TELEVISION BECOMING SPOOF-PROOF

By Norman Solomon

"Feverish
pursuit of unlimited profits by media conglomerates is rapidly causing
'TV journalism' to become oxymoronic."  

"But the day is fast approaching when
satire of American TV will be impossible.
"

"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.
"

"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."

      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
the current wave of 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 is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (I'd recommend a visit to the site), a nationwide consortium of public-policy researchers. He has written op-ed pieces for Boston Globe, Washington Post, Newsday, New York Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Baltimore Sun, and is a far more successful writer than Alex Sandell will ever be.  His column, normally titled, "Media Beat," is nationally syndicated in a wide variety of newspapers.  If you'd like to see his weekly "Media Beat" column published on the opinion page of your local daily newspaper(s), please contact the opinion-page editor at the paper(s) and suggest that the paper give his column a try. Please mention to editors that his weekly column is available to newspapers from Creators Syndicate. Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." 

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