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.
I too, am guilty.
There is a current socio/political trend that is lending itself towards an irrational dynamic. Like many irrational behaviors, it is largely motivated by fear. This “trend” I speak of, is when American citizens begin with a subjective political assertion, and gather evidence –whether it be real, manufactured, or a little both– to support it. These declarations are often made without regard for acumen, rather the impetus is to affirm one’s blind allegiance to their chosen dogma… Or to put it more bluntly, paranoia caused by partisan hyperbole. And while toting a “party line” has been an establish practice for generations, the vitriol and adversarial approach to our fellow Americans has become a tragic part of the new Americana.
For instance, I have lifelong friends who reside on both sides of the political aisle who are the exemplification of this sociological paradigm. Almost without exception, they’ll depict a political landscape whereby good and evil are easily recognizable, dependent upon one’s political affiliation. Representatives from either party are often labeled as socialists, fascists, elitists or stupid… and while there are times when any of those labels might seem justified, it is the cavalier manner in which they are so casually tossed about which allows for bombast to have trumped reasonable objections to policy.
The reasons for this social malady are many, depending on who is making the assertion. The psychological payoff, it would appear, is to try to tether oneself to something both righteous and tangible in a world spinning out of control, socially, politically, and economically. It is simply how the culture of fear manifests itself. When one considers how media contributes to this dynamic, certainly it is understandable how we can vilify and canonize so recklessly. We behave more like Sharks and Jets than Democrats and Republicans, and as such our angst is able to seek its expression through our natural discourse.
But for the sources of the cultural divide –those who manufacture these extremes– the motives are not nearly as honorable. Those who profit from any given media platform have recognized the profitable forum in extremism, and thus prey upon the angst of those whom they purport to be enlightening. The laughably biased –albeit lyrical– affirmations of “truth” made by political televangelists on cable news have compromised the imaginative ability of the proletariat to which they preach, resulting in the regurgitation of fact challenged, wingnut propaganda by average citizens on blogs, and in social media. In the ideological turf war, the battle to win the hearts and minds of those not centrifugally pinned to either political extreme is being waged through those who are. In a nation fast losing its ability to employ critical thinking, reason is now viewed as weakness. The inability to rationally articulate one’s socio/political concerns in non-polarizing terms has been denounced, because the truth –as many of us see it– is not actually based on our own perceptions, but rather the perceptions of those on whom we place our misguided trust.
Which brings us to the point of this article, which is an observation about the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Regardless of our political leanings, I hope that we Americans can differentiate between condemning our entire financial system, and calling to task those who have undermined it for personal profit. I hope that we can understand the difference between capitalism, and corporatism. I trust that we recognize that when political influence is purchased though lobbying or when competition is artificially removed from the marketplace, that we no longer live in a democracy, nor do we live in a capitalist society. Something un-American is occurring where it concerns the collusive relationship between capital interests, and congress. The Tea Party saw it, and so do the OWS.
But with few exceptions, both the liberal and conservative media –which provides many with their philosophical rudder– ignores these facts. Rather they fan flames of partisanship because profit lies in our contention with one another. Actuality has given way to the portrait they want us to see. And while I have little doubt that this movement –like the Tea Party before it– will be co-opted by special interests, it does not deter from the evidence, or the larger picture. Regardless of whether one is able to channel their inner hippie and support these protestors, or whether they are the re-incarnation of William F Buckley and denounce them as whiney, entitled, and without a work ethic… it should not dissuade us from recognizing that there are those in both the private and public sectors who are escaping incarceration because we Americans have allowed ourselves to become distracted by political theater.
It is human nature to gravitate towards venues which advocate our predispositions.
As Americans cultivate their views about morality, religion, politics and the social sciences, it becomes incumbent on the intellectually ill-equipped to seek out media that will support their uninformed suppositions. All but few Americans have relegated themselves to reciting inane platitudes, and regurgitating other people’s insipid blather so as to affirm an intellect they do not possess. As the sensibly susceptible align themselves with one political party or the other — not to mention the accompanying cable news networks — they’ll eventually learn “a few things about a few things”. And in their severely limited scopes they’ll feel as if they now have the solutions to the Nation’s problems locked away in their tragically under-developed frontal lobes. The payoff for this, is a simple rationalization that their collective bias’ is actually socially discerning politics, and feigned relevancy.
So we Americans venture forth into the intellectual abyss, clinging to misrepresentations which comfort us. We’ll adhere to the social dogma that our political affiliations mandate, while disregarding other — sometimes valid — interpretations which might refute their affirmations. We’ll wrap ourselves in the security blanket of denial… insulating ourselves from the cold, hard truth that most of us are simply too emotionally immature to be candidly introspective, let alone honest with ourselves. All too often, we’ll pick and choose our “truths” based –not on facts — but on what we *want* to be true.
The real truth is that we believe the lies we want to hear.
However, selective fact gathering can neither provide truth, nor wisdom. As John Adams so astutely affirmed, “Facts are stubborn things”… When seeking truth one cannot begin with a conclusion, and gather facts to support it. That is not how valid resolutions are made. We must go where facts lead us, and make our determinations thusly. Even if they are uncomfortable, or contradictory to what we’ve always been led to believe. We simply cannot choose what is true, and what is not. The only thing we can choose, is which side of the political aisle we want to affiliate ourselves with based on whether the Left, or the Right’s version of the truth best suits our own astigmatic — if not bigoted– presumptions.
Which brings us to the recent shootings in Tucson, and how they have sparked passionate dialogue, and finger pointing around the country. It seems that anyone with a platform, and an opinion about any socio/political issues peripheral to these shootings has taken this opportunity to prattle on about “who” they believe is responsible for “what”. The vitriol between the Liberal Left, and the Conservative Right has been brought into the spotlight and portrayed as particularly villainous, even if not specifically about this particular set of circumstances. Still, the brainwashed constituents of both parties continue to laughably place blame on one another as being the source of this toxicity, and the reason that the political landscape now resembles “reality” television rather than the beacon of democracy that we’ve always been able to boast… The practice of the irresponsible, self serving leveling of accusations has become an American political institution, as has an utter lack of accountability… or tether to reason.
Similar to how America handles every other crisis, where is concerns the Tucson shootings, we are reactionary. As we did with the “underwear bomber”, we wait for something to happen, and then respond irrationally. In this instance, rather than fondling citizen’s genitals to ensure their safety, there are those both in politics and in the media who have capitalized on the National heartbreak over these senseless shootings… and who are actually suggesting that we legislate censoring symbols, metaphors, and the way we talk about one another.
They are responding to the problem of acerbic rhetoric, with politically correct rhetoric. While it might seem admirable to ask those in the national spotlight to choose their words more carefully, “dial back” the acrimony, or to avoid needlessly antagonistic contention, that is something that must occur organically if it ever hopes to last into the next news cycle. Even if they were to ban certain words from the National dialogue, that won’t change anyone’s true feelings, or the intent behind the words they *are* permitted to use. If history teaches us anything, it’s that it is impossible –not to mention prolifically stupid– to even try to legislate how people feel.
It would be like putting a coat of paint on a rusty car.
When we seek politically correct solutions — especially when it comes to language — it inherently motivated by political grandstanding, and it always comes at the expense of the truth. If there is legitimate animus between political rivals it needs to be expressed, and in their own chosen verbiage. If an emotional response is honest, and one feels it, they should be able to say it. That is how we can determine who we vote for, or even watch on television. But the operatives here are “legitimate, and “honest”… not “animus”.
Whenever I see high profile Liberals and Conservatives debate one another, it has always been my contention that as long as they critique the other, their arguments will remain substantially convincing. Indeed, there is so much perfidy within both Left and Right politics that there is a virtual bottomless pit of ideological assault points. But it is when the political apologists try to defend their own parties abhorrent disregard for both civility, and reason that the perfidiousness of their agendas become clear.
So the problem has become, “How do we manage ideological differences of opinion which will contribute to the Democratic process rather than hinder it, while not infringing on anyone’s First Amendment rights, let alone their honest expression?”
It is not altering language or symbols that we need… nor do we need to re-examine the First Amendment. It is not censorship we require, but rather journalistic, and political INTEGRITY. When the Founders wrote the First Amendment, they did so with an understanding of the necessity of having independent press in a free society. They recognized that even setting up three branches of government wasn’t enough to ensure that corruption wouldn’t find a way to creep back into men’s souls, and that we required a system whereby the citizenry would have credible advocates working on their behalf, and reporting on the activities of the politicians whom we elect.
That sacred trust has since been betrayed. Journalism is all but vanished from the American landscape, and what we have left are editorialists shilling for politicians, and their respective lobbies. This is what now passes for news… and the cerebrally bankrupt — albeit frightened — proletariat rush to choose sides, ignorant of the fact that the people they have put their trust in have no credibility.
The malicious bombast which has grinded our legislative process to a virtual halt exists because Left and the Right continue to police one another’s language, and speculate on how they perceive each other’s intentions. That can’t work, because of the source of the criticism. All that will accomplish is to further the divide between otherwise (potentially) conciliatory differences of opinion. In order to create a more civil public discourse, we need to require more from those who steer public opinion.
We must require that both Democrats and Republicans demonstrate integrity, and chastise the fringe elements of their own respective parties, not the others. Rather than placating incendiary, irrational, and purposely deceptive hyperbole when it comes from someone with whom they allegedly align, both pundits and politicians need to behave like the adults in the room, and not excuse the failings of *anyone’s* illogical ravings, regardless of party affiliation. This problem is much less about what we say of one another, but what we fail to admit about ourselves. The lunatic fringe would be far less powerful if their own parties called them out when they are behaving irrationally.
The more reasonable method of addressing the toxic political environment is not to seek censorship over what we say about one another, but rather to cease censoring ourselves when it comes to what we say about the extremists within our own respective parties. Perhaps then, we can go back to being Democrats and Republicans — and moreover, Americans — instead nation of the bitter, warring Liberals and Conservatives that we have become.
This article is dedicated to those who have the capacity to think critically… especially congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Please get better soon, Ms. Giffords.