, where impulse buying is most likely to happen, the cover of each issue is all-important. Former Weekly Scoop publisher Kathryn Swan has high hopes for the issue that has just arrived because it features a large cover photo of Ashlee Simpson. The shot captures the marginally talented American pop star – once caught lip-synching live but now forgiven by fans – mid-cackle. She visited Toronto recently to co-host MuchMusic’s “MuchOnDemand” program to promote her sophomore CD, I Am Me. Inside the magazine, the Scoop has an exclusive interview with the 21-year-old singer, as well as stills from a fiasco that aired on eTalk Daily, CTV’s entertainment vehicle that show an intoxicated Simpson climbing onto a McDonald’s counter. She refuses to be photographed with a fan, insisting in a drunken drawl: “No, I will not take a picture with you. You wouldn’t kiss my foot, so fuck you!”
When it comes to magazines, the top five titles in the United States every week are routinely in the celebrity category: People, Us Weekly, Star, National Enquirer and In Touch rotate in and out of the top spot. The Enquirer alone has a circulation of around three million copies a week, making it the best-selling tabloid in the U.S. Celebrity journalism is now picking up speed in Canada. There are numerous broadcast outlets, including a Canadian version of Entertainment Tonight that launched last September and eTalk Daily, hosted by former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s son, Ben, as well as numerous exclamatory outlets including Star!Daily, Inside Entertainment and Sun TV’s Inside Jam! The print world is catching on to the fact that celebrity news generates a lot of revenue, while still being cheap to produce. In addition to the launch of Weekly Scoop, Rogers Publishing has plans to start a Canadian edition of British celebrity weekly HELLO! this August.
While the Scoop’s content falls under the heading of soft journalism, the potential for profit is anything but. Celebrity journalism is the fastest growing magazine category in North America. That’s worrisome, because the media’s growing reliance on – and the public’s growing preference for – celebrity rather than hard news is precisely the kind of situation Knowlton Nash alerted readers to in his book Trivia Pursuit: How Showbiz Values Are Corrupting the News. In 1998, the former anchor of CBC’s The National wrote of journalism, “It’s a business in trouble because of its current obsession with immediacy, with the pursuit of trivia, with entertainment and gossip.”
Eight years after writing Trivia Pursuit, the former news head must be watching and reading helplessly as celebrity stories now regularly appear front and centre on television and in print. While it might be another trend that fades away, the thirst for celebrity news is currently unquenchable. But media outlets are happy to try to slake it, increasing profit margins by producing inexpensive content that ignores hard news.
In 2005, Ipsos Reid conducted a poll that seemed to echo Nash’s fears. The company found that forty-two per cent of Canadians think entertainment is over-reported in the news, leaving little room for reportage of more substantive issues. But then, news consumers seem to be telling publishers and broadcast executives there is no such thing as too much gossip. Celebrities have become the idolized heroes of a generation of readers infatuated with the rich and famous and their scandals. Entertainment coverage gives credence to the gossip and rumours, while downplaying the traditional dangers of this kind of reporting – unsubstantiated sources, stories of little importance, and the reduced distance between journalists and celebrities. Access, in some cases by any means necessary, is what really counts in the world of celebrity coverage.
The abundance of American magazines flooding the Canadian market is what inspired the concept for Weekly Scoop over a year ago. The magazine was born on July 13, 2004 when Judy Sims, director of new ventures and innovations for Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd., “identified a void in the marketplace.” She came up with the model and presented Weekly Scoop to Torstar executives the next day. After exactly a year of work with focus groups made up of women aged 18 to 49, the distribution and sales plans were refined to reflect this target audience. Former Scoop publisher Swan confirms the magazine was launched as part of a strategy to expand Torstar Corp.’s media holdings.
Weekly Scoop hit newsstands on October 3, 2005. Torstar, which also publishes countless Harlequin romance novels, bragged about mounting the largest Canadian newsstand launch ever. The company did not do things halfway. It secured 14,000 newsstand pockets at checkout counters in major Canadian retailers such as Loblaws, Wal-Mart and Shoppers Drug Mart and debuted its new product at a promotional price of $1.99. It spent more than $1 million in promotional advertising, going up against American giants of tabloid journalism like Us Weekly and Star magazine. After seven issues, Weekly Scoop – Canada’s first and only English-language celebrity magazine – started to sell out at some newsstands. It’s too early to determine concrete sales figures but circulation manager Mike Marcos reports that of 110,000 issues that go to print each week, roughly 25,000 are sold.
The widespread obsession with celebrity culture may seem relatively new, but Weekly Scoop editor-in-chief Vivian Vassos argues that the celebrity journalism phenomenon has been with us for decades. She says it began with the public’s early mania over film stars like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The paparazzi thrived on their on-again, off-again romance. Two dozen of them once burst into a restaurant, trampling waiters in the skirmish to get shots of Taylor secretly dining with shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. She hid under the table while Onassis splashed champagne on the photographers. Burton inevitably learned of his wife’s deception; their second marriage ended a year later.
While Taylor and Burton are obvious touchstones, celebrity infatuation has always been with us. Progenitors of today’s celebrity- centric tabloids can be traced as far back as the seventeenth century with the birth of what were then called “ballads” and “newsbooks.” The ballads recounted sensational stories about murders, omens and unusual births in verse, while the newspaper covered stories with pithy, colloquial prose. This medium evolved into the “penny press,” which emerged in 1833 with the Sun in New York. For one cent, the working class public could buy a smaller, cheaper version of the newspaper, offering human-interest stories written in plain but vivid language. While the six-cent subscription newspapers routinely relied on documents and court records in stories, the penny papers pioneered reporting methods journalists employ today – the interviewing, observation and description required for appealing, human-interest narratives – albeit put to the service of sensational stories.
After Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World in 1883 and William Randolph Hearst acquired the New York Journal thirteen years later, this kind of “yellow journalism” became the weapon each paper used to try and conquer the other in an all-out circulation war. The competition became so fierce that in 1924, Hearst launched the American Daily Mirror with this mandate: “Ninety per cent entertainment, ten per cent information – and the information without boring you.” When actor Rudolph Valentino died in 1926, the tabloids were heavily criticized for overlooking the death of Harvard educator Charles W. Eliot, who had died just two days earlier. But if Valentino was less important than Eliot, he was certainly more glamorous to the mostly working-class tabloid readership, attracting more than 100,000 mourners to his funeral.
By the 1950s, gossip columns and tabloids were thriving. When Taylor broke up singer Eddie Fisher’s marriage to Debbie Reynolds, the public could not get enough of the starlet’s homewrecking. The gossip not only increased Taylor’s celebrity, it made many stars realize what a little scandalous publicity can do to propel a career. Today, the powerful torque of Internet sites devoted to celebrity gossip has pushed this obsession into overdrive.
Jonathan Burgess, associate professor with the department of classics at the University of Toronto, speculates that celebrity journalism increasingly replaces more traditional stories. “Perhaps since we have lost myths, traditional tales, shared cultural narratives going back generations, you could say that celebrities fill a gap.” Burgess argues that the media’s constant coverage of the rich and famous has elevated these figures to the near-mythical status in the public eye. “Celebrities are often trendy and ephemeral but due to mass media they are known everywhere. To that extent they are shared cultural material, like myth.”
One morning in early December, ET Canada assistant director Gillian Parker sits in a dim control room in one of the editing suites. She’s watching one of twenty-eight monitors built into the adjacent wall. Directly above is a brightly lit clock. It’s nearing 11 A.M. when host Cheryl Hickey, after a wardrobe check, is ready for her stand-up on what looks like a glowing, elevated runway surrounded by bright poinsettias. In a sparkly teal top and black gaucho pants, she poses carefully with her hands folded in front of her, bobby pins and hairspray keeping her blonde hair perfectly still. In the control room, clasping a yellow stopwatch, Parker watches Hickey on the monitor. She counts her down, “Five, four, three, two….” Hickey’s voice blasts over the control room speakers with unanticipated intensity, “Hello everybody, I’m Cheryl Hickey.” Her emphasis and intonation make her sound like Mary Hart’s twin.
Global TV’s Entertainment Tonight Canada (ET Canada for short) – a new domestic partner of the 25-year-old American program, ET- and Star!Daily have joined established entertainment shows like eTalk Daily, Inside Entertainment and Sun TV’s Inside Jam! Newcomer ET Canada has a distinct, immediate advantage: access to twenty-five years of exclusive archival footage from its American counterpart. Launched last September, ET Canada airs every evening one half-hour before its syndicated big sister. Each show’s introduction is peppered with teasers from American hosts Hart or Mark Steines. The idea is to pull Canadian viewers into watching back-to-back episodes. The half-hour Canadian version features the bubbly Hickey hosting against the signature ET backdrop and theme song.
Hickey had recently been a guest on CBC radio’s Sounds Like Canada, defending ET’s journalistic content. She said to host Shelagh Rogers, “I think what we do is journalism. We tell stories just like journalists do, but in a different way.” When the allure of celebrity culture came up, Hickey mentioned the escapism generally tied to entertainment journalism. “We live in a stressful climate and people just want to sit back and relax.”
In between takes, as Bob Marley’s “Jamming” wafts out of the speakers, Hickey announces she was one of the answers in the Star crossword that appeared in the previous Saturday’s edition. Her stylist mumbles to herself, “It must be some kind of milestone,” about Hickey’s newfound minor celebrity status.
After sneaking into the control room to lick organic peanut butter from a plastic knife, Hickey prepares for the next reading. She’s struggling to pronounce Stavros Niarchos, Paris Hilton’s boyfriend. She tries saying his last name with an accent, then drops it altogether and settles for Stavros. The segment is about Mary Kate Olsen’s interview with W magazine, after the famous twin’s much-publicized bout with anorexia and recent break-up with Niarchos. Hickey finishes in a falsetto, “But she still misses her ex – Stavros.” As her stylist reapplies her blush off-camera, Hickey mockingly adds, “Even though he cheated on her and went to Paris [Hilton].” She jokes in a syrupy voice, “She has a Buddha doll now.” Off-camera, celebrity journalists often resort to sarcasm, if only as a defence mechanism against the inane behaviour of their subjects.
In the control room, five directors piece the show together, rewinding a screeching tape of reporter Roz Weston’s interview with Bryan Adams. Weston is standing to Adams’s right in a black shirt, with his arms folded. “We’re hanging in Quebec City with one of the coolest guys in rock ‘n’ roll – Bryan Adams!” Adams interrupts in his soft-spoken voice, “Thank you,” before Weston continues, “Kicking off his tour tonight.”
They both continue to smile at the camera before being signalled that it’s stopped rolling. Adams elbows Weston in the ribs and laughs: “Kicking off his big Canadian tour. C’mon, give ’em some action, man – it’s entertainment!” Weston begins to tape a second time, careful to emphasize the word Canadian. Adams throws him a high-five and says, “Dude that was perfect, you just need some encouragement.” As Weston begins to tape another take Adams jokingly warns, “One last chance – burn this off.” Weston continues to stare intently at the camera without looking at Adams, saying, “I’ll burn it off,” through a clenched grin. In the control room, a few directors begin to chuckle and snort.
Several hours later, having returned from Quebec City, Weston walks into the small control room. Zusko gives him a friendly handshake and asks, “Was Bryan Adams pissing you off a little bit?” Weston responds with a nod, “Yeah, a little bit,” before they joke back and forth about the superstar being “a douche” for the condescending treatment. Weston was irritated but managed to shake Adams’s hand and say, “Thanks, that was fun” after filming his last stand-up with the singer. One of the unwritten clauses in the celebrity reporter’s job description is grinning and bearing the celebrity – however annoying – in return for access and cooperation.
Weston’s lip curls slightly as he realizes I’m a reporter and I’ve overheard the kvetching. After we shake hands, graphics designer Allen Savoie says, “He’s bigger than Ben Mulroney!” poking fun at eTalk’s rival host. Zusko scolds, “Shhh… you’re gonna get us in trouble.” Savoie backtracks a little, adding, “I meant physically bigger.”
The rivalry between the two shows is no secret. The next morning, at eTalk Daily’s Toronto offices, I’m wrapping up an interview with executive producer Jordan Schwartz. He calls after me as I walk out of his office, coat in hand. He’s just received a message on his BlackBerry. Every morning, Canadian content times are tallied and sent to Schwartz. Each night, CTV monitors eTalk and ET Canada at 7 P.M. EST and, using a stopwatch, compares the number of minutes allocated to Canadian stories by each show. As he scrolls down the BlackBerry’s screen, Schwartz says, “If we’re all supposed to be doing Canadian and putting Canadian stars first and others aren’t – it’s important to know that others aren’t.” eTalk’s December 7 show, according to this tally, aired fifteen minutes and thirty-three seconds of Canadian content during the twenty-one minute broadcast (not including commercials), while ET Canada docked only 4:35 CanCon. Although eTalk wins in the Broadcast Measurement Bureau (BBM) ratings with more viewers overall, ET Canada’s senior executive producer Zev Shalev argues that, while technically true, ET wins viewers where it counts ? he claims they pull in the big city audiences across the country.
ET Canada offers celebrity content with a Canadian twist, but then Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) content requirements make it impossible for the program not to include homegrown subject matter. In March 1995, the CRTC announced in a news release that it was introducing a flexible policy with “an emphasis on promoting Canadian entertainment programming.” It introduced the policy before renewing licences for private, English-language stations in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. At the time, the CRTC found that Canadian entertainment programming (including drama, music and variety) was significantly under-represented. “As an example, only twenty-five per cent of all English-language entertainment programming scheduled in the evening is Canadian,” former CRTC chairman Keith Spicer noted at the time. The CRTC issued an ultimatum. “Licensees of most private English-language television stations earning over $10 million in annual advertising revenues and network payments may now choose between two options: continue with a condition of licence on Canadian programming expenditures; or adhere to a condition of licence requiring the licensee to broadcast a specific number of hours per week of Canadian entertainment programming between 6:00 P.M. and midnight.”
Since the policy, entertainment programming in Canada has escalated sharply – and not necessarily for the good. In a recent broadcast of ET Canada, this distinct content comprised an “exclusive” visit to TV personality Lynda Reeves’s home. While ET reporter Weston admired the flat-screen TV, it became clear the “exclusive” was actually a plug for her interior design series, the Global-aired House & Home. Many of the so-called exclusives that run on both eTalk and ET Canada are little more than self-promotion for their respective networks. In fact, Schwartz, who is also vice-president of daytime programming for CTV, is proud of this and suggests the idea of plugging network programs originated at eTalk.
There is the problem of corporate self-promotion being passed off as Canadian content and then there is Canadian over-kill. The Scoop’s entertainment and celebrity editor Nelson Branco points to the many stars within Quebec as evidence that hero worship can be incubated here too. “We’re trying to create a Canadian star system,” he says, pausing to add emphasis, “…slowly.” Comparing celebrity journalism to soap operas, he says the war in Iraq has given entertainment journalism a major boost. “We look to entertainment to escape the depressing hard news,” he says, a realization that has propelled the lucrative celebrity journalism business in Canada.
The Scoop editors say its office receives a steady parade of positive letters from readers who can’t get enough coverage of Canadian content. One wrote, typically, “Finally, a Canadian gossip magazine to call our own.” The editors maintain the position that their weekly tattle sheet is a legitimate magazine that covers beauty and fashion trends as well as celebrity gossip. And, they say, despite the preponderance of American television, pop and film stars crowding the Scoop’s pages, they’re creating and growing an English Canadian star system. Once-neglected Canadian stars now understand that by developing long-term relationships with entertainment journalists, they can boost their careers and magazine sales, much like their American counterparts.
The Scoop’s launch issue set the overall tone. It identified itself with a banner reading “Canada’s hottest international celebrity magazine,” although it’s Canada’s only English-language celebrity magazine. The issue doesn’t promote Canadian stars. Instead, capitalizing on what has come to be known as the “Brangelina” story, it features American stars on location in a Canadian province. On the cover, Angelina Jolie is framed with the headline: “Brad and Angelina: Wedding Bells in Alberta?” Vassos points out that it’s Scoop’s mandate to take a Canadian approach to international celebrity and entertainment. “Canadians have a unique sense of humour,” she says. “They don’t take celebrity culture too seriously.”
The day after Ashlee Simpson’s profane outburst at McDonald’s, Scoop assistant features editor Michelle Bilodeau interviewed the pop star in her hotel room. “Now that I know she was drinking the night before,” Bilodeau says of the encounter, “I wasn’t surprised.” Still, the reporter worries that Simpson’s representatives at Universal Music Canada might be unhappy. “I still have a feeling that the label will call me and ask me what’s up,” she says. Scoop packaged the interview segment with exclusive footage of the spicy McDonald’s incident, courtesy of eTalk. The magazine and the show share information and stories, including a column. A fan had followed Simpson into McDonald’s with a camcorder and then sold the tape to eTalk. “We had to report it,” says Bilodeau. “We had to play it up to get readers interested.”
A publicist from Universal had been present for Bilodeau’s entire twenty-minute interview in Simpson’s room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, but they didn’t discuss the incident because the amateur tape that caught Simpson inebriated and swearing hadn’t yet been leaked. Bilodeau needn’t have worried – Simpson’s handlers didn’t say boo after the story ran – but her experience in the entertainment industry has made her keenly aware of the quid pro quo relationship between journalists and celebrities. With Simpson, she set a warm, soft tone for the interview by praising the singer for achieving back-to-back number-one singles. From that moment on, apart from not wanting to talk about her sister, singer/actor Jessica, Simpson was fairly candid.
Senior producer Darren Soloman believeseTalk received the now-infamous tape because of its reputation for fairness and reliable sources. When I characterize the freelance work as the “drunken Ashlee Simpson tape,” Soloman gets defensive. “We didn’t say she was drunk,” he retorts. “It doesn’t matter if you say it,” I reply, “she’s clearly intoxicated on tape.” “But it does matter,” Soloman answers back. Soloman seems worried that eTalk will be seen as too salacious and says Simpson was treated with respect. When I mention that they aired the tape despite the possibility of a backlash from the singer’s record company, Soloman changes his tune. He leans back in his swivel chair, seizing the opportunity to champion eTalk for not pulling punches. Nodding seriously, he says, “Right, we report what we know is true.” eTalk publicist Emily Young Lee, who has been sitting in on our interview, realizes Soloman has perhaps betrayed a little too much emotion, and tries to do a bit of damage control. She describes the story as “strong journalism,” forming a fist with her right hand to hammer her point home into her outstretched palm.
Back at Scoop ‘s weekly post-mortem session, an hour of reading the Simpson issue has passed before Branco announces the good news: Us Weekly will also be featuring Simpson on its cover next week. He should recognize good news when he sees it – the one-time fab magazine writer turned down a senior editing position at In Touch magazine in New York, opting instead to periodically write for them so he could stay in Toronto to join the Scoop team. For him, matching the cover story of a major American celebrity magazine is proof positive that the Scoop’s editorial instincts are spot-on. The fledgling weekly is officially fit to compete against the American monoliths.
As for the prevailing allure of American megastars, editor-in-chief Vassos says celebrity culture reveals a lot about our own lives. The Scoop team can ponder these issues amidst the gallery of large photos of celebrities – ones that have appeared in the magazine – that adorn the office walls. There is the “wall of fame (or shame),” featuring Lindsay Lohan looking gaunt, Russell Crowe being led away in handcuffs, and Cameron Diaz vainly trying to hide her bare, mascara- less face from paparazzi. Tacked to Vassos’s own office wall is a photograph of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt strolling along a beach – their romance being the hottest celebrity story of the year. Attached to it is a yellow Post-it note that reads, “True Love!” punctuated by a small heart drawn with a black Sharpie pen.
Which side you choose in the Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt split, Vassos suggests, says an awful lot about what kind of person you are. She asks, “Why are we on Team Angelina?” Or, alternately, “Why are we on Team Jennifer?” Exactly what it says about the reader may vary, but what it says about journalism is clear-cut. When our reality is framed as one simple binary question – “Are you an Angelina sympathizer or are you a Jennifer sympathizer?” – there is no room for the news.