When I first saw television—I think it was 1948—I saw John Cameron Swayze delivering the news and pushing cigarettes on the Camel News Caravan. Then came what I was really interested in (remember, I was a kid back then), it was Kukla, Fran and Ollie, a hand puppet program (except for Fran). Then we went home—because the only TV in the whole extended family was at my grandparents. I think there were two, maybe three channels, the set had a round screen, and there was a thing called the “test pattern” that came on a lot. Of course, it was black and white, and the reception was awful, about fifty percent of the time a flipping picture of a snowstorm. At the end of the broadcast day they put up a flag and played the National Anthem; now they plunge right into all-night infomercials for insomniacs, selling crap for hair replacement, reverse mortgages and erectile dysfunction.
Thinking back on those days television wasn’t us. It didn’t reflect America because it didn’t have the audience penetration, it didn’t have movies, and it didn’t have the capacity. A lot of people didn’t think it would even last, that TV was a fad. But, as the blue glow entered more and more living rooms, programming gradually expanded, but mostly its sit-coms, advertisements and such reflected the people who could afford a television set. TV hadn’t quite figured out its own media purpose; rather, it borrowed soap opera and sit com from radio, news and chat format from radio as well (Arthur Godfrey), and entertainment from variety shows and even vaudeville. The cinema was still a rival, but there was theater with live teleplays such as the Philco Playhouse. Sometimes, what made it interesting was that it was “live.” I remember an actor expelling snot from his nose when he laughed, and a singer’s boob fall out of her dress onName That Tune, mic-boom shadows in the shot, and flubbed lines. In that sense, I guess, TV was a reflection of us, clumsily learning a new medium.
But these days I nearly gag when someone, usually on television, invokes the will of “the American people,” especially when it was some Bush administration hack staying the message like one of a chorus of ventriloquist dummies. Condi Rice actually had the hubris to tell us that “the American people will not put up with a nuclear Iran.” Wow, Condi knows the American people! Yeah, and Colin Powell knew Iraq had WMD. (Forgive the digression.)
“We Americans,” the common element of citizenship aside, is a joke phrase, especially when expressing what our will, values and attitudes are. I think that the closest we can get to a profile of what we Americans are, and have become, is by looking at our television. Television, especially since the advent of cable, recognizes the niche-ness of America. Television advertising also tells us what we think of ourselves, sometimes even more clearly than the programming itself.
First, it needs to be stated that American TV is rather depressing. In this writer’s opinion, the great part of it is mindless garbage. Cable delivered television is not a la carte, so I must also pay for a hundred or so channels servicing other niches, the great part is of no interest to me whatsoever. The only benefit is that I get a glimpse of what my other “fellow Americans” the pundits and politicians think they know so well, are watching.
I happen to have a Monday Night Football game on whilE making notes for this piece, so it seems a good place to begin. I rarely watch it anymore, but the changes to the program warrant comment because they are illustrative of several changes and niche-elements about contemporary America. First of all is that MNF is going for a specific niche. Splashy, over the top graphics and country music singers intro the program with rapid cuts of football, flags, and other imagery that conveys the idea that football is manly, patriotic and sexy. The commercial underwriting tells more; it is principally trucks, beer and erection drugs and consumes about a third of he programming time. The line between sport and entertainment has long been blurred. The announcer teams are more concerned with sounding clever, women correspondents on the sidelines deal in inane gossip about the players, while nearby bimbo “cheerleaders” pole dance for idiot fans trying to outdo each other in body ornament (the line between the game and the spectators has also been blurred). On the field, prima donna players celebrate every play with self-congratulatory dances and thank their “Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” for their touchdowns (more blurred lines). I enjoy watching some football; it’s part of America, but this is not my niche. This is hardly sport; it’s something between circus side-show, soft porn, and the pathetic sociology of a people who are in perpetual identity crisis. (But those are only the positive elements.)
Network news is also not my niche. It makes me ill. Not just the news content, or the Katie Couric infotainment style, but the commercials. Every commercial break on network news asks you to ”ask your doctor” if you need some new drug for arthritis, heart disease, urination problems, respiration or erectile dysfunction, etc. So the news is supposed to make me feel ill. The news in America is run by the American Pharmaceutical Cartel. They don’t care whether you really are sick, they just need to make you feel sick enough to go out and buy their drugs. It is as though the news content—“if it bleeds, it leads”—is not enough to make one ill; they have to tell you that you really might be ill and should go and ask your doctor if you should start taking their latest (ahem) medicament. My doctor’s Rx should just tell me to stop watching the news.
As far the news formats and treatment are concerned, every premonition of films like Meet John Doe, Network, and Broadcast News seems to have been met and exceeded. It seems that television is sometimes at its best when it spoofs itself. That helps explains the success The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, both send-ups of network news, or the more egregious version of it, that hemorrhoid on broadcasting, Fox News, with commentators as visually unappealing as their minds. Fox is, of course, essentially a mouthpiece for the Bush Administration and right-wing politics in general. Just the names of O’Reilly, Hannity, and frequent guests like Ann Coulter should be sufficient to indicate the kinds of minds their programming is designed to appeal to. Fox extends its programming to the rest of its social bottom-feeders with offerings such as Cops, Sex and the City, and the ludicrous American Idol,a program for people who enjoy seeing un-talented fools being abused by an arrogant twit-Brit. This is a sickness for which Big Pharma neither has, nor wants, a cure.
Of course, without Fox the Daily Show and Colbert make no sense. These shows are the contraposition of the idiocy of Fox. Seniors are watching NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN and Fox (and learning what new drugs to try), and their kids are getting their “truth” wrapped in irony from Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert and laughing at the irony that their society is being completely f***ed-up by the people watching the putative “real” news. Families no longer eat together, so why should they watch their nightly news together. They probably don’t vote together either.
The really depressing thing is that, as measured by what focus groups and other audience instruments determine, Americans have become (or always were) a concoction of social bottom feeders with identity issues. Sport, for example has widely expanded in type and definition. NAASCAR races are on several cable channels, WWF “Pro” Wrestling is also. Added to that is the growing popularity of “cage” ultimate fighting, the closest thing we have to gladiatorial fights because American Gladiator is an over-the-top circus for the steroid set. Then there is the idea that the World Series of Poker, a bunch of sleazos sitting around a table, is a “sport.” It, and several other poker shows are as exciting and informative as watching paint dry. Once I saw one guy’s poker chip knock another guy’s chip all the way across the table. It’s like tiddly-winks, but less violent.
Guy shows are not just about sports anymore. There are now several “manly” white guy shows, including the Man Show, which is for guys who really have problems. The hosts drink beer, talk about penises, and everybody ogles several mammiferous bimbos who bounce around. Other manly offerings stress that men do rough work. There is Most Dangerous Catch, which is a reality series about crab fishermen in Alaska. These guys handle huge cages on rolling, slippery decks as waves crash over the gunnels. They could be swept over and eaten by sharks (or angry crabs). Spellbinding. Then there is Ice Road Truckers. These guys drive big rigs over frozen ocean somewhere “way up there” where the ice is melting from global warming. They could plunge through the ice and be eaten by a polar bear. Whatever; it is manly, testosterone-building programming. Who thinks this crap up? Probably the producers who came up with Orange County Choppers, the guys who build ridiculous looking Harleys while having (really phoney) father-son disputes, he father being a tattooed, steroid-ish looking bully in permanent adolescence.
Women have their niche as well. Sex in the City, Housewives of here and there, programming that has them humping with the tennis coach or the delivery boy while the guys are catching crabs or freezing their testes off on icy roads. And lets not forget those several shopping channels where they can addict themselves to all sorts of useless kitch and crap. Later, they can catch Oprah, and feel good about themselves again.
Foodies are another niche. But this is not just about cooking, although there are numerous legit cooking shows that show you how to make a quiche or a cake. No, the chefs have to be prima donnas, or (bad) comics. Then there are several guys who manage to get programs that involve going to strange places and eating what I call garbage or road kill. These are ridiculous jerks who travel to foreign countries and combine daredevil macho-guy antics with eating guts, bugs, worms, whatever (and probably puking off-camera) and showing how much they can drink. It’s all winky and snide, of course, the subtext being “look at the shit these foreigners eat.”
Some compete on the Iron Chef. It seems these days that everything in America has to be a competition, even food. There always has to be a winner, a number one—we are maniacally ordinal.
I have to wonder what the audience profile is for the proliferation of reality TV daytime courtroom shows. The judges, a deviation from the venerable Judge Wapner, are all in the Judge Judy mold, smart-assed, arrogant bullies whose effect on respect for the judiciary at any level is to make Antonin Scalia Clarence Thomas seem almost like a human beings. The base line sociological element is, once again, to make inadequate, self-loathing, couch potato TV addicts feel superior to somebody, in this case the mostly idiots and social bottom-feeders who are given a good wuppin’ right in front of the cameras. This is probably the same cohort that loves those homemade video shows where kids swing clubs or hit balls that end up hitting the testicles of their fathers. Studio audiences roar with laughter each time—and most of the videos involve some sort of near emasculation—at each video. What is it that is bothering these people?
But lets’ return to where we started—the family—the holy “building block” of American society. I can still see in my mind the three generations of my family, sitting in the cathode glow, watching Swayze and Kukla and Fran and Ollie, and maybe a benign family sit-com like theNelsons. Today that would be impossible: most of the shows are about how dysfunctional the American family is. We want to see how much we hate one another, cheat on one another, don’t think at all alike. Drama is conflict; but this is sociological warfare—firing invective and opprobrium from our programmatic niches. We call a lot of it “reality TV.” It is contrived (and cheap to produce, which is why the networks like it) reality. But underneath, down in its motivations, and where there is some sick delight in the competition, the nastiness, the toxic schadenfreude that the viewer gets, comfortably munching nachos in their niche, there is a worrying reality of what we have really become—our TV.
© 2009 James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.13.2009)