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2 Fall TV Shows Cashing In on Social and Economic Instability

How the language of a protest movement found its way into the fall TV lineup--and why it matters.
 
 
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One of the most circulated images from the September 17 Occupy actions in New York was this photo.

A handful of NYPD officers, standing in front of a TD Bank, at least one of them laughing, and a sign that reads “We're not for everyone. Just the 1% that matters.”

The sign purports to be for “Byzantium Security”, but is actually viral marketing for a new Cinemax TV show, Hunted.

Yet the ad, and its placement, seems too perfect. Where else would you expect an ad like this but on the corner of Broadway and Wall Street in Manhattan's financial district, an area that still holds the echoes of protests against the 1 percent? An area that was militarized on Monday as Occupy celebrated its birthday, with barricades set up and ID checkpoints at each corner of Wall Street and helicopters overhead providing a constant background beat. The poster plays to the idea that a police force bending over backward to protect the 1 percent isn't enough -- private security is also necessary.

Also on Monday, NBC debuted a new series, Revolution, posters for which have also been splashed across New York, on subway walls and even wrapped around tourists' double-decker buses (one of which cruised at regular intervals through the financial district as Occupiers danced and threw glitter and the police held perimeters outside of bank entrances).

As Occupy moves into its second year, what does it mean that its phrases and images seem to have already been co-opted not just by opportunistic politicians, but to serve as marketing for depoliticized TV shows?

Private Security, Public Space

“Borders shift, regimes crumble, networks fail. This has led to global unrest, with plummeting markets, violent protests. Chaos. A time of unparalleled opportunity,” says the video on the ByzantiumSecurity.com website, a marvel of 21st-century marketing for a company that doesn't exist. On the site you can also take a test to see if you're qualified to become an “operative,” one of their “one percent who matter.” “Elite protection for the world's elite,” the trailer promises.

The ad works because it's almost believable; after all, as I reported last summer, the world's richest are getting more and more paranoid and spending more and more to keep themselves safe. The unspoken context of the contempt that Mitt Romney displayed so well in the video that's been making the rounds this week is a deep fear that the poor will rise up not just in protest but in violence, not just with cardboard signs but with weapons. Even before Occupy, paranoia among the 1 percent had been growing; when Occupy hit, it reached a fever pitch. “Right now it’s like a college sit-in, demonstrating middle-class frustration, but it could eventually lead to violence and that is the scary next step,” billionaire investor (and Democrat) Jeff Greene told Forbes magazine in October.

So it seems appropriate that a private security company would be advertising in lower Manhattan during the Occupy anniversary. Though nearly the entirety of the violence reported on Monday was perpetrated by NYPD on protesters, that doesn't stop the fear.

But what seems out of touch about the advertising is that it's drawing on the audience's desire to identify with the 1 percent, or at least to want to work for them. It elides the difference between the “1 percent” who are the elite and the “elite security” who protect them.

Meanwhile, the actual trailer for the show focuses on the security company's “best operative,” a young woman who survived an attempt on her life and wants her job back. It feels more like a generic Bourne Identity-type thriller than a Lifestyles of the Rich and Well Protected episode.

So why the 1 percent language? The private security angle? It seems an attempt to tap into something that most people know is going on—a deep sense of unrest with the state of inequality, a growing awareness of the fact that most of the world's wealth is controlled by a tiny few and most of its power structures—including the NYPD, standing so casually in that photo between a bank and an ostensible advertisement for an elite security firm—are designed to help them keep that wealth.

What's interesting is that they would seem to have chosen the wrong side if they're concerned about ratings. Cinemax might be counting on the idea that its viewers, people who make enough money to pay for premium cable channels, would tend to identify upward, but recent polls suggest that more people are leaning the other way.

The Revolution That Isn't

On the other end of the spectrum, NBC's Revolution would seem to be an attempt to corner the anti-authoritarian crowd, as it follows a band of post-apocalyptic survivors on the run from government agents. Its saturation marketing seems to have paid off, as reporters are noting that it's the top debut for a network show in three years, with 11.6 million people tuning in to watch the first episode.

But the show itself seems like a misnamed sci-fiHunger Games knockoff. The apocalypse the characters have survived wasn't a revolution at all, but rather a sudden end to electricity (apparently, even on planes, which crash out of the sky at the same time as the power on the ground goes out, in a scene out of Newt Gingrich's worst paranoid EMP nightmares) . The politics of the show are muddled, but it does star a beautiful girl with a bow who likes hunting and dislikes authority. The characters begin the show, fifteen years after the electrical meltdown, in a little agrarian commune—our heroine is planting flowers under the hood of a rusted Prius.

So why “Revolution”? As Thomas Frank has noted, the word has been used for marketing for decades, since the good old days of Woodstock and the sixties. It captures youth rebellion and by co-opting it, defangs the possibility of real revolution. If “Revolution” is merely what happens when the power goes out, then all meaning is sucked out of the word.

But the popularity of this show's first night, of The Hunger Games, of the latest Batman movie with its echoes of class war (though once again, with the political elided into the personal, an uprising of the people turned into an age-old grudge against Bruce Wayne) reflects a change in the way people in the U.S. are thinking. As Chris Hayes noted in his new book Twilight of the Elites, Americans' faith in institutions is at an all-time low; as Mitt Romney seems intent to prove, our consciousness of the contempt our elites have for us is at an all-time high.

And so Monday, as occupiers scattered through the financial district, it seemed appropriate that the fall's TV shows seemed to be winking at them. They paraded past buses festooned with “Revolution” and fake ads for a private security company to defend against people like them, or rather the 1 percent's cartoon image of them. It's the same one reflected back during prime time, as the wealthy creators of high-profile TV shows seem to have a hard time grasping what's really going on, even as they choose words and symbols drawn from the protests in the streets.

 

 

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's "Belabored" podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.

 
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