Religion! Controversy! And (hopefully) ratings

JUST AS COACHES analyze an opponent’s weaknesses and tendencies to exploit them, political and entertainment strategists have identified precisely which of the news media’s buttons will trigger the warming glow of faux controversy.

Welcome to the steamy Petri dish of the controversy culture, where savvy marketers increasingly rely upon the right mix of combustible ingredients to generate free coverage. In that context, a rancorous Fox News panel becomes the hoped-for antidote to a fragmented market — the equivalent of casting a stone into the water, praying the splash ripples out from shore to shore.

For all the talk about the government commissioning pseudo-news, so-called real news is so easily lured into taking certain kinds of bait it’s a wonder why anyone bothered. From Swift Boat veterans to Terri Schiavo, “The Passion of the Christ” to “Fahrenheit 911,” news organizations can’t resist the scent of conflict, especially when it cross-indexes hot topics like religion and sex with pop culture and politics — the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup approach of putting two taste treats together.

Take the Schiavo case, which TV, radio and even some print reports transformed into a soap opera, tarting up a scrum over separation of powers with a philandering husband (if that’s possible with a spouse in a vegetative state) and long-suffering parents. Political grandstanding thus temporarily took a back seat to the “personal story,” as those driving the furor anticipated.

This pattern has become so predictable, alas, that the media is frequently easier to reel in than the public, rendering them a ripe target for ridicule. As “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart put it last week, “The Schiavo feeding tube will soon be removed — from the cable news networks.”

INDEED, WHILE PROGRAMMERS have employed equally manipulative tactics to hypnotize the press, lately viewers are growing wise to the ruse. Consider the Fox special “Who’s Your Daddy?” which stirred more outrage than ratings with its find-your-biological-parent theme.

Pushing boundaries of taste is an evergreen, but Fox’s knack for purposefully stoking controversy doesn’t stop with its programs. For proof, look no further than the slick way the company combined volatile elements of race and politics to foment a crusade against Nielsen Media Research, motivated by concerns that new methodology would negatively impact the bottom line at Fox-owned TV stations. After protesting its innocence, Nielsen discovered that parrying trumped-up charges of discrimination is much like fighting the Borg: Resistance is futile.

Religion is another proven winner in the controversy sweepstakes, as evidenced by NBC’s limited series “Revelations,” which has garnered ample advance coverage due to its willingness to tackle biblical prophecy, even though the premiere plays more like a reworked version of “The X-Files.”

In this under-appreciated season, “The West Wing” deftly ventilated this idea of courting controversy to make ad dollars echo. The cash-strapped campaign of presidential hopeful Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, marshaled its energy behind a single commercial spot calculated to provoke free exposure among the electronic chattering class. Ignoring his advisers, Santos instead delivered a pledge to campaign mud-free and forgo attack ads — the kind of distinctive pitch that probably would have yielded a torrent of coverage.

Yet if the news media’s appetite for discord appears unquenchable, like most addictions, this one comes at a price. Having sacrificed credibility to keep providing cheap thrills, news outlets risk facing an audience so jaded and numb that like someone that resides next to a freeway, they can now sleep through the din.

The question is, then what? Because once news is reduced to a punch line and viewers see every alarm bell as “The Chicken Little Report,” then this game, at least, is over.

EXTRA SENSORY PUNDITRY: Not to brag (OK, maybe a little), but not long after I complained that Frank Rich’s New York Times column didn’t belong in the Arts and Leisure section, the paper announced plans to relocate it to an expanded op-ed space. In another column I cited the ascendance of TV execs to top media posts, right before Paramount tapped Fox Entertainment chief Gail Berman for a key role, prompting a flurry of “TV rules Hollywood” stories.

In hindsight, perhaps I was too harsh on NBC’s “Medium,” whose protagonist exercises her psychic gifts to solve crimes. And while such abilities should only be used to do good, if this run continues I’m pulling a Miss Cleo and charging anyone who wants advice $3.99 per minute.

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