Gag order for TV’s Must-Wretch reality

Jul 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

I have an idea for a “reality” show: “Big Bother.” We get all these TV executives, see, maybe a dozen or so, and lock them in a house and instead of having cameras everywhere, we have TV sets everywhere, and instead of us watching them, they have to watch all the crappy “reality” shows they’ve been putting on the air in the past couple of seasons.
In no time they’ll be begging for such relatively pleasant options as eating crickets or lying down with rats-the way contestants on NBC’s “Fear Factor” have done. Hmm, network programmers lying down with rats. Do you suppose the rats would get up and run away?
We know that network execs used to refer sneeringly to the audience-that is, the American public-as “the people we fly over” as they volleyed between New York and Los Angeles. There might be less flying these days, what with the business more concentrated in L.A., but if the term is outdated, the sneer still seems very much alive.
The cure could kill it
Forced to fess up-like if we threatened to destroy or torture their Palm Pilots-most of them would have to admit that, given the choice, they themselves would never watch the slop they’ve been feeding the folks out there-excuse me, out here, because that’s where I live-in Television Land. That’s the likes of “Big Brother 2” or “Spy TV” or “Temptation Island” or whatever. There is about “Survivor” some modicum of merit, and as a prototype it’s superior to most of its imitations or, I don’t know, at least the tape editing is pretty nifty. So yes, a network executive might willingly choose to watch that one.
Anyway, as contemptible as many of these shows are, they’re also contemptuous, contemptuous of the medium itself as well as of the people who watch it. To those people’s credit, they’re watching less of it. They’re finding something else to do. Maybe that something involves the use of a TV screen or maybe it doesn’t, but even “Survivor” does not draw viewers the way the greatest of scripted shows-“Seinfeld,” “ER” or, going back to better times, “The Cosby Show”-do or did.
Television is curing people of television.
I always predicted someone would put out a videocassette about “How to Give Up TV,” the catch being, obviously, that you’d have to fire up the TV to watch it. But could it be that the Citizens of Television Land sense the contemptuousness themselves, that they’re not only bored by this stuff but insulted?
National Journal Editor in Chief and Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly offered a very pungent essay last week about the “them”/”us” schism, the gap between TV executives and ordinary (decent) people, people whom the privileged “them” class considers the equivalent of what used to be called, and in some quarters still is, “white trash.”
Kelly called Jeff Zucker, new president of NBC Entertainment, “The very role model of ‘us'”-the “us” one finds “in the VIP rooms … in the VIP schools … in the VIP jobs.”
Wrote Kelly: “Mr. Zucker mocks those who find something wrong” in the degrading humiliations of “Fear Factor” and its ilk. “‘We’re having fun, we’re having a great summer,’ he told reporters this week. ‘Get a life.’
“It would be wrong to say that Mr. Zucker is a vile, immoral, contemptible, evil careerist who would bury his own children in rats for an overnight 30 share,” Kelly continues. “He would never do that. Not to his own children. His own children are not white trash. The people who agree to endanger and humiliate themselves on ‘Fear Factor’ are, on the other hand, definitionally below Mr. Zucker’s concern as human beings: By agreeing to participate in Mr. Zucker’s freak show, they place themselves clearly in the category of not-us.”
We’ve been slimed
I might disagree with Kelly on the statement that “it would be wrong to say that Mr. Zucker is a vile, immoral, contemptible” and so on, and Zucker was not in his current job when “Fear Factor” was in the development stage, surely. But the supercilious way he has
defended it and tries to put down those who would poop his little party has obliterated any respect one might try to maintain for him.
As producer of the “Today” show, he sometimes showed evidence of conscientiousness, even if one of his missions did seem to be to reduce the amount of news in what was once primarily a news show. He got more Barnum & Bailey the longer he stayed, didn’t he? But then the numbers were good and he was beating the bejesus out of “Good Morning, America” and whatever CBS was calling its morning show at the time.
It’s sad to see people sell out not only so completely, but so merrily. Zucker is prancing about like Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”-a grisly gnomic freak-ever since he got the new job. But he shouldn’t lie. That’s, as James Garner would put it, “a naughty-naughty.” He told reporters and critics at the press tour that last year they were scolding NBC for not being in the reality-show business and, gosh, now NBC is in the reality business and here the network is taking all these lumps and isn’t that inconsistent or hypocritical or something?
I don’t know any respectable critics who were beating the drums for NBC to put on reality shows. That’s garbage. But it was widely reported that NBC Chairman Bob Wright was making Scott Sassa’s life miserable, demanding to know why NBC wasn’t on this bandwagon and that Garth Ancier lost his job over failing to come up with an appropriate piece of profitable slime.
Obviously, with a name like Zucker it doesn’t gotta be good. It doesn’t even gotta be true. I am glad he’s having fun, though. And hats off to Andrew Lack, the former news president who is now running the whole shebang at NBC. The other night on “NBC Nightly News,” they did a cute little thing that makes a tidy trademark for the lackluster Lack era into which we and NBC have now been dragged. The term “Fear Factor” was used as a teaser headline for an upcoming item on “NBC Nightly News,” thus cross-promoting an entertainment division show in a news-division show. Whoa! Give the drone who came up with that brainstorm a nice little raise!
Maybe Lack is writing these things himself, just to keep a hand in.
It’d be stuffy and old-fashioned to draw a line between news and entertainment, though, wouldn’t it? Zucker’s come from news to be president of NBC Entertainment and Lack, once the news president, is now president and chief operating officer of all of NBC. Think of them as one person, Mr. Zuckerlack. Or Mr. Lackerzuck. Or Mr. Can’t-Be-Printed-Here.
But let’s end on a happy note. This comes under the heading of Least Surprising Item of the Week, from Inside.com on the Web: “Christmas in July for Rupert
Murdoch: News Corp. Has Wish Granted by FCC.” Murdoch wanted a waiver from the FCC on a media ownership limitation in the New York market and guess what? He got it! Yes, really!
Couldntya just die?!