Media plays up to new national mood

IF A SLEW OF NEWSPAPER articles are to be believed, President-elect Barack Obama can add inspiring a new direction in movies and television to his already crowded “change” to-do list. It’s a rather appealing thought, but mostly a lot of hooey.

In the weeks since his election, a recurring theme proffered by journalists smart enough to recognize their bosses are suckers for Obama-based stories is that entertainment must reflect the new national mood heralded by his victory — or more cynically, simply cash in on this guy (or “that one,” as John McCain called him), the way newspapers have with all those commemorative editions.

After all, newsmagazines like “60 Minutes” are doing it, scoring big ratings with Obama interviews. Publishers have joined in too: As Politico reported, “The publishing industry is betting on Barack Obama like no president in decades,” ordering a deluge of related books since Election Day. Hell, there’s even a “Barack Obama Coin” infomercial playing all over, featuring Montel Williams proving there’s life (sort of) after syndication by explaining how you too can own a piece of history for just $19.95.

Inside showbiz circles the inevitable question is how pop culture will be influenced by this young, telegenic president. More minority leads in primetime? More serious, “grown-up” shows? The unrivaled howler came from Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein, who surely pulled a muscle straining to connect Obama’s electoral triumph to the tepid opening of the Samuel L. Jackson-Bernie Mac movie “Soul Men” as a referendum on racial progress.

Nor has Obama been the only big news stirring our collective consciousness. A faltering economy has also triggered speculation about whether comedy will rise, say, as a soothing balm to frayed nerves, or reality TV will slump — specifically asking if viewers will flee headlong from or flock toward channels peddling the fabulous life like Bravo, just as a Depression-weary nation watched Busby Berkeley musicals.

MUCH OF THIS is to be expected — entertainment reporters want their piece of the Obama/financial meltdown action, as it were — but latching onto that wave requires a short memory, while conveniently ignoring fragmentation’s impact on the entertainment landscape.

With the benefit of hindsight, it looks easy to link popular programs to administrations or eras — such as the lavish primetime soaps that thrived during the Reagan years.

More recently, though, attempts to draw direct lines from cultural and political trends to the teeming 200-channel universe — when only two U.S. TV series, “CSI” and “American Idol,” now crack the 20 million- viewer threshold — says more about our desire to create meaning from events than any clear causal relationships.

LOOK NO FURTHER than the cultural analysis that followed Sept. 11 (remember the fleeting “Is irony dead?” debate?), prompting blather about whether everything had been irretrievably altered. Yet as author Haynes Johnson predicted on “Nightline” mere days after the attacks, it wouldn’t be long before the nation returned “to our delights and diversions.” In terms of the essential building blocks of what amuses us, change occurs glacially — other than the evolving spectrum of video stages upon which it’s exhibited.

Assuming that’s true, nothing could be more foolhardy than chasing Obamamania by trying to decipher what that says about entertainment cravings, inasmuch as there are so many audiences to serve — many of them with next to nothing in common. Only occasionally do disparate constituencies reach a larger consensus — like the resounding verdict that Rosie O’Donnell should stay far away from variety shows.

Juxtaposing these societal forces with TV’s development season always brings to mind the late Brandon Tartikoff’s sage advice about not becoming overly enamored with concepts when creating programs. “Viewers make friends with characters, not the concept,” he wrote in a 1997 op-ed piece. “Not many folks come home from work muttering to themselves, ‘I wish somebody would put on a good fire-station comedy.’”

The president-elect certainly has no shortage of fires to put out. Yet however much people want to share in the excitement his campaign elicited, it’s best that he be allowed to focus on those loftier tasks without immersing his administration in existential crises beyond its control — like the search for a good comedy.

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