I can do this: put my face where my mouth is. Each week I put my untelegenic face on television in the Washington-based, political talk show “White House Chronicle.” Therefore, I think I have license to comment on how stupifyingly bad political television has become and how it is getting worse.
Once, as Newton Minow said, television was a vast wasteland. Now it is much worse than that. Those were the good old days, before producers learned that you can make a talk show for less than any other kind of show, and that there is an enthusiastic audience for partisans shouting at perceived threats to the republic. For liberals, these threats are epitomized by the religious right; and for conservatives, it is liberals who are planning world subjugation.
Whether they believe this rubbish (how can they?) or not, the punters apparently love it.
Only on the Sunday morning talk shows is there any of the old idea of talk television: a magisterial host, impartial, nice-looking and superbly modulated asking prescribed questions of a subject, nearly always political. The exemplar was Lawrence Spivak, moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press;” later, it was the self-effacing Bill Monroe. I was occasionally on that program in the 1970s. It was tame, serious, gentle and polite–the guests were seldom rattled.
The Sunday morning talk shows have not crumbled completely, but they have grown edgier. Technology and the ability to summon up old footage have made them more compelling. But all the rest, particularly on cable, are on steroids.
The hosts who dominate cable television are grotesques: figures only Charles Dickens could love. Take a sampling, left and right, and in some cases, like Lou Dobbs, an amalgam: Sean Hannity, Keith Obermann, Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck and, just arrived in an act of counter-programming from MSNBC, Ed Schultz. These polemicists are partisan, loud, often rude and more often shallow. Maddow conceals her intellect, Obermann appears to be enchanted with his and Shultz, Beck, O’Reilly and Hannity have laid aside the burden of erudition.
Once thought of as a cool medium, television is now hot. Get excited, yell, make it personal, make the reasoning simplistic and you are on your way.
The first exponent of loud-and-rude was Morton Downey, Jr. But it was the venerable John McLaughlin who changed television talk forever. He took it from its bed and shook it, oddly on PBS. Gone was the impartial, non-participatory host, replaced by an opinionated loud partisan. That was 25 years ago; and although McLaughlin is still hosting his weekly, 30-minute “The McLaughlin Group,” it has faded compared to the night after night rants on cable.
Another remnant of the past is “Washington Week in Review:” the mannerly PBS show that now seems curiously old-fashioned.
To get its more outlandish hosts, cable raided radio, which had turned wild to survive. The end of the Fairness Doctrine, an unenforcible idea in today’s world, found an audience anxious for raw, unsophisticated political ranting. Now it is on television. It is the present and the future.
Deep down the fault is not the programmers, but the limits of television itself. It favors the sensational and the clownish. When it gets serious, it gets dull. It handles depth poorly and conveys information inefficiently.
So how, you ask, does the BBC do it? The answer is it doesn’t.
The BBC has huge resources–5,000 journalists, for example–and it does documentaries and dramas very well. Because only the best of its large and uneven output is seen in America, the impression is created that the BBC gets it right. It doesn’t. I know. I worked there years ago. Program after program on the BBC in Britain is as bad, and often worse, as programs on American television.
Yet television is compelling. We nearly all watch more of it than we admit to. It also is expensive to make, hence the shift to talk. A drama costs over $2 million an hour to produce; talk a few thousand dollars. Sorry, the grotesques are here to stay. And more are probably on the way.