TV and showbiz

News + entertainment = infotainment?

Television demands entertainment-most people don’t watch PBS news hour, and they don’t read the New York Times (which is written at a 7th grade level, by far the highest level for a daily newspaper). Nightly Network news shows are somewhat more popular, though, as is the USA Today newspaper. Both offer short, headline-based news, with little analysis. If you’re going to do TV news, you’d better have visuals. So when networks do stories on same sex marriage, we get gay couples kissing. Because it’s relevant? Or because they have the video footage, or want to shock homophobic viewers? I watched a CNN newscast in a hotel in LA once, and for a story on terrorism, they showed …. Moslem men praying in a mosque. Deliberate attempt to associate one with the other? Maybe. Journalistic laziness? For sure. Local newscasts always start with the fire story, and have a correspondent standing in front of the burnt out building, describing what happened just hours ago (often with interviews of neighbors who indeed saw smoke billowing from the windows). Or a fight on a school bus. And ….. News anchors had better be attractive–people may not spend much time staring at unattractive talking heads. And the whole idea of a talking head may not be so great for improving ratings, increasing advertising rates, etc.

Neil Postman said that print media was linguistic–you had to read it . . . language was important. We’ve had print media available since Johann Guttenberg hastily modified a printing press to make movable type in the 15th century (he built upon previous technologies developed by Chinese cultures). Television is different, says Postman, and lends itself to ‘sound bites‘–short, loaded, bite-sized, McDonaldized expressions that play well on the nightly news, in between commercial breaks (Sound bite consultant TJ Walker uses the unfortunate example of Ann Coulter, one of the least credible personalities in contemporary ‘journalism’). News stories are generally short–you want to leave viewers with a short expression that sounds good on TV–it may not have much substance, may grossly oversimplify what is a complex debate over an issue, but people hear it, some like it, and media outlets can sandwich it in between commercials. And TV time is expensive, so things like sound bites fit within the dictates and financial pressures facing TV news production.

As Postman writes: ‘the problem isn’t that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.’ Think about reality TV. Really. I mean, if you have to say it’s ‘reality TV,’ isn’t that sort of like saying ‘edible food?‘ Or maybe not. Maybe it’s more like ‘carefully wrought spontaneity.’

The whole point of TV is that viewers can avoid a lot of that boring ‘reality’ stuff, you know, dead spaces in between dialogue, people thinking, saying senseless things, scratching their necks by the lapel microphone, stomach gurgling, etc. Even Sesame Street represents an entertaining way to learn the alphabet. However, when it comes to news, does entertainment required to dress up the ‘news?’ Perhaps for large commercial media outlets. Why (that’s a rhetorical question, you should have this one down by now)?

Such mixture of news and entertainment is referred to as ‘infotainment.’ Infotainment discourages depth, complexity, and analysis. In the classroom, recent research suggests that at some institutions, students expect that professors will use visual media, Power Point, etc., in their class presentations. Do students expect to be ‘entertained‘ now? To paraphrase social critic Marshall McLuhan, to what extent do we focus on the  medium at the expense of the underlying message? No value judgments here, but Postman’s point is that as a society Americans have come to expect to be entertained, and if we’re not–to the horror of the networks–we’ll change the channel. And media outlets will scramble to try to get us back. So who sez Americans aren’t awesomely powerful?? With cable TV (remember if you’re old enough this was ‘commercial free’ subscriber TV) and he proliferation of channels came ‘channel surfing.’ How long has a program got to engage the channel surfer? Three, maybe four seconds? So does that mean that every three or four seconds they had better have something ‘worth seeing?’ Or do people make decisions based on the content they expect to find? Or do we just sprinkle the audience generously with what we think it wants?

Do people growing up in a society where media are largely ‘image-based’ differ from people in a print-based society? In rural Africa, people living in rural areas generally do not know how to read or write. If they do, it’s often in their local language, and there’s not much available in print anyway (however, they may speak several languages). They come from a ‘preliterate’ society–they never had an alphabet. Conversation is the main form of communication, passing down of history, and in general people are good at it and often able to raise conversation to an art form. Some people have radios, some have battery-powered boom boxes. But these things don’t rule their lives. After all, they have work to do, food to produce, children to raise, huts to build, etc. What happens when TV comes to a village, or even something like an ipod? Do new kinds of technologies or media merely represent ‘extensions’ of existing ones? Media analyst Marshall McLuhan said no, TV isn’t just an extension–it’s qualitatively different that its predecessor. Images get processed differently than words, or than text.

But TV also shows us that there is a difference between a technology and a medium. The technologies that make TV possible have spread around the world, but TV as a medium is quite different in different societies and cultures. Differences could depend on whether people have a democratic form of government (and who controls access to media). Obviously the level of industrial development is important–access to electricity, electronic goods, etc. The role of advertising, ownership dynamics, language, the capacity to produce television shows in-country . . . No other society in the world has integrated TV so fundamentally into its social life more than the US. Most all households have at least one TV. Most have several–in the family room, kitchen, bedrooms, etc. Now we can watch TV on hand-held devices, iphones, computers, etc. There are TVs in bars, in airports, in schools, hospitals, automobiles, airplanes . . . WalMart. We televise court cases (but only the cheesy, Jerry Springer-style ones), arrests, wars, open heart surgery, Congressional hearings . . . Television is the center of the house in American society, the center of the living room-we can turn it off, but then again we can never really turn it off? We go to school or work, people talk about shows. The chronicling of our lives, what we know, takes place largely on TV. The White House essentially runs a presidency managed for TV coverage.

TV and presidents

So it’s only natural that TV plays a central role in how we elect our leaders. Take for instance the Presidential debates. The candidates get about five minutes each to address complex issues, and then maybe 3 minutes for the other to rebut. Actually, in the most recent round, it was 3 minutes, and 90 seconds rebuttal, with the possibility for a 60 second rebuttal of the rebuttal. One hundred fifty-some years ago, Lincoln and Douglas would go on for hours, and their debates would be printed verbatim in the newspapers, and read obsessively by those who could read. It wasn’t about show business.Since 1960, when the first presidential debates were televised, the electorate has gained much of the information it uses to decide how to vote from the TV. Many think that one of the deciding factors in the 1960 election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon was the debates–in the first televised debate Nixon was sweaty and looked uncomfortable, Kennedy handsome and confident (but sometimes history provides way too much room for hindsight). Nixon also refused to wear make-up in the first debate (there were four in all), and many saw this as a strategic disaster–he was not only sweaty, but pale (probably would have been green on color TV …). TV places a premium on appearance for the candidates. White male in this society is usually a plus (I’m not condoning it, just observing). Yes, Nixon did go on to win the 1968 election, after losing in 1960, and was re-elected in 1972 (before resigning in disgrace two years later after the cover up of the Watergate burglary was exposed). Listen to one of the lines that surely ushered in the liberal use of the press secretary to control flak.

America elects its first actor

The first real TV president was Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980. He was an actor, who in the 1950s hosted the General Electric Theater. Although he wasn’t a great actor, having an acting background certainly served him well in the White House. He knew how to work a camera, how to read the teleprompter, how to present a likeable image to the American public. In 1966 he was elected Governor of California (no, Arnold’s not the first actor to serve in that capacity there). He had lots of help, of course, and had a very active press secretary because he was prone to saying things that were either patently untrue or merely questionable. One untruth he was fond of repeating was that 90% of air pollution came from trees and forests (Trees emit some gases. They also are one of the planet’s major means of sequestering CO2). Another was his description of a Chicago ‘welfare queen’ who was defrauding welfare services of hundreds of thousands of dollars, lived in a penthouse, drove a Cadillac, etc. No one ever found this fictitious welfare queen, but press secretary Larry Speakes, when asked about it, said ‘well, it makes a point, doesn’t it?’ Reagan was the first president thought to have a ‘teflon coating’ (nothing seemed to stick). Reporter Lars Erik-Nelson discovered he had used a plot from a movie in a heart-rendering speech about a (fictitious) Congressional Medal of Honor awarded posthumously. No one seemed to care, not even his peers. But Reagan was affable, looked good on TV, and though somewhat polarizing enjoyed popularity as president, at least until late in his second term, when he was caught in some scandals, principally the ‘Iran-Contra affair.’ A classic example of the sound bite occurred during the last debate between Reagan, up for re-election in 1984, and his democratic challenger Walter Mondale, concerning the President’s age. The issue never surfaced again in the mainstream press.

After Reagan George Bush Sr was elected (Reagan’s VP). Bush had a tendency to mangle the English language, and was sometimes seen as a lapdog as vice president (although in fairness, that’s probably part of the job description). He chose as his running mate Dan Quayle. Here’s some of the things Quayle said while campaigning or in office. Point is, Quayle was not chosen for his intellect, elocution, or oratorical skills. He looked good on TV (and he made George Sr look better . . . ). He also had a quote that helped do him in in 1992 against Clinton. But he wasn’t as well-liked as Reagan, and was occasionally skewered in the press for things he said. Clinton had a good TV face and some well-practiced poses, which served him well.

Then we come to George W. Bush. There is an entire website devoted to some of the things he said (you can find it from Wikipedia). He went to Yale for his undergraduate degree, and then to Harvard for an MBA, his family is from Connecticut, but he still manages to speak with a Texas slur and say ‘nucular’, instead of nuclear. His cowboy image, in other words, is the product of careful cultivation, mostly by two of his closest aides, Karen Hughes and Karl Rove. This presidency, in many ways, is the first TV presidency. We’ve had presidents who were telegenic, yes, but never a White House that managed its agenda for TV coverage, for the photo opportunity (see week 4 lecture links also).

Campaign ads and money

We now seem to be entering an age when advertisements are the basis for many on how they choose to vote. This is unfortunate because it drives the need for money to purchase and produce TV commercials, and consultants’ research suggest that the commercials most likely to be effective in changing public opinion are attack ads. Problem is most of attack ads are very misleading, if not downright false. Like commercials in general, they’re generally designed to appeal on an emotional level (at least the ones that ‘work’), and use language in a negative way to smear the opponent–words like ‘dangerous,’ ‘troubling,’  ‘failure,’  ‘poor judgment,’ ‘inexperience,’ etc. Bush’s ads in 2004 were 75% attack ads. The strategy has been to try to define Kerry in the minds of voters before Kerry has a chance to define himself (check out the ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth‘ campaign). What we saw was that Kerry was supposedly a ‘flip-flop artist,’ elitist, has ties to the French, he’s petty, he votes for lots of tax increases, and he can’t be trusted with America’s national security. Unfair characterizations all, with grains of truth here and there, but effective–Kerry’s numbers remained low, and people tended to think he wasless trustworthy than Bush, despite Bush’s own checkered military service , and whose administration has produced enough verifiable lies to merit a database. Kerry’s campaign attempted to define him in his ads, and early his negative ads made up only about 27% of the total commercials he produced. The troubling thing here is that negative ads work, Kerry used more later on, and politicians have no ethical problems producing and airing misleading commercials, and many in the public treat these as fact even though they often distort the opponent’s record. We’re more and more using public relations to elect our presidents. Even the debates are so carefully crafted these days that they’re little more than commercials where the candidates repeat scripted talking points, where the journalists asking the questions allow them to get away with avoiding answering the questions, and where the questions themselves are often superficial and not designed to engage the candidates in real debate, but to keep viewers watching and advertisers happy.

TV has become the main reason for the rising cost of campaigns–mainly to pay for the production and airing of negative TV ads. Media outlets benefit by selling air time for these ads, and don’t want to see the system (or their revenue streams) change, even if most students of this problem agree that money is corrupting politics and allowing for undue corporate influence in the political process. For it is the corporations that politicians turn to to raise the money to finance the TV coverage consultants deem necessary to win a campaign, and as we’ve noticed, those who spend the most–and they tend to spend most of their money on TV ads–win about 95% of the time at the national level. Corporations want something for their money, and we get a system of influence that tends to leave out the citizens–yes, they get to vote, but the TV coverage upon which many base their votes is so skewed, and so biased toward images and the telegenic candidates who can read a script well and repeat sound bites, that often times candidates are elected based on the half-truths and deceptions that characterized their television attack ads. TV increases the need for money in campaigns, paving the way for greater corporate influence, less real debate and more image management, and decreased access to candidates and officeholders who seem to spend more time managing the media and courting financial backers than they do serving the public who elect them and pay their salaries.

Who’s responsible for this corrupt system? The politicians? Consultants? The public who let candidates get away with misleading campaigns? An uncritical news media who rarely examine politicians’ statements for accuracy? Or media owners who benefit from the current system and have no desire to see corruption and campaign financing become hot issues? It’s hard to tell who to shoot. Social critic Ivan Illich once said that to fundamentally change society, all one would have to do is slow everyone down to 35 mph. Well, to fundamentally change the political process, all one would have to do is drastically limit privately-funded TV advertising and uncritical, often-biased media coverage of campaigns. Sort of like saying that if we drive less, we’ll be less dependent on fossil fuels–it sounds good on paper, but the structures in society that would need to be in place to allow that to happen are too often lacking (public transit, responsive automotive industry, incorruptible politicians who advocate for citizens and limit corporate donations to their campaigns, small cities where people can work close to where they live, etc.).

Air’s bad for you? Just stop breathing . . .