Auds aren't drawn to political messages in TV, film
If Hollywood didn’t exist, conservative activists would probably have to create it. Where else can you find so many high-profile figures to lampoon — Sean Penn! Michael Moore! Alec Baldwin! — and so much fodder for righteous indignation?Periodically, though, conservatives decide that merely assailing TV and movie stars’ liberal bent isn’t enough. They must create their own right-leaning programming vehicles — the latest being something called RightNetwork, whose self-reported supporters include Philadelphia sports owner Ed Snider and actor-producer Kelsey Grammer. Not surprisingly, these ventures tend to be every bit as entertaining as public-service announcements urging you not to beat your kids. Perhaps that’s because there’s an inherent fallacy in the notion of “conservative entertainment,” modeled after the way Fox News delivers right-tilted news. Granted, RightNetwork Prez Kevin McFeeley seeks to avoid using the term “conservative,” simply referring to the venture (currently available only as video on demand) as “right-minded.” “First and foremost, it’s entertainment,” he says, insisting that “everything we do has a sense of humor … and an optimistic turn.” Plus, most likely, a built-in expiration date. For starters, most people don’t actively look for politics in their primetime diversions. They might be delighted or offended when they encounter it there, but beginning from the premise of advancing a “message” is never a particularly great idea — and there are plenty of failed movies, including a disappointing wave of Iraq-related films, to show for it. Secondly, much of mainstream entertainment is already, by its very nature, rather conservative. Primetime TV is filled with shows where law enforcement personnel are sympathetically depicted as good guys. Yes, sitcoms are bluer than they once were, but many still exalt family — sometimes in slightly untraditional ways, as in ABC’s Emmy-winning “Modern Family” — and middle-class values. Finally, Hollywood’s liberal streak — the one that so irritates hard-charging conservatives, prompting activist Andrew Breitbart to publicly fantasize about establishing his own right-wing TV network — flows organically out of creative minds, as opposed to being conceived as propaganda and then shoehorned into an entertainment box. Yes, the production community generally leans left, but when the moguls who employ them speak of green initiatives, they’re usually talking about cash, not the environment. This is not to suggest conservatives are devoid of talent, only that it’s a backwards approach to try fashioning entertainment this way. People don’t watch TV thinking, “I’m craving a sitcom that denies the existence of global warming” any more than they begin channel-surfing with the idea, “How about a drama that makes a strong case against waterboarding terrorists?” Perhaps that’s why such conservative alternatives have exhibited a ham-handed quality, yielding back-patting among like-minded constituencies but little applause beyond. Examples include the satirical “The Half Hour News Hour,” which bore the distinction of being the one intentionally funny thing on Fox News Channel. The project came from producer Joel Surnow (because, as we know, “24” was such a laugh riot) and was lauded by FNC as a “contrarian program that fulfilled an untapped niche in the comedy genre” — albeit in the same memo announcing plans to scrub it. Then there was director David Zucker’s 2008 movie “An American Carol,” using a Michael Moore-like character as its comedic foil. Variety panned the pic as “far more agenda- than entertainment-driven” and “too feeble in everything but its political convictions to register significantly on the public’s radar.” Nevertheless, prior to its release, the Weekly Standard enthusiastically embraced the movie (which was ignored by filmgoers, grossing a paltry $7 million in the U.S.) as a potential breakthrough. “If this does well, it’ll change everything,” Grammer, who was in the film, told the magazine at the time. (While the political right dismisses liberal actors as dilettantes, it considers conservative ones — Grammer, Chuck Norris, Jon Voight — to be thoughtful and principled.) Granted, both those projects preceded Barack Obama’s inauguration. So have the political and media landscapes changed enough to create genuine demand for something like RightNetwork? McFeeley says so, maintaining that no one else is “doing entertainment with a consistent right-minded point of view” (there’s that word again) that’s “unapologetically American.” From a business and sociological perspective, though, petulance about being outnumbered at Hollywood cocktail parties is hardly a programming model. Perhaps that’s why such efforts aren’t really about right vs. left. They’re more about right-minded vs. wrong-headed.