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Sorkin’s Newsroom Plans Premiere, Adds to Vast History of Fake TV Networks

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Dragon Ball's fictional NBS news network.

According to a report in Mediabistro, HBO is moving ahead with plans for a summer premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s cable-news drama The Newsroom, possibly on June 24. The report also says that there’s a new name for the fictional cable network where the action is set: called “UBS” (a la Network) in the original script, it will now be ACN, for Atlantis Cable News. (A parallel to CNN—HBO and TIME’s corporate sibling—which was founded in Atlanta? Here’s another: the network’s leader will be played by Jane Fonda, ex-wife of CNN founder Ted Turner.)

It’s funny this news breaks today, because I was struck by rewatching the pilot of The River that it contained what has become a staple of verisimilitude-seeking TV shows: a news bulletin on a fictional cable news network, “CHN.” (Cable Headline News, I’m guessing?) Over the years, TV has created an entire digital-cable tier’s worth of fake networks, such that you would think that writers will someday run out of new three-letter combinations. Wikipedia offers a partial list—including Studio 60’s NBS and Babylon 5’s Interstellar Network News—but it scarcely scratches the surface. (See the picture, above, of another NBS from the Dragon Ball anime universe.)

One reason cited for The Newsroom’s creating a new network name is practical and commercial: the show and HBO can own the rights for marketing and merchandising. And of course, it benefits Sorkin to create a network from whole cloth so as to be free as a writer to do with it as he pleases. For more fleeting uses of news networks in scripted series, creating a network avoids the need to recruit actual news personalities and to get permissions, while still presenting the veneer of realism.

An interesting trend I’ve noticed lately, though, in series like Homeland and The Good Wife, is to bring on actual news personalities for guest spots. (Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Matthews of MSNBC have appeared on the two shows, respectively.) This, obviously, has the advantage of giving a drama even more real-world credibility, although I also wonder whether having journalists appear as themselves can limit their characterization. No TV news personality is likely to come on a show to play him or herself as a buffoon, so in these cases, Homeland took pains to say that O’Donnell is a tough interviewer (but one, apparently, with a soft spot for war heroes), while The Good Wife showcased Matthews as a shrewd, savvy political analyst, advising a client with an Anthony Weiner-like scandal problem. I’m not saying either portrayal is misleading, but the literal realism of using media stars as themselves comes with limits.

The Newsroom wouldn’t be well-served by such limits, so it makes sense that it would create a fictionalized world. (Much as the very short-lived Bravo cable-news drama Breaking News did a decade ago, with the I-24 network.) The trick will be how well it can also incorporate the kind of real-world personalities and events that other topical dramas do, while being brutally honest when necessary.

All that remains to be seen when we actually get some episodes. In the meantime, I have to ask again: why keep going with the old three-letter-abbreviation format for fake networks like ACN? The more recent (though not universal) trend in new cable networks is to name them with words and phrases (Current, Planet Green, &c.), and that might be a more original route to take here. My guess is that Sorkin conceives ACN as being an old-school cable network, like CNN, founded a few decades ago in the days when cable networks conferred gravitas on themselves by naming themselves like broadcast networks.

But I have to wonder if there’s a better, more arresting name out there. Anyone want to suggest one? I promise to let you keep the merchandising rights.