TV is Dead: Long Live TV!

tv ad2For a decade or so when I was young, I didn’t have a television machine.  It wasn’t because I have a philosophical argument with mass media – I don’t.  In fact, I’ve always been one of the cheerleaders – even back then.  Nor was it merely a sign of the times; despite popular mythology, even the most dedicated hippies of the Stoned Age watched television.  My situation was simple economics.  I couldn’t afford one in university, and it just got to be a habit.  As a result, I have no burning nostalgia for the days of Everybody Loves Friends TV.  To me, network television was just another brick in the media’s mind-numbing wall.  So, it’s with no emotion whatsoever that I can report the imminent death of television, and unlike Mark Twain’s premature demise, this is no exaggeration.

Let me clarify.  I’m not saying that those shiny screens we’ve got all over the place are going to follow the dinosaurs into extinction. Absolutely not.  Actually; I think we’re going to accumulate even more.  They’re going to get bigger.  They’re going to get smaller.  They’re going to be everywhere; and soon it’ll be impossible to escape their reflected glow.  But they’re not going to be the kind of television anybody born in the 20th century remembers.  Those times are gone and soon to be forgotten.

Way back in the day, when Milton Berle and Lucille Ball ruled the airwaves like media admirals, television was structured the same way as radio.  There were local programs of regional interest, but the national news and hardcore entertainment was provided by the networks.  We lived in a one-size-fits-all culture back then, and the whole family watched TV – together.  So when Lucy had “some ‘splaining to do” on Monday night, literally millions of people saw her do it and got the joke.  Network television built its power from those numbers and the massive advertising revenue they generated.  It was a lucrative arrangement, and TV to you and me was free.

Then along came cable.  Suddenly, media moguls discovered that the public would pay for television. What a novel idea!  Cable TV became the value-added medium that radio never had been.  People were willing to shell out substantial bucks for a few extra beyond-the-rabbit-ears channels and consistent sound and picture quality.  Within a couple of years, North America was wired up and life was good in media land.

Then along came Ted Turner, a guy who made a billion dollar career out of thinking outside the box.  In the early 70s, he figured out that the huge advertising dollars the big three networks were generating was simply a numbers game.  He knew that if he could broadcast his local station, WTCG, nationally, like the networks did through their affiliates, he could produce those numbers also and the ad revenue they generated.  Unfortunately, Ted didn’t have a network, or any affiliates or even very much money.  However, Ted realized he didn’t need any of those things because he could use the TV cables that local media companies had been stringing up all over the continent.  Those cables were hardwired into Ted’s potential national audience.  In 1976, the FCC approved Ted’s plan to broadcast WTCG nationally through hundreds of local cable networks, and the first Superstation was born.

From there, the floodgates were open.  Soon there were other superstations—notably, WGN Chicago and, of course, CNN.  By tv ad3the time Bill Clinton was in the White House, everybody and his friend had a specialty channel.  At the turn of the century, the 500 channel universe was alive and thriving and, ironically enough, already dying, as technology began to outrun the simple bit of coaxial cable that spawned it.  The Internet, once hardwired into your home or office was going wireless and when Stephen Jobs introduced the iPhone the revolution was on.

Today, as wireless communication grows, televisions are becoming empty receptacles – mere screens that host video games, iTunes, YouTube, Netflix etc. etc.  More and more people are choosing what they watch– and when they watch it– without reference to what television stations or networks are broadcasting.  Soon, that 60-inch big screen will be a slave to your smartphone, networks will produce pay as you play content only, and local stations, if they’re smart, will return to what they do best– local news and information.

By the time Lucy and Desi celebrate their 70th anniversary of reruns, nobody’s going to remember how we used to watch them, and television, as our generation knew it, will be dead as disco.

SOPA: What’s it all about?

It’s no surprise that the huge anti-SOPA/PIPA Internet protest on Wednesday caught a lot of people under the chin.  This included several American lawmakers who weren’t aware that the Internet is more than a bunch of geeky guys (the kind they pushed around in high school) playing video games in their parents’ basements.  These senators and congressmen (persons of congressness?) woke up Wednesday morning to discover there is a power in this world that they can only fantasize about.  They also discovered that Washington, DC is actually connected to the rest of the country.  Most of them probably had to sit down for a minute to take it all in.  Regardless, chances are good SOPA and PIPA are dead, and the only side effect is the American government may shut down for a while as frightened lawmakers make themselves scarce in the face of an angry mob of lobbyists.  Ah, democracy!  Ya gotta love it!

The thing that surprises me, however, is why people didn’t see this coming.  The battle for information didn’t just start last Tuesday, nor, for that matter, is it over today.  These are just the most recent shots fired in a war that’s been going on since our hairiest ancestors learned how to grunt.  And, BTW, although cries of censorship look good on bumper stickers and make terrific sound bytes, make no mistake: this current battle has nothing to do with banning content.  It’s all about who gets to use the content available, and how.  This is a battle between old media and new media, just like it was seven centuries ago when minstrels found out Gutenberg was printing more than just Bibles.  They didn’t like it because they were about to be put out of business.  Fast forward to 2012 and it’s Hollywood vs Silicon Valley.  Plus ca change!

If you’re still confused, let me break it down for you.  We need to go way back to caveman days, when life, although very similar to ours, was a whole lot simpler.  This is how the media worked back then and it’s how it still works today.

It all started one night when Grog, the Caveman, was lying around the fire, burping up mastodon and wondering what to do with his spare time.  Mrs. Grog probably said something innocuous like, “How was your day, dear?” and Grog proceeded to tell her.  Bada-bing, bada-boom, the world changed.  It was the original “Shooting a Mastodon” story, and although Grog was no George Orwell, the family was enchanted.   Pretty soon, Grog was doing story night twice a week.  Word got around.  After all, Cro-Magnons didn`t have all that much to do after dark.  So, instead of just sitting there, watching the in-laws pick fleas off each other, the neighbours would pack up the kids, grab the Cro-Magnon equivalent of popcorn and head on over to Grog’s cave for some entertainment.   In essence, Grog controlled the media; they were his stories and he told them well.

As I’ve said, despite what anthropologists will tell you, Cro-Magnons were not that much different from us.  They liked a good story; therefore, Grog became something of a celebrity.  The locals started treating him differently – first bite off the bone, closest seat at the fire, that sort of thing.  Grog had a good gig going on.  Enter Cro-Magnon #2 (we’ll call him Eddie for clarity; that’s not his real name.)  Eddie was pretty smart for a Cro-Magnon, given the limitations of his receding forehead.  Eddie saw Grog acting like the world’s first Rock Star and he wanted a piece of that.  He decided that he could tell stories, too.  However, the Cro-Magnon world was limited, there really weren’t that many stories yet, and Grog was already telling them all.  Eddie needed a hook; a reason for people to abandon Grog and come and hear Eddie’s stories (even though they’re basically the same.)   Fortunately, Eddie was kind of a caveman Stephen Jobs, and he figured out that, if he added pictures to the stories even the hillbilly Neanderthals down the road would be snarling around, trying to get in.  So Eddie drew a bunch of pictures on the walls of his cave to illustrate the stories he was telling: the first multimedia presentation.  Suddenly, Eddie was the guy you wanted to see in Cro-Magnon town when the sun went down.  Grog, on the other hand, had three options; go back to being a nobody mastodon hunter, go over and kick the snot out of Eddie or draw his own pictures and get better stories.  Luckily, he chose door number three because, if he hadn’t, we’d all be watching Mastadon Hunt MMMXCVI, in 3D.

It’s way more complicated these days, but the same rules apply.  When things change, the media has to change to accommodate them.  Those who do, survive; those who don’t, go under.  Running crybaby to the government is only delaying the inevitable.  If the large media corporations think that’s a reasonable solution, they’re all going to end up like Eastman Kodak, hunting around like a bunch of cavemen, looking for bankruptcy protection.

Media: cut on the bias

This week, Vivian Schiller, the head of NPR (National Public Radio) resigned.  This was immediately after Ron Schiller (no relation) a worker bee at NPR was caught on tape telling a couple of reporters — disguised as members of a fictitious Moslem organization — that the Republican Party had been hijacked by the Tea Party movement.  He went on to say that the Tea Party membership were “sort of white, middle America, gun-toting …. seriously racist, racist people.”  Not satisfied with that, he intimated that most Americans were “uneducated” bumpkins.  (This isn’t exactly the way it happened, but it’s close enough.)  You can see the actual tape, if you want.  It’s all over YouTube.

This whole series of events fanned the flames under the ever-popular accusation that the media has a leftwing bias.  I’m going to lay this controversy to rest right now.  It does.  However, to be fair, it also has a rightwing bias.  It all depends on who you’re listening to this afternoon.  The fact is the media is slanted.  There is no such thing as fair reporting.  Journalists and editors construct news stories in such a way as to elicit a preconceived response from you the public.  This bias is in every news source from the mega circulation New York Times, CNN and Fox right down to the smallest community radio station and alternative newspaper.  Anybody who tells you anything different is either very young, delusional or lying.

Every news agency — from Al Jazeera to The Jacksonville Bugle — makes a big show of being committed to fair and balanced reporting.  They all say, “We don’t make the news; we just report it.”  This is crap. 

First of all, news agencies decide which stories they’re going to cover and which get a miss.  For example, as Gaddafi battles for his place in the sand have you heard anything about the economic trouble in Greece or Ireland lately?  I doubt very much that either one of them has gotten its financial house in order and is currently living happily ever after.  So — where did they go?  No, reporters don’t make the news; that’s true.  But they do pick and choose.  This is not a nefarious plot to deceive the public.  It’s just trying to cram 24 hours’ worth of unholy mayhem into two-and-a-half written columns or Top of Hour headlines (complete with traffic, sports and weather.)  There just isn’t enough time.  So editors and reporters decide — in advance — what they’re going to tell you.

Next, somebody has to write the story.  Regardless of how it’s presented, somebody’s got to pound out the words.  Any journalist will tell you that every news story consists of Who, What, Where, When and Why.  Obviously, Who, What, Where and When are easy — a German Shepherd with a thumb can figure those ones out.  The real problem for journalists is Why, because without Why, you don’t have a story.   The unfortunate thing about Why is it’s endless.  You can connect Colonel Gaddafi’s current problems back to Cleopatra and the Ptolemy Dynasty — if you have enough time.  But there’s the rub.  Ordinary news stories are about six minutes long, at best.  But there is no way in hell anybody can explain the situation in Libya in less time than it takes to make Kraft Dinner.  Even Bill Shakespeare couldn’t do it.  Journalists, therefore, pick a side and turn Why into blame.  If you’ll notice, in most social or political news stories, somebody always ends up wearing the black hat.  It’s just easier that way — especially when you’re working to a deadline.  And all news comes with a deadline. 

Finally, journalism is a tough job, and most journalists simply aren’t up to the task.  They have little or no experience outside the media, and they don’t have any particular expertise.  It’s interesting to note that when the CNN crowd appeared on the Celebrity Jeopardy Invitational, they all lost.  What kind of credibility is that when you get your intellectual ass kicked by the guy who played “Lenny” on Laverne and Shirley?  Furthermore, it’s difficult to explain to the general public what’s going on in complicated places like Libya, for example, when you have no idea yourself.  It’s quite a bit easier to trot out Gaddafi — looking like a lunatic — and then cut the camera to jet trails and explosions.  Nobody (outside of the nutbars at Fox) has actually come right out and said Gaddafi’s a maniac, but everybody gets the idea.

Most journalists work on this same principle.  They have no background on the subject they’re covering, so they bring their opinion to the story, instead.  It’s quick and easy.  The unfortunate thing is then they have to manipulate the story to support their original opinion; whereas, in fact, it such be the other way around – the story should dictate the opinion.  For example, Dan Rather believed George W. Bush was a bad president, so when evidence showed up to support his belief, he didn’t bother to check it.  He rushed it through to the six o’clock deadline.  It was a bad mistake.

So how do we escape the media bias?  We don’t.  There is only one way to avoid being swept along the path of least resistance that most journalists take.  We have to start listening to the people we don’t agree with — even those fools at Fox.  If we don’t, we’re just as bad as they are.  For example, I don’t think Ron Schiller, the guy who started this storm, ever stepped outside his comfort zone in his life.  Maybe if he had, he wouldn’t have become such a bigot.