“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Although that memorable slogan comes from David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” remake, television has traditionally walked hand in glove with fear — a relationship that goes beyond the customary Halloween-themed episodes and annual returns of “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story.”
Deeper-seated anxiety than usual, however, is dominating media these days on separate but related tracks: In TV news, which has long employed fear as a come-on to viewers but has truly outdone itself lately, with help from screaming Web headlines; and the question of how the TV industry will adapt to evolving technology that, without overstating the case, will eventually obliterate established distribution models.
The twin threats from the Ebola outbreak and terrorist forces in the Middle East have been heightened by the current political cycle, stoked by conservative politicians engaged in midterm election campaigns and like-minded media eager to cast the Obama administration in an unflattering light.
That said, the sense of alarm hardly emanates from those quadrants alone, with many media voices seemingly taking anything that sounds even vaguely worrisome as an invitation to full-on panic.
Once again, “The Daily Show” appeared to best sum up the hyperbolic environment, with Jon Stewart illustrating the way anchors have ignored experts during discussions of how Ebola is transmitted, unleashing “a dangerously mutated, sanity-resistant strain of fear that has now gone airborne.”
Tellingly, a good deal of the coverage has been filtered through fictional pandemic crises, whether it be New York Times columnist Ross Douthat invoking Stephen King’s book-turned-miniseries “The Stand” or CNN interviewing the author of the book-turned-movie “Outbreak.” Given that perspective, it’s no accident CBS’ local newsradio outlet in Los Angeles, KNX, features a regular “Ebola Update,” where the announcer intones those words as if he’s teasing next week’s episode of “Walking Dead.”
While fear propagated through news programming contains a greater sense of urgency, apprehension regarding a major reset of the media playing field clearly received a booster shot this month when first HBO and then CBS announced plans for streaming subscription versions of their product that bypass the traditional formula. The combined releases were enough to bring up the dreaded term “tipping point,” triggering speculation about when the cable/satellite delivery system should be read its last rites.
Of course, the writing has been on the wall regarding such a shift for some time. As FX Networks CEO John Landgraf stated during an industry forum in September, while linear channels remain “the dominant force in television today,” it’s inevitable the greater efficiency of the Internet as a means of distributing content will supplant them, forcing everyone in TV to “figure out how to reinvent what we do.”
Viewed that way, CBS and HBO’s actions don’t necessarily represent the much-anticipated digital revolution’s first shots so much as a shrewd hedging of bets, given the lingering uncertainty regarding the particulars surrounding when and how it all comes down.
Fear in news and corporate suites are conjoined in another way, since heightened reliance on scare tactics as ratings- and traffic-grabbing tools reflect the challenges posed by a highly fragmented and rapidly evolving marketplace, which has made appeals to reason or our better natures a difficult sell. It’s a point ventilated in the new season of HBO’s “The Newsroom,” as showrunner Aaron Sorkin uses the response to the Boston Marathon bombing to highlight the toxic marriage of news and fear.
In that context, it’s perhaps the original 1958 version of “The Fly” that’s the most germane, even if the ultimate threat there comes from a web, not the Web. Because both then and now, amid a climate of uncertain dangers, it only takes one wrong turn to wind up being lunch.