Enjoying a much-needed break during marathon viewing of new TV series, I stumbled across the media’s perfect poster boy, circa 2004. The surprise was that I had taken refuge in a Turner Classic Movies telecast of a film released in 1957, when “I Love Lucy” topped the ratings and “Gunfight at the OK Corral” ruled the box office.Over the years much has been made of Paddy Chayefsky’s prescience in concocting “mad as hell” anchorman Howard Beale in “Network.” Nearly two decades earlier, however, there was Sidney Falco, the amoral publicist played by Tony Curtis in Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for “Sweet Smell of Success,” embodying the maddening mix of low standards and live-for-today expediency — with flurries of higher aspirations — that so deftly characterize the modern media. Granted, the movie also stars Burt Lancaster as ruthless columnist J.J. Hunsecker, who ruins lives almost for sport. Yet as much as I admire that character (we all need role models), it’s Falco who resonates most — a handsome lad whose horizons begin and end with his next payday, aptly symbolizing a world currently filled with semi-real reality shows and semi-newsy newsmagazines. It falls to Hunsecker’s secretary (columnists apparently had secretaries and wore ties then) to sum up Falco’s negligible character, which she does more with bemusement than contempt. He’s “an amusing boy,” she says. It’s just that “you haven’t got a drop of respect in you for anything alive. You’re so immersed in a theology of making a fast buck. Not that I don’t sometimes feel that you yearn for something better.” Sound familiar? It should. Indeed, at times Fox could adopt those lines as a corporate slogan. Like Falco, Fox occasionally yearns for something better, whether it’s a gritty drama like “24” or witty comedy like “Arrested Development.” Still, the network relies heavily on the less savory regions of so-called reality, as well as its irksome habit of pilfering concepts announced by other networks, as playful honor among thieves gives way to mere thievery. So Fox schedules a boxing show to beat NBC’s similarly themed entry to the punch, and pulls off a rare double steal with “Trading Spouses,” borrowing the name from TLC’s remodeling show and the premise from ABC’s upcoming U.K. import “Wife Swap.” Nothing exemplifies Fox parent News Corp.’s inner Falco than its campaign to derail Nielsen’s plans for local People Meter service, manipulating minority activists and politicians to transform an arcane business dispute into a debate over racial politics. In the process, Fox and its allies have risked undermining the industry’s primary source of data for billions in ad sales — the kind of short-term, “What’s in it for me?” thinking that would even make Falco take notice. Nor are advertisers behaving much better. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, marketers have begun taking direct and increasingly nasty aim at each other. Miller’s barbs lampooning Budweiser’s self-appointed title “The King of Beers” thus inspired a tart volley in response, with Budweiser calling out the rival brewer for its foreign ownership. Fellas, please, can’t we just agree that your ads are the price we pay for watching football and try to get along? As for respect, that word Aretha Franklin spelled out? Sadly, it’s a luxury few in the media feel they can afford. There’s certainly not much shown toward viewers, who are teased and misled in promos (“Coming up next: The most shocking eviction ceremony ever!“) when they’re not being bombarded with ads masquerading as programs, or program content liberally adorned with ads. The shows and talent aren’t treated much better than Rodney Dangerfield either. Take NBC honcho Jeff Zucker’s offhanded retort in November that the reason most new series failed was because they “just sucked.” Although he might have scored with the press for honesty, it struck some in TV’s creative ranks as a callous way of dismissing programs and producers the networks effusively chatted up months earlier. Then again, execs themselves aren’t exactly showered with loyalty by corporate employers, as evidenced by turnover at Viacom, Fox, ABC, the WB and newly merged NBC Universal since January. Life at these companies has never been a ticket to job security, but it’s hard to remember mortality rates ever running so high. At the time, “Sweet Smell of Success” was also viewed as a pointed indictment of gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who leveraged his multimedia clout in print, radio and television to promote an agenda as well as exact vendettas. Today, that bare-knuckled culture has become the norm, spreading to platforms such as cable news to the Internet. Faced with such competition, the pressure is to shoot first and sort out the details later, from Matt Drudge’s Web site to the New York Post’s pseudo-“exclusive” stating that Dick Gephardt would become John Kerry’s running mate. Like today’s corporate chiefs, Hunsecker placed his hat in enough rings to possess plausible deniability about any excesses undertaken in his name. As he tells Falco, “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in 30 years.” It’s equally true, though, that the industry does yearn to do better, and sometimes actually achieves it. From “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” to “The Daily Show,” “Deadwood” to “Nightline,” there are plenty of “best of times” highlights to balance the “worst of times” lows spilling into living rooms. Perhaps that’s why “Sweet Smell of Success” remains so timely and demands viewing — especially if it’s been awhile — by anyone seeking to navigate a media stream filled with no shortage of sludge but also islands of hope. “I love this dirty town,” Hunsecker famously mutters at one point. Hey, God help us, don’t we all?
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