Television Becoming Spoof-Proof
In the aftermath of their high-profile failure to lure David Letterman, top executives at ABC are scrambling to repair the public-relations damage from the network's proclaimed eagerness to throw "Nightline" overboard. But the nation's TV viewers don't need to read indignant commentaries about the debacle to know that feverish pursuit of unlimited profits by media conglomerates is rapidly causing "TV journalism" to become oxymoronic.
With its suffocating pretensions and frequent idiocies, television has always cried out for sardonic mockery. At times, beginning with Mad Magazine's razor-sharp parodies a half-century ago, "the vast wasteland" has been appropriately skewered. But the day is fast approaching when satire of American TV will be impossible.
Already, it's a daunting challenge to lampoon TV fare that often seems inadvertently self-satirical and oblivious to its own creepiness. (Geraldo Rivera, Larry King, Christopher Matthews...) Routine offerings on dozens of major channels are so over the top that any attempt at satire would be hard-pressed to keep pace with what passes for reality on television.
When Disney bought ABC in 1995, the incoming management swiftly pledged that entertainment values would not interfere with the news division's journalistic efforts. While some cartoonists had fun picturing Mickey or Goofy in the anchor's chair instead of Peter Jennings, media outlets were generally content to treat the acquisition as just a business story.
In a pattern that was to be repeated a few years later with coverage of the Viacom-CBS merger and the formation of AOL Time Warner, a lot of the reporting and punditry about Disney's purchase of ABC focused on implications for market-share battles and profit outlooks for investors. The threats to journalism got scant attention.
At the time, media critic Jeff Cohen and I wrote a piece for the Washington Post that imagined the 20th anniversary celebration of ABC as a Disney subsidiary. We figured that many autograph seekers would stand in line for hours to meet "ABC GoodNews Tonight" co-anchors Pamela Anderson and Luke Perry. "My parents say that the old network used to do a lot of boring news, serious and stuff like that," a teenager commented.
In our futuristic scenario, a middle-aged man said: "I can remember when 'A Current Affair' and 'Hard Copy' and 'Entertainment Tonight' were just getting started and you just knew they were the wave of the future. They were so much easier to watch than the old-fashioned news shows. Not confusing or anything."
By 2015, "ABC GoodNews Tonight" would be using "hyper-color interactive animation to enhance the latest news about the world's most important celebrities." And we supposed that a network official might say something like this: "Of course ABC used to be a bit more highbrow. But really, after a hard day's work, nobody could understand what Peter Jennings or Jeff Greenfield was trying to say.... Now, with senior news analyst Robin Leach doing our think stuff, you don't have to. It's much more relaxing."
In the "real" media world of 2002, such transitions may be a bit ahead of schedule. At the rate things are going, we won't need to wait a dozen years for most TV "news" programming to bear a strong resemblance to "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Come to think of it, in many respects, we're almost there now.
It's not quite accurate to contend that television fails to provide context for news reports. There's overwhelming context -- namely, all the other junk that's on TV, including massive quantities of mind-numbing commercials as well as adulation of ostentatious wealth and people who are mostly famous for being famous -- along with, especially these days, fervent flag-waving. If the trivia and the worship of riches don't get ya, maybe the jingoism will.
The competition is intense, but one cable network stands out. Despite its middle name, Fox News Channel features anchors who offer little by way of actual information. Sometimes it seems that Fox anchors have been cloned from the plastic DNA of Ken and Barbie as they deliver lines straight out of Tom Tomorrow cartoons.
No matter how bad television seems, it could be worse. And will be.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.