Medium can’t deliver message

LEAVE IT TO A GUY FROM Washington to saunter into Hollywood and quickly identify the town’s political failings in terms of communicating its story.

While being honored by the Caucus for Television Producers, Writers & Directors last week, Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps lauded the creative community’s storytelling skills. He then proposed that actors, producers, writers and directors craft a cohesive message — delivered by big-name stars — to spread the word about the danger of further concentrating media ownership.

The plain truth, however, is that those purveyors of fantasy — who enthusiastically absorbed the Democratic commissioner’s speech — have mostly lost their voice when it comes to bringing the regulatory fight into the public square, unable to spin a decent tale to further their interests. The same groups, moreover, have been similarly outflanked in the culture war over indecency — where, it should be noted, Copps is an adversary, not an ally.

Part of the problem is that the industry doesn’t present a completely unified front on ownership, since corporate overseers harbor different priorities than their creative partners. There’s also fear in some quarters, no doubt, of biting hands that feed them.

Yet that only scratches the surface of why Hollywood — hardly a stranger to activism — has been so disorganized and at times inept on matters of significance.

To be fair, one reason lies beyond their control — namely, how uniformly simple-minded TV reporting on show business has become, eliminating coverage of anything more serious than P. Diddy’s latest clothing line.

Take Copps’ assertion that Hollywood should draft stars to speak out on media regulation, assuming such wattage will catapult the debate into the public arena. “Big media doesn’t have to cover me, but they have to cover those folks,” he said.

Clearly, he overestimates celebrity’s power to combat the media’s fluff offensive. Consider Headline News’ “Showbiz Tonight,” which rolled out the “Breaking News” logo to announce “Britney’s Pregnant!,” with correspondent David Haffenreffer providing man-on-the-street interviews about Spears’ joyous news.

Idiotic as it was, the segment perfectly encapsulated the shallow depths of the newsmagazine pool, making it hard to contemplate such a program turning on a dime to note, say, “The singer also expressed concern about the unchecked growth of media conglomerates … whatever those are.”

Sadly, there’s scant room for such complicated discourse in a talk domain where self-promoting a movie carries as much weight as the system can bear. And while rock stars did rail against Clear Channel’s dominance over live events and radio play, that campaign — in big media terms little more than the tip of the elephant’s tusk — never gained momentum.

Beyond news’ shortcomings, those in Hollywood generally prefer to demonstrate their generosity of spirit by championing causes that don’t directly impact their own lives. It’s expected that stars appear on “The View” and wax eloquent about Third World vaccinations or global warming, which sounds so much better than trying to prevent News Corp. and Viacom from owning TV stations that reach 45% of U.S. homes.

Star activism, in fact, is usually most intriguing when situated furthest from home. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times — always a bit myopic in grasping the nexus of showbiz and politics — ran a front-page story wondering why Hollywood’s glitterati weren’t taking sides in the city’s mayoral race. Of course, that contest is between two Democrats with no grand policy differences separating them, but any opportunity to intermingle the two realms is smiled upon by editors.

The irony is that media consolidation, as Copps noted, deals with nothing less than “how our democracy communicates with itself” — a legitimate concern those in Hollywood should be uniquely qualified to address.

The showbiz community has been equally inarticulate on indecency, where even its defenders often sound shrill and heavy-handed — a point Dan Gerstein, a former aide to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, drove home in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. In essence, Gerstein logically maintained that you needn’t support a religious jihad against smut to resent having your 8-year-old hear talk about threesomes.

That’s not to say there isn’t a persuasive argument on behalf of adults’ right to access racy material, only that those accused of poisoning the culture haven’t done much to coherently plead their case.

Besides, “Britney’s Pregnant!” What news from Tinseltown could possibly be more important than that?

Fun With Numbers: If most people in Hollywood had mastered high school math, they’d be doing something less lucrative. So for those who aced the SAT exam’s verbal portion but can’t calculate how long a speeding train takes to travel from Point A to B, this periodic feature will grapple with arcane statistics:

  • FX proudly notes that 96% of the audience for “Nip/Tuck” is 18 and older. Based on 3.5 million viewers a week, that means 140,000 of the racy drama’s viewers are under 18, or enough to fill the Rose Bowl 1½ times.

  • Apparently, 42% of “American Idol” viewers don’t know how to operate their remote. That would explain the 10 million who stayed tuned to Fox for the latest episode of “Life on a Stick,” versus the 14 million people who flipped away.

  • HBO’s “Deadwood,” chosen for the prestigious Peabody Award, is averaging 78 uses of “fuck” per episode, according to the Web site, for a total of 1,406 in its 18-episode run.

The temptation is to say “Holy crap,” but that seems so … inadequate.

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