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The bare facts
© St. Petersburg Times,
TORONTO -- Dressed in a conservative gray suit, her dark hair neatly chignoned into place, Victoria Sinclair seems the typical TV anchorwoman as she looks straight into the camera.
"South Africa is trying to salvage the U.N. summit on racism in Durban," she begins, "after the U.S. and Israel pulled out Monday . . ."
Then something peculiar happens.
Continuing in the same somber tone, Sinclair unbuttons her jacket to reveal a navy blue brassiere. Moving on to a story about Afghanistan, she suggestively brushes her hips and unzips her skirt. As she describes Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Russia, she pulls the pins from her hair and shakes loose the wavy mane. Off comes the bra.
By the time she gets to Australia rejecting a boatload of refugees, Sinclair is down to her lacy blue panties. Slowly, she peels them off and lets them drop to the floor.
At a time when even mainstream media outlets are blurring the line between news and entertainment, Naked News is going a huge step farther -- using announcers who are totally nude. All around the globe, tens of thousands of viewers log on to the Toronto-based Internet site each day to watch Sinclair and her nine co-anchors in a format that leaves nothing to the imagination.
"It is one of the most financially successful Web sites because it's this extraordinary combination of soft porn and hard news," says John Doyle, TV critic for the Globe & Mail, a Toronto newspaper.
"What surprises most people when they look at this thing is that those people are reading the real news. It's not made up, it's not fiction, they are actually giving the news, weather and sports although the fact they are taking off their clothes is kind of distracting."
"The newscasters aren't bad, but they're naked and there's no reason for them to be naked except as a way of pulling in viewers," Kelman says.
"But interest in news is declining, so at least this is a way of drawing people in. This is certainly safer than a nude cooking show."
Developed by two Canadians, Naked News made its Internet debut in December 1999. By its first anniversary it had 4-million viewers a month; now there are 6-million, with about 60 percent in the United States, 20 percent in Canada and the rest in countries as far off as the South Pacific. The typical user is male, 18 to 45.
Naked News is not for those who crave up-to-the-minute coverage or in-depth analysis. On the Tuesday after Labor Day, the anchors were still reporting on U.S. warplanes bombing Iraq and other events from the previous week. There are no live newscasts: shows are taped each morning in a Toronto studio and play continuously throughout the day with an update in the afternoon. Most of the material comes from wire service stories rewritten by the Naked News staff.
What it lacks in immediacy, Naked News makes up for in physical variety. There are 10 anchors; one is black, one is Asian and one is a new mother, Holly Weston, who has yet to shed all her pre-delivery weight. (To great acclaim from viewers, Weston appeared on camera almost until her due date.)
The anchors also have varied backgrounds, none related to journalism. The current group includes a dance instructor, a college student, a kick-boxing teacher and a lighting technician. Lucas Tyler, the first male anchor, was a financial adviser for a Canadian bank when he saw an ad for auditions for Naked News.
"I'm so much more of an adventurer, I couldn't see myself sitting behind a desk for the rest of my life," says Tyler, a well-muscled, 33-year-old ringer for Today's Matt Lauer. Tyler did his initial audition in shorts, reading the news from a TelePrompTer "If it had called for nudity at first, I don't think I'd be here today," he says.
"The question everyone asks," Tyler says, "is "What do you do with your hands?' "
For the three male anchors, the answer seems to be: not much. Tyler generally keeps his hands on his thighs, turning his palms up every now and then to emphasize a point. Anchor Warren Michaels often looks like he's a new recruit lining up for inspection, arms straight against his sides.
The women tend to show greater animation, assuming mildly provocative poses and gesturing more freely. Carmen Russo grew up in a conservative family in Montreal -- "My mother didn't see me naked after I was a baby" -- but lost some of her inhibitions while working as a model in Europe.
"There's such a different attitude there toward nudity," says Russo, a single parent who was selling dental supplies when she answered an ad for Naked News in an alternative newspaper.
At 43, Russo is the oldest anchor and gets e-mails from women wanting to know how she keeps her figure. Like the other anchors, she doesn't respond personally to the hundreds of messages that come in each day -- "That's all I'd do" -- but gives fitness tips during some of her segments.
The anchors take turns doing various parts of the show. One might give the international report on Tuesday and the sports report on Wednesday. Russo prefers entertainment, while Tyler calls himself a "news junkie" who is fascinated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Does he feel he's trivializing tragic events by reporting on them in the buff?
"Not at all," he says. "When you watch the show you see it's serious, we're not smiling, we're not laughing." Still, there can be jarring moments, as when anchor Derek Shaw shed his Calvin Klein briefs while reporting on the plane crash that killed singer Aaliyah and eight others.
Given the unclothed state of the anchors, the scripts generally avoid any language that could have a double meaning. Still, in lighter moments, the anchors aren't above using a few puns and suggestive phrases. "Back in a flash," Russo says with a wink, turning her bare derriere to the camera.
Although viewers see more -- much more -- of the Naked News crew than any other newscasters, Russo and her colleagues are hardly swamped by fans when they appear in public. As she entered the lobby of the Toronto Hilton to meet an interviewer recently, not a soul seemed to recognize her.
"On the computer you're only about this big," she says, making a little box with her fingers. "It's very small, it doesn't surprise me people don't recognize me."
That may change. Last Friday marked the start of Naked News TV!, a weekly pay-per-view television program that costs $3.99 per show. According to spokeswoman Kathy Pinckert, Naked News expects to announce a similar deal in the United States later this year, and hopes to be available one day on regular cable TV, which could provide a big boost in audience.
"I think it will do well on pay-per-view. Its success on the Web indicates there's already a market for this kind of thing," says Doyle, the Globe & Mail TV critic. "It's the wave of the future in the sense that it's really niche Web content and niche TV content."
Kelman, the journalism professor, isn't so sure.
"The thing about gimmicks is that they wear out, and this thing is a gimmick," she says. "You can watch this a couple of times, and maybe show some friends, but then what?"
But Naked News thinks it offers plenty to keep viewers coming back. It hopes to make the news content more timely, and is adding two Los Angeles-based anchors, who beat out 250 other applicants in auditions last month. (One successful tryout is the current entertainment director of an L.A. television station.)
"Some people say "how dare you blur the line between entertainment and news,' " Russo says. "But if we can make more people listen to us and get the news, what's wrong with that?"
Susan Martin can be reached at email@example.com.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.