On a Tuesday evening in 1977, the entertainment industry changed forever…. for the better.
American consumers had few entertainment options during the Cold War. Since there was just three TV networks, and a spattering of local stations, viewers were captive. We watched what was available because we had so few options. We sat through commercials because we had to.
Then the American Broadcasting Company broke what –before that moment– could not be broken. A man named Fred Fox Jr. unwittingly began an evolutionary process by which Americans would no longer allow themselves to taken for granted by entertainment media. The most popular icon in America –Fonzie– was scripted by Mr. Fox to water-ski-jump over a caged shark. It was so spectacularly awful that the moment was henceforth and irrevocably associated with contrived, hackneyed entertainment failure.
Indeed, it was a breaking point. Americans were mad as hell, and we weren’t going to take it anymore. And TV and radio companies have been punished by their audiences for “jumping the shark” ever since.
Now almost forty years later, technology has given viewers and listeners more options than ever. Between the Federal Communications Commission, self-censorship, political correctness and the archaic mindset that accompanies traditional TV and radio, there has been a significant demand created for entertainment that is neither “Disney-fied”, nor permeated with obtuse banalities. The truth is, as the nation’s topography changes, both mediums in their current state are unsustainable.
Network television and over-the-air radio still reside over the shark.
On the TV side, cable networks have made ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX increasingly obsolete. Although status-quo apologists might claim that the success of pay channels like HBO and Showtime are due to their commercial-free business model and lack of FCC interference, the facts bear out differently. Commercialized pay channels like FX and AMC have garnered the same success as their “premium channel” rivals. Shows like “Louie” and “Breaking Bad” –although less encumbered by censorship– have no antenna friendly competition where it concerns platitude-free dialogue, honest characters or situational plausibility. In fact, cable channels that rely on advertisers manage to produce cutting edge, neoteric programming without nudity, or profanity.
The main difference between ABC, and AMC, is that the former is mired in psychological antiquity, while the latter employs creative courage. Which is a polite way to say that network TV and over the air radio have yet to find a way to enter the twenty-first century. Whenever network TV or over the air radio tries to compete with their cable or podcast counterparts by producing “edgy” content, they fail miserably. Consumers whose sensibilities allow for them to watch “Louie” in favor of “the Big Bang Theory” are able to spot contrived attempts to placate them a mile away. If anything offends this significant audience, it’s being condescended to.
Yet in the second decade of the twenty-first century, technology takes this dynamic a step further. Among other entrepreneurial and creative business models , Youtube, Netflix and Hulu have also entered the marketplace for original programming that is oversight-free of easily offended curmudgeons. Proving, if nothing else, that there has been, and remains to be a want for TV that doesn’t suck.
Radio however, is undergoing an entirely different metamorphosis.
While there was a time when satellite radio was believed to be the best alternative to what had become an over-censored and litigiously run medium, it seems now that “pay-radio” has succumb to the same pitfalls as its predecessor. The main difference between pay TV and radio, is that the little competition that existed in the satellite radio marketplace was erased by the merging/takeover of the only two entities in the corporate rialto. Indeed, if any advice can be offered to the radio industry by those who’ve achieved success in internet and cable TV, it’s that treating your paying customers like rubes is not an effective design of operation. Complacency is bad for any form of entertainment, and although it might be counter-intuitive to one with a twentieth century thought process, competition is good… for everyone.
If stock prices are any indication, it’s safe to say that the Sirius/XM “merger” turned out to be bad for both companies. However much like the television industry, consumers will pay for the radio they want. But it seems that requiring customers to pay for their product was never really satellite radio’s problem. Content was, and still is. Whether those in charge at Sirius radio want to admit it or not, they are struggling with a similar lack of programming imagination and smugness that made FM radio the vapid medium that prompted a radio alternative in the first place.
Certainly there is reason to speculate that Sirius’ hiring of executives (from the industry they were hoping to supplant) was a recipe for inevitable failure. Huge contracts, short song playlists, and gag orders on people whom they’ve hired to talk for the purposes of entertainment is proving to be a failing business model. Moreover, without the luxury of a customer regulated environment, Sirius radio has found themselves alone, adrift, and without a competitive entity to provide perspective. Showtime and HBO have one another to keep one another’s programming honest.
However a boardroom full of retrospective enablers is not conducive to the kind of forward thinking that the contemporary entertainment industry requires for success. Worse still is that Sirius’ litigious, FM radio-style corporate culture has led to (among other things) self-censorship via political correctness. That is the very dynamic that forced listeners to seek them out as an alternative in the first place.
The alternative that music and talk radio lovers have sought seems to have arrived via the internet. So much so that auto manufacturers are now moving away from offering Satellite radios in their package upgrades, and towards an internet alternative whereby one can pre-set their favorite online radio sites, and podcasts. Certainly, if the original reasons people sought satellite radio were short playlists and censored talk, then the internet is the entertainment medium they’ve been looking for.
Still in its adolescence as a commercial endeavor, podcasting is already proving to be a viable entertainment medium for those unable, unwilling, or unwanting to abide a corporate overseer. Comedian Mark Maron has done extraordinarily well with his podcast “WTF”, which has blown up to the point of it being (at least) as much of a source for his celebrity as his stand-up work. While conducting interviews and on-air pontificating is a significantly different skill set than standing on stage and telling jokes, Maron does both extremely well. By an industry standard, WTF is a highly successful show in any medium.
Unlike Maron, Glenn Beck was already a huge name in conservative talk when he made his talk entertainment home on the internet. Surely Beck had alternatives after he and FOX News parted ways, however he wisely chose to (at the time) think out of the box, and build a brand around an internet show he could perform from his home studio. Although Beck might have been able to earn more had he sought employment back on TV (probably not, but that’s not reflective of GB’s earning power as much as it is the viability of the internet as a revenue source), he certainly would not have been able to do the show he wants. And you can’t beat his commute.
Speaking of home studios, the most recent example of podcast entrepreneurship that might potentially take a significant portion of the radio market share is Anthony Cumia’s “Live from the Compound”. Late of Sirius Radio’s “Opie and Anthony show”, Cumia’s recent dismissal from the failing satellite radio company (after an off-air, politically incorrect twitter rant) prompted his venturing into podcasting. It’s a natural fit for a singular talent whose at his best when spontaneously unrestrained, and who exemplifies the irreconcilability of funny and political correctness. Like Glenn Beck, the natural appeal of working from home makes podcasting worth the risk, and like Glenn Beck, the thought of Anthony Cumia having to “watch what he says” is abhorrent to his fan base.
The Podcast success list doesn’t end with Maron, Beck or Cumia. Kevin Smith’s Smodcast, Mohr stories with Jay Mohr, the Joe Rogan Experience, and a myriad of other podcast venues have lasted the test of time. Podcasts have already proved that –like any other business– people will gravitate towards a good product, and they will stay away from ones that do not satisfy their needs.
Which is why at this juncture I would be irresponsible to not mention UnLearn TV. A podcast/ internet TV show which I co-host with a vice imbued genius who goes by the name Cigars & Scotch. It too, has managed to amass a significant following. Certainly more than many shows on other mediums. If nothing else, UnLearn TV proves that prior celebrity is not required to have a successful podcast, and it should serve as an example to those confined to radio and TV obscurity.
But here’s the thing… there are only twenty four hours in a day for entertainers across all mediums to divvy up. And while corporate entertainment is often guilty of taking their audiences for granted, entertainment consumers can be fickle, and petty. If podcasters don’t charge a fee to join their site, they will require sponsorships to stay afloat. Circumventing internet revenues has crippled the porn business, and it will likewise kill the podcasting business.
Cigars & Scotch and I have been slowly building a viewership and monetizing our product. Entertainers who move to podcasting still have to eat and pay bills. Granted, the internet provides more creative, less annoying ways for businesses to partner with podcasts (banners, links, etc)… but consumers must make it worth an advertiser’s while. Because no one works for free.
Nor should they.
To the uninitiated, it all might seem the same.
Without a fundamental grasp of economics or sociology, our two party political system might appear to be two sides of the same coin. Granted, in some ways both the political left and right are similar in their duplicity. However in most ways, especially in regards to the departure from the post WW2 economic model that built the largest middle class in the history of western civilization that brought about the civil rights movement and put both a man on the moon and a computer in everyone’s home, only the 21st century Republican party and their sympathetic media affiliates represent a fundamental divergence from the socio/economic ideals that made America great.
With the discourse of the conservative entertainment complex driving the nation’s narrative further and further right, the political middle has moved accordingly. As such, well intentioned political centrists –in an effort to be a voice of reason in our nation’s vitriolic partisanship– are finding themselves making socio/economic concessions that just a few years ago would have been considered both irrational, and far too extreme. Today’s center was yesterday’s far right.
The dismantling of all of the socio/economic mechanisms between FDR and Ronald Reagan has become rationalized via right wing/corporatist/theocratic platitudes. Vilifying the economic functions that created post war America is a singular Republican phenomenon. Yet there remains a concerted effort on the part of many to attempt a political counter-balance by equating less-than-sane, economically illiterate ravings from a GOP –now controlled by fundamentalist, Dominionist Christians– and whatever imbecilic dolt one can dredge from the left.
But these are false equivalents.
For there is no Democratic equal for the Christian Dominionist right, and the twelfth century socio/economic model they propose. Virtually every piece of legislation initiated by the GOP in the twenty-first century is designed to create a greater economic disparity between the very wealthy, and everyone else. There is a consistent effort on the part of the Christian fundamentalist 21st century GOP to subjugate women, punish the poor, and make the working class bear the entire burden of economic austerity. And it has become impossible to run for national office as a republican without capitulating to the Evangelical lobby.
There is no Democratic equivalent for the TEA Party, and their less-than-sane, not too-bright socio/economic affirmations. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement not only couldn’t get traction within the Democratic Party, it ran no candidates for public office. The bastardization of history and scripture –not to mention the thinly veiled bigotry of the TEA Party– have become standard talking points within the Republican party.
Moreover, there is no Democratic equivalent for the irrational ravings of the Conservative Entertainment Complex and their corresponding media affiliates. While MSNBC might be a ridiculously partisan public relations outlet for the left, FOX news has no equal in their fact deficient moral bankruptcy, or their unapologetic conjuring of fear driven non-events . Indeed, FOX News has the worst fact-check record on television, by far. It’s not just that FOX presents “news” in a partisan fashion, they fabricate it to create paranoia from their constituency. Likewise, right- wing talk radio is inundated with hate mongering lunatics who tout paranoid schizophrenic platitudes like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, or Alex Jones… for which there are no comparable counterparts from the left.
And there is no Democratic equivalent for the quasi-celebrities that continually get air-time in the conservative talk-o-sphere. Across America, synaptically impaired conservative celebrities like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and Ted Nugent have become stars by blathering irrational, fact deficient banalities. With a pedestrian socio/economic acumen, these dullards get regular spots on conservative TV and radio programs, and get paid to speak at TEA party rallies. There is no Democratic example of this.
So I often hear from folks on social media that both Democrats & Republicans are “equally to blame” for our nation’s economic woes, and that neither party is interested in helping the middle class. But the socio/economic reality is far from that comparison. I understand the noble intention of neutrality, but in this instance, it is misguided.
Like frogs in a kettle, the GOP electorate has been subjected to the economic temperature slowly having been turned up over time. A further right discourse has been slowly introduced to working class Republicans over the past 30 years, and many are finding it difficult to realize that their party has moved away from them. The Corporatist/Christian Dominionist GOP now accords the best interests of an elite few. As it has been in every example of history when religion and politics become one, every Republican socio/economic measure of austerity comes at the expense of the middle class.
So sure, the Democratic party is flawed, and in many ways, infuriating. I get that. But to be a working class Republican in the twenty first century, one must concede reason to willful socio/economic ignorance, if not one’s own bigoted predispositions. Where it concerns sociology, economics, and the mechanisms that made this country great … when juxtaposed against the very ideals the 21st century GOP propose and the history of how theocracies impact the proletariat… There are no rational comparisons to be made between the blemished Democratic party, and the irrational GOP.
Despite the cliché, perception is not reality. Subjective reality and actual reality can be two very different things. There’s often a big difference between perception and reality, especially when one’s perception is confounded with maniacal predispositions. Despite what a schizophrenic might perceive, the voices in their heads aren’t really there.
… And despite what a Tea Partier might believe, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum and Scott Walker are not really Republicans.
As such, the political perception of what constitutes a Republican has changed drastically over the past few years. Although I’m often called a RINO (a label that I wear proudly) so too would Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater wear that same label in today’s partisan discourse. Although the perception from the GOP electorate has changed regarding what constitutes reasonable socio/economics for the party, that doesn’t deter from the reality that today’s Republican perspectives are an utter departure from what they were when the GOP helped build the largest middle class and strongest economy in the world in the years following World War Two.
But now the manner in which we choose our political affiliations is more akin to how we choose our sports teams. We are a nation of Yankees and Red Sox fans, whose ideologies are rooted in the disdain for the other. We’re reflexively rooting for D’s and R’s. But that’s not how rational people make determinations, especially when the reality is, that as Americans, we all play for the same team.
Regardless of what political party anyone identifies themselves with, rational people remain independent until the reasons for said affiliation are warranted. Will most people find themselves leaning one way or the other? Sure. But anyone who is reasonable will not make their political determinations by who proposes legislation, but rather by what the legislation proposes. Somewhere along the line, my fellow Republicans have lost sight of that.
Which is why political centrism is so important.
Contrary to popular understanding, centrism is not about being in the middle of every, or for that matter, any issue. It is about not allowing a coalition to make determinations for you. The center relies on socio/economic facts in favor of party affiliation. If facts tend to coincide with a particular political ideology, then so be it. If that dynamic occurs disproportionately, then so be that, too.
Balance for balance sake has no place in our political discourse. The journalistic obligation is to report stories in successive order as they pertain to national importance, and to do so truthfully. It is not to make a concerted effort to counter-balance it with something random from the other side of the political aisle. What the false “balance” dynamic imposes is a license for special interests to run amok, secure that regardless of how many socially regressive or economically nonsensical items of legislation they propose, “balance” requires that something from the opposition deserves equal media scrutiny.
The reality is that the TEA Party, Corporatists, and Theocrats have taken over the GOP, and they are not only not Republicans. Neither are they mentally stable. The political right has gotten so irrational that when one speaks truth to stupid, and exposes the socio/economic lack of reason continuously exhibited by TEA-publican candidates, they are accused of “Liberal Media” bias. It’s political hipster-ism for those who lack introspection, and/or acumen.
In the present political climate, there is no Democratic equivalent for the sheer crazy that pours from TEA Party Republicans. There are no Alan Wests, Michele Bachmans, or Todd Aikens elected to public office with a (D) next to their names… nor are there any celebrity equivalents to Ted Nugent, Donald Trump, or Sarah Palin who get regular spots on FOX news. However the far right wingnuts require balance in reporting, despite the lack of balance from where the crazy originates. The idea that a responsible media would have to counterbalance a disproportional amount of lunacy emanating from the political right by manufacturing items from the left is not reasonable.
As the political “middle” moves further right in the wake of the Republican Party having been hijacked by extremist ideologues, the political center remains beholden to facts. It is incumbent upon rational centrists who identify as Republicans to make the distinction between the TEA Party/ lunatic fringe, and the socio/economic principles that defined the GOP from a generation ago. Because the political center is not the political middle. It is where the facts lie. And if the discourse cantilevers overtly to the right, –although the perception of where the center is might change– that does not alter the reality of where the facts of centrism reside.
The perception, and the reality of the political center are two very different things.