TV suffers from democracy inaction

A COMMON REFRAIN about television says it’s the most democratic of institutions — that viewers vote nightly and thus determine which programs live or die. For a particularly appropriate example, ABC’s reality competition “The Great American Dream Vote” was just voted off TV after two telecasts, proving — with apologies to host Donny Osmond — that one bad apple can spoil a network’s whole week.

Lately, however, TV’s relationship with democracy has appeared more tenuous, as if its jurisdiction has been handed over to election officials in Florida or Ohio. The lessons include reminders that voting is vulnerable to manipulation, the people’s will is subject to second-guessing and some voices register more loudly than others by virtue of a passion bordering on lunacy.

In truth, television’s democratic credentials have been suspect for some time — inasmuch as the system dictates that not all voters are created equal, discriminating against anybody outside the demographic range coveted by media buyers.

As with electoral politics, TV’s special-interest groups are also courted with greater purpose and calculation as they have become more adept at using technology to amplify their tiny, tinny voices — causing advocates’ imagined clout to reverberate beyond their numbers, kind of like those CGI-enhanced armies in “300” and “Troy.”

THE HORRORS OF POLL MANIPULATION have again plagued the one election race we can still count on millions of viewers (and cable newscasts) to embrace, “American Idol.” News outlets are alarmed by the show’s latest “controversy,” where Howard Stern and an impudent Web site have sought to skew the results by stuffing the ballot box for the boyishly cute but tone deaf Sanjaya Malakar to prolong his stay, as if that somehow subverts the public’s right to choose who should sing Lulu covers.

In a comically earnest response, Fox issued a statement insisting that “the power of true fans of ‘American Idol’ dwarfs any attempt of people trying to gain notoriety,” which doesn’t really address the power of a few geeks with too much time on their hands.

As for other magnified voices, my inbox has been flooded with emails from a group devoted to restoring a beloved character (Carson Beckett, played by Paul McGillon) to the otherwise beneath-the-radar Sci Fi Channel series “Stargate Atlantis.”

So as not to exaggerate the idiocy of this “campaign,” which arranged a rally to “save” the character in Vancouver, here is an excerpt of an actual email, augmented by my actual parenthetical comments: “We staged a peaceful demonstration (as opposed to what???) outside their studio to voice our unhappiness. Because Dr. Beckett is Scottish, we hired a pipe band (please say you’re kidding) to play in his honor (you do know he’s fictional, right?).”

In strategy if not intent, these “Stargate” space cadets mirror the lobbying practices perfected by entities like the Parents Television Council, which orchestrate letter-writing drives to create the impression of a pitchfork-wielding mob. It requires a trained eye — and closer inspection than most media outlets bother to employ — to recognize the light-bending trickery involved.

FORTUNATELY, NETWORKS EXECS have grown reasonably adept at identifying nuts, while occasionally exhibiting democracy-flouting discretion and listening to their own guts. Hence NBC’s commitment thus far to the wildly deserving “Friday Night Lights,” Fox’s patience with “Arrested Development” before throwing in the towel and HBO’s renewal of “The Wire” mostly because roughly 150 TV critics and a small contingent of viewers fanatically championed it.

Networks can’t ignore or resist democratic forces forever, but they can sustain a show long enough to provide under-viewed gems a chance at survival — a vote for quality that merits applause even if extinction is only deferred, not prevented.

So when visiting the TV polls, my fellow Americans, vote early and often, and if your cause is righteous, don’t be shy about fighting for your couch-potato rights. Because if smart voices don’t speak up, we’ll take our orders from those who can’t differentiate between Stargate and Watergate, which sounds like the great American TV nightmare.

CLARIFYING an earlier column, MGM chairman Harry Sloan was quoted expressing sympathy for the talent guilds in past negotiations with producers. While Sloan summarized the guilds’ view on DVD residuals by saying, “They feel as though they are owed something, that they missed out,” he did not endorse that position.

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