Programing for the People by Those Who Aren't
Recently I was nearly sideswiped by a speeding green truck delivering The National Enquirer, "the best-selling paper in America." The vehicle was plastered with three symbols, each in a circle, each with a slogan, "No UFO's. No Elvis. No Aliens."What? America's primary supermarket scandal sheet abandoning fiction as fact, dropping subjects that branded its reputation? This change follows the paper's sale to Wall Street wonder Roger Altman, who also gobbled up its two competitors, The Star and The Globe. When I ran into Altman at a journalism event, I asked him, on camera, about the sacking of the aliens and Elvis. (Who cares about UFOs?) In response, he grinned, turned and galloped away with no comment.As the Enquirer segments its business and goes upscale with its new TV show, the old debate about whether people really want junk media still rages. The paper's new direction was set by sales needs and focus-group research, not a craving for respectability.Other media outlets will follow, once they read the tea leaves and recognize the growing revulsion against sensationalism posing as substance. Even wrestling is toning down some shows because of advertiser pressure prompted by customer complaints.On television, the myth that sleeze is good dies harder. At Rupert Murdoch's Fox, Doug Herzog, a hit-maker with "South Park" at Comedy Central and "Beavis and Butthead" at MTV, brought dumb and dumber formulas with him when he became the first new-generation cable executive to move into a top network slot.But it's not working out. His hot show, "Action," with its foul language and gritty inside Hollywierd storylines, is already out of action, a victim of lousy ratings. According to Variety, "hip hit a blip," while Herzog "suffered through a stunning set of disappointing debuts." He wanted to give the people what they wanted, or what he thought they wanted; lo and behold, they didn't.Now, he reports to a more conventional TV executive.True to Murdoch's formulas, Fox still won't give up cheap-to-make, and easy-to-promote specials like "When Pets Go Bad, Part 2." Shows that play off anxiety and fear may be good for a quick ratings spike, but not much more. What is stranger is that such sleaze now is being rationalized as the savior of democracy.The conservative New York Press spins such low-brow programing into a higher philosophy. Editor John Strausbaugh waxes rhapsodically over "Pets 2" producer Burt Kearns, whom he annoints an innovator of our age. "He helped change forever the way the news gets told on TV," Strausbaugh writes. "If you are the typical media pundit, you'd call the change devolution into vulgar tabloid stupidity. If you are Kearns, it's a democratic revolution, teaching television how to give the people the news they want instead of the news stuffed shirts like Mike Wallace and Jim Lehrer think they need." All that Kearns, formerly with "A Current Affair" and "Hard Copy," would say is "I need the money." No surprise. Prostitution has been around forever.This line is new to the culture wars, with conservatives who once upheld higher culture now trashing it. For them, shlock is populism. But wait: There's been no referendum on "Pets Who Attack" vs., say, "60 Minutes." "60 Minutes" has been in the top 10 forever. If PBS knew about marketing, Jim Lehrer could be more popular, too. The choice is never boring vs. bodacious; there are other options. Viewers like quality with high production values; interesting ideas compellingly presented. Fun and facts can be in the same mix.Sadly, viewers are encouraged to believe that what they get is all they deserve, or all there is. This is quite functional because it allows lower production costs, dumber news and cloned formulas. But most reject slime.Viewer erosion has driven overall watching to its lowest level in the history of TV.So much for democratic revolution. We choose among the choices we're given.Billionaires like Murdoch who spew mass trash are into aristocracy, not democracy; money, not masses. They use tititlation to build audience while editorially opposing what people really do want, like justice and health care.They use TV to sell, not tell; distract and divert, not inform or engage. Elvis, Aliens and UFO stories will always be around. They are obvious, even "honest" frauds. The problem is the dishonest frauds posing as something else.Danny Schechter is the executive editor of the Media Channel, on the Web at www.mediachannel.org.