Fashion On TV: Limited Air Time

NEW YORK -- Last November, it looked as if fashion had finally become a fit subject for big-time network news.<BR><BR>The collections here resembled an electronic beehive with TV crews virtually tripping over one another. Some even had prominent print...

NEW YORK — Last November, it looked as if fashion had finally become a fit subject for big-time network news.

The collections here resembled an electronic beehive with TV crews virtually tripping over one another. Some even had prominent print reporters manning their microphones.

All the attention, however, appears to have been fleeting. While network producers say their viewers are interested in fashion — and concede they were bitten by the Bryant Park bug — they’re not likely to make fashion a regular beat.

Some network shows, like CBS’s “This Morning,” find runway flash appealing; others, like ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today” take a more practical, how-to approach. Typical ABC segments, for example, have included “Figure Flaws and How to Minimize Them,” “How to Wear Color,” and “Packing for a Business Trip.”

But fashion, they note, is generally too “helter skelter” and simply not a priority when compared with other news. And, like a seasoned mainstream manufacturer, some question the relevance of what’s on a runway to what ultimately makes it into the stores.

In short, when it comes to fashion on TV, cable will continue to rule and a number of new players are expected to hit that circuit this year.

“Poorly,” is how Steve Friedman, executive producer of the “Today” show, described how the networks cover fashion.

“Because it’s helter-skelter, it’s not a regular beat like health and science. We take fashion by the moment,” said Friedman. “What I found is that fashion is so eclectic these days. There’s no such thing as the Paris fashion show setting the trends.”

Friedman said “Today” features about six to eight fashion segments a year on topics such as swimwear and back-to-school clothing for kids. The show will bring in on-camera veterans such as Christy Ferer, or a specialist in a particular fashion category.

One area Friedman said will get more attention next fall is men’s fashion, which, he noted, “is no longer blue pinstriped suits.”

Friedman said the “Today” show had a crew at the Bryant Park shows, but it didn’t turn into a major piece, since it got bumped by a more pressing news story.

As for whether he’ll send a crew to the next round of New York collections, Friedman replied, “It depends on what else is going on. It’s hard to get a real handle.”

He noted that the segments need to have mass appeal, and a couture show in Paris, for example, doesn’t.

The onslaught of TV crews at November’s New York collections included not only the usual suspects — Cable News Network’s Elsa Klensch and NBC’s Ferer — but print journalists Michael Gross, reporting for “CBS This Morning” and William Norwich and Gabe Doppelt, reporting and producing, respectively, for “Comedy Central.” Even supermodel Naomi Campbell got into the act, as a special correspondent for “Good Morning America.”

Other crews included a Lifetime network group, filming Christy Turlington; Cindy Crawford doing her MTV “House of Style” report, and a contingent from HBO shooting a piece on modeling.

The electronic overdrive appears to have whet some, if not all, appetites among the print crowd.

CBS says it’s interested in having Gross cover the collections again and Doppelt, formerly editor of Mademoiselle, started a new job this week at MTV developing home shopping programs.

Norwich, for his part, said, “I don’t have a goal of becoming Bozo the Fashion Reporter.”

“Bryant Park definitely made it a lot easier [to cover the collections],” said Ted Savaglio, executive producer of “CBS This Morning.” “There was a buzz this year.”

“We’ve covered the fashion shows in Paris and New York from time to time, and we plan to continue that,” said Savaglio. He said that although it hasn’t been confirmed, he’d like Gross to cover the New York collections again, as well as do a fashion piece after the Academy Awards.

“People love looking at those pieces,” said Savaglio, referring to runway clips. “[Although] the clothing may or may not relate to what’s exactly in the stores.”

Gross, a contributing editor at New York magazine, appears interested in the assignment. “There have been some conversations, but nothing conclusive,” he said.

“The networks and cable are two different animals,” said Daniel Wolf, executive producer of an upcoming Lifetime Television special that was taped during show week. “Yes, the networks are becoming more interested in fashion, but cable acts much quicker and is more specific.”

“It’s just not a priority with [the networks]. It’s very sad,” said Christy Ferer, who has her own production company, Vidicom. Ferer tapes fashion segments for NBC News, which feeds them to its affiliates. Her coverage of the Bryant Park shows landed once on a weekend “Today” show and on a local New York news show.

“Besides Elsa [Klensch] and me, no one is interested in fashion on a regular basis,” said Ferer. “I found that Bryant Park being closer made it more accessible to TV news stations. No one was willing to cover it in depth. By the end, it petered out.

“Fashion is a dirty word to the ears of a mass-produced TV show. I sell it as a style piece,” said Ferer, adding, “I’m very satisfied that the newsfeed is getting picked up.”

Ferer noted that beginning in the fall, she will be supplying style packages to a new syndicated TV show called “Entertainment News Television,” being produced on the West Coast. Ferer said it’s scheduled to appear in New York on WNBC.

“Good Morning America” runs fashion segments regularly, but doesn’t cover it like a “CNN Elsa Klensch report,” said Cathy Rehl, a spokeswoman for GMA. “We try to present it innovatively. We do cover designers and try to explain why trends are happening. We have to make the collections viewer-friendly.

“Our audience is not necessarily a couture kind of audience. We have to pick out what we think will be applicable and unusual and innovative,” she said. GMA considers fashion “an important part of our mix,” she added, and while fashion doesn’t appear on a regular schedule, it does have its own producer. And, as it will at NBC’s “Today” show, men’s fashion will be getting more play at GMA.

While the show doesn’t have a fashion correspondent, it sometimes uses designers, models and editors in taped “Signatures of Styles” segments.

For example, Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, taped a segment on the return of the dress, while Donna Karan did a segment on men’s suits. Segments have also featured designers Adrienne Vittadini, Tommy Hilfiger, Andrea Jovine and Diane Von Furstenberg. As a special correspondent, Naomi Campbell taped a segment during show week, where she interviewed the designer of the British firm Ghost.

While the morning news shows may be giving fashion some play, cable TV is clearly the pioneer.

MTV’s “House of Style” and CNN’s “Style with Elsa Klensch” have established solid niches. Klensch, in fact, has the highest-rated CNN show on the network’s weekend lineup and a CNN spokeswoman described the program as “a strong revenue producer.”

In other developments, Anthony Guccione 2nd, as reported, is developing a 24-hour TV channel focusing on fashion called FAD-TV. He hopes to get the channel on a cable station by fall 1994. Comedy Central, however, has no more fashion segments on deck.

Norwich, a contributing editor at Vogue and columnist for The New York Observer, taped a “Fashion Week” segment for the Comedy Central cable show “Everything You Need to Know” last November. Norwich went behind the scenes and on the runways, as well as to fashion industry parties. He appeared in daily reports of one to three minutes for six days.

“Everything You Need to Know” was a general interest show that focused on various topical events and zeroed in on fashion the first week in November. The show, which began in August, was canceled in mid-November. While ratings weren’t available for Norwich’s segment, the spokeswoman said, “There’s nothing in the near future planned on fashion.”

“Because I have a print job [at Vogue], the whole thing was really difficult,” said Norwich, who attends the fashion shows to get material for his Vogue columns. “I worried it was proving a distraction. It’s very hard. I have tremendous respect for Elsa Klensch.

“Have I been offered a big TV job since? No,” said Norwich.

With all the hoopla around fashion week, Norwich was concerned the interest in fashion would peter out.

“I had the sense the center would not hold here. This was a one-time look-in. This enthusiasm wouldn’t be here [next time.] I think the novelty may have worn off,” said Norwich.

With so many camera crews invading her territory, Klensch, whose fashion show has been a staple on CNN since 1980, was unfazed by all the new competition.

“TV is great for fashion,” she said. “It’s going to expand.”

Asked whether any other journalists with crews would evolve into regular gigs, Klensch said, “Long-term deals don’t happen overnight. I’ve been at it now for 14 years. We have an established niche. It’s hard for someone to take over. I don’t feel at all threatened.”