Succession photo

With Labor Day in the rear-view mirror and those crisp fall September nights beckoning us, let’s take one last look at the TV summer that was.  Or wasn’t, as the case may be.

TV activity has always declined in the summer, but I don’t recall a season of television as unremarkable and unremarked upon as the one that just ended.  Which is surprising, given that the previous summer was dominated by two amazing series – the monster hit “Game of Thrones” and the critical darling “Twin Peaks: The Return.”  And the year before featured the break-out Netflix hit “Stranger Things.”

Network television, especially, seems to have given up completely on the idea of providing original creative programming in the summer.  Week after week the top-rated broadcast offerings this summer were reality TV shows.    There were a couple of hits in this category: “America’s Got Talent” attracted big audiences (especially among over-50 viewers) and the 20th (!!) season of “Big Brother” also drew a lot of eyeballs.  But a network that can only get by with reality TV programming will eventually slide into cultural irrelevance.

There were only a couple of cable shows that seemed to break through the 2018 summer ennui – “Succession,” HBO’s media-baron-based dramedy that loosely recalls the Murdoch empire, and “Killing Eve,” the BBC-TV kill-or-be-killed drama.  Neither show had huge ratings but as their series moved to their concluding episodes they did seem to gain small footholds in the national conversation.  But since they were sleeper hits their real impact will be felt next near when they return for season two.

In my home we finally bought a large screen TV this summer. It has a fantastic resolution and provides a beautiful viewing experience. It was great for finally catching up on “Game of Thrones.” I only mention this because when I recently accessed my DVR to watch the first few episodes of this season’s “Better Call Saul,” I realized that since we’d bought that TV, it hadn’t recorded since the final episode of “The Americans” last May.  My “to watch” list was essentially empty for two month. And it certainly hadn’t been tuned to anything live since we brought it home.  That’s a whole summer of viewing limited to Netflix, HBOGO and MLB.TV and sadly representative of where TV is these days.

I do find it surprising that the broadcast and basic cable networks, which are advertiser-supported, don’t even seem to be trying in the summer any more.  After all, if they don’t get viewers they don’t get advertising revenue.  It’s the subscription services – Netflix, Amazon, HBO and Showtime – that work harder at offering original programming in the off-months, even though they get paid whether anyone watches the channel or not.  Obviously their key strategy is to make sure that at least one person in the house cares enough about at least one show to argue against cancelling the service.  To that end the subscription services only slightly take the foot off the accelerator in the summer.  Thank goodness SOMEONE’S not taking us for granted during the hot months.

But in an age of horizontally integrated media conglomerates maybe the corporate brass doesn’t really care if their entertainment businesses go dormant for a few months since their news businesses don’t seem to slow down at all in the summer.  If anything, rising temperatures seem to contribute to hotter, more outraged, news coverage.  Perhaps Universal and 2st Century Fox are OK with low ratings at NBC and Fox TV as long as they are steady or even higher at MSNBC or Fox News.

Still, it makes me nervous that regular viewers of live TV are spending their summers watching only reality TV and the news shows.  The last thing we need is for people to conflate those two TV genres.  Where do the Stormy Daniels and Omarosa sagas belong?  On the news or on reality TV?  This summer it was hard to tell.

 

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Omarosa 2

The controversy over Omarosa Manigault Newman is, among other things, a callback to days when TV was king and the electronic media could single-handedly drive a news story.  Indeed, until the President of the United States described Omarosa as a “dog” on Twitter, social media and the print press had done little to advance the narrative.

Unfortunately, the Omarosa news bomb, coming on the heels of the Stormy Daniels circus, is a good example of why so many people believe the media traffics in “fake news.”  That term means many different things to many different people, of course.  It originated as a description for entirely fictional stories planted by Russia on Facebook during the 2016 election.  Then President Trump seized on it to deride mostly accurate media coverage he doesn’t like.  But for many people, “fake news” is now a catch-all reference to biased, misleading, or just plain ridiculous reporting.

Television news, with its contradictory need to either boil down a complicated story to a few minutes on the evening news, or expand a few key facts into multiple hours of coverage on the 24-hour news networks, has always been prone to trivialization, bias, and over-simplification.  And the Trump presidency, which has compelled the media to take sides, has only exacerbated it.

Whether you think television news is fake depends almost entirely on your politics and what channel you’re watching.  If you’re a liberal you think Fox News is nothing but fake news and if you’re a conservative you’re convinced the rest of the TV landscape, starting with but not limited to MSNBC, is entirely agenda-driven in the other direction.

The Omarosa contretemps shows how far the profession of Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite has fallen.  This is a woman who rose to fame as a villainess on a reality TV show.  Until two weeks ago she was considered a national joke and unworthy of serious consideration.

And yet there she was on “Meet The Press,” once the destination for prime ministers, potentates, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairmen, political candidates, and other worthy but slightly dull newsmakers.  And there she was on the prestige morning news shows.  And there she was even on the staid and ever-so-proper “PBS NewsHour.”  In the blink of an eye, she was transformed from a nutcase into a serious commentator on the Trump presidency.

The media justifies giving Omarosa and her tell-all book the star treatment by saying she’s a former senior White House advisor who can provide insight into President’s Trump’s views on race.

Yet the idea that Omarosa was an important White House official is dubious at best.  She was the communications director the White House Office of Public Liaison, which is usually a dumping ground for true believers who theoretically gin up support among special interest groups.  To be the communications director for this department is hardly working at the pinnacle of power.

As for the rationale that Omarosa can now finger Trump as a racist, well, what can she tell us that we don’t already know?  Half of America already believes that he’s an outright racist and doesn’t need Omarosa’s verification to solidify their views.  The other half thinks that when you call Trump a racist you are also calling THEM racists and even the release of a tape of him saying a racial epithet won’t change their minds.

Ah, the tapes! Now we come to the crux of what makes this a great TV story – not an important story, but a compelling piece of tabloid trash that has been elevated to a media sensation.  After all, who doesn’t get a frisson of excitement when listening to a surreptitiously taped conversation even if we learn nothing new?

Omarosa has played her part well – stringing out her story by selectively leaking these secret recordings.  But her biggest news hook has been her claim that the long-rumored tape of Donald Trump uttering the N-word actually does exist. Or that she heard the tape herself. Or that she heard him say it himself. Whatever.  Something bad.  What’s striking about this claim is that on one of the very tapes she released from 2016, she is heard asserting to her colleagues that the N-word tape is real (see video below).

In other words, despite believing he said such a thing she remained on the campaign two years ago and even defended him against allegations of racism.  As far as I can see, the only reason she changed her mind from thinking he was not a racist to thinking he was is that she got fired.

This focus on whether this tape exists has overshadowed a much more powerful Omarosa claim: that the president’s mental skills have deteriorated, an assertion she backs up by comparing Trump’s cognitive skills on “The Apprentice” to what they are now.

Everyone has already made us his or her mind as to whether Donald Trump is a racist, but an allegation that he has dementia is a line of attack that could potentially peel off wavering supporters.  Yet once again Donald Trump is lucky with his enemies.  Omarosa and the news media are not only even less respected than he is but they can’t even muster the one argument that could really hurt him.

 

About three scandals and one stock market plunge ago, Facebook launched an advertising campaign to apologize for fake news, privacy breaches, spam, and other social media offenses.  This lovely ad promised that they’d fix these problems and get the platform back to its original purpose.

The ad was very effective and even made me choke up a little.  No surprise there, because I’ve found that the big tech companies produce the most compelling advertising.  I’ve also loved every Google ad.

But here’s the thing.  When Facebook wanted to apologize to a large audience, it ran a TELEVISION ad.  Facebook controls a huge amount of the country’s online advertising inventory but when the chips were down it used the same platform used by Texaco, Norelco, and Frosted Flake in the 1960’s:  the one-minute TV spot.

Facebook undoubtedly knew that limiting its apology ads to the online world would have minimal impact.  Successful advertising requires good storytelling – through words and images – and the online world is generally unsuited for that.

Online advertising can be effective for transactional messages (i.e., “to buy this razor now click on this link”) but not so effective for traditional brand ads.  Google ads I understand because I can see the value in buying prime space during product searches, but Facebook I don’t get.  And yet major ad agencies have twisted themselves inside out to shift their focus to Facebook.  What gives?

I ask this question as a Facebook stockholder myself, albeit a very tiny shareholder.  I certainly do not regret the huge run-up in the Facebook stock price since its IPO.  (What I do regret is that I didn’t buy a hundred times more shares!) But I don’t really understand it.  I admit this as someone outside the ad industry and would welcome feedback from insiders who can produce evidence on the usefulness of Facebook ads.

I am not among those Facebook users who get wigged out by the company sharing my personal data with advertisers.  In fact, I prefer it because I’d rather see ads that are relevant to me.  I’m just not sure if it’s that effective.  When I look at my Facebook page today I see an ad for L.L. Bean.  Fair enough. I’ve been buying apparel from L.L. Bean since the days when you had to fill out a form from their catalog and mail it back to them.  But I am so familiar with L.L. Bean that a Facebook ad will not sway me in the least to purchase again.

The “sponsored posts” in my Facebook news feed seem somewhat more compelling.  I usually just blip over them, but for the sake of this column I just went back and took a close look at what’s there and here are the first four sponsored posts.  Offers from:

  • SeaVees, apparently a laceless canvass sneaker. I probably wouldn’t buy one, but it’s not crazy for them to think I might.
  • Allbirds.com, another sneaker company.
  • The Sundance clothes catalog. Again, I have bought jewelry for my wife from Sundance but am unlikely to do so again until Christmas and I won’t decide that based on a suggested post.
  • Vanity Fair magazine, offering a one-year subscription for $8. This is more like it.  I would actually contemplate this offer but already get too many magazines at home so used my willpower to decline.

So at least one of the four suggested ads piqued my interest.  Is that a good rate of return even if there’s not a sale?  I’ll leave that to the analysts to debate.

It’s probably unfair to say Facebook advertising is ineffective based on a handful of ads at one moment in time.  I am rarely moved to go out and buy whatever product is shown on TV either, although I am much more likely to at least see a TV ad, since I usually sit through TV advertising but almost always scroll past those suggested posts on Facebook.

I also wonder how Facebook makes money given how seemingly cheap their ads are.  The company recently reported that the Russians have tried to interfere in the 2018 mid-terms by placing 150 political ads.  The cost of those ads?  $11,000. At that price, you can’t really blame Putin.  Even I, as cheap as I am, would spend $11,000 if I thought I could affect the outcome of the upcoming elections.

Although I’m a skeptic about Facebook effectiveness in promoting big brands I am a big believer in what they can do on behalf of non-profits, nearby cultural programs, and local businesses.  I’m on the board of a small nonprofit and have seen the value of raising awareness through targeting a few thousand potential donors.  I’ve also attended concerts and art shows that I’ve learned about on Facebook.

Unfortunately there’s not much money in promoting non-profits and small local businesses. Still Facebook, has convinced the major brands they need to be on this platform.  Will this hold? Maybe.  It says something about our political climate that Facebook is more in trouble for allegedly helping Donald Trump become president than for not being an effectively advertising vehicle.

whoisamerica-guntraining-kindergarten-700x304

So Sacha Baron Cohen is up to his old tricks again.  After having achieved notoriety as Ali G, the fake interviewer with the funny accent who duped former Secretary of State James Baker and others into answering silly questions, Baron Cohen went on to even greater fame as Borat, a fake documentarian from Kazakhstan.

The Baron Cohen shtick is to make politicians and ordinary people look ridiculous by tricking them into interviews under false pretenses and then engaging them in an increasingly absurd line of questioning until they figure out they’ve been had.  This is supposed to reveal something profound about the purported absurdity of the American experience.

This is hardly an original approach to comedy or social commentary.  Half of the content on“The Daily Show” consists of mocking interviews with some poor rube who doesn’t watch “Comedy Central” and doesn’t know better than to engage with its “correspondents.”

But my purpose today is not to critique Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series “Who Is America?,” which I probably won’t be watching anyway, but to wonder how it is that 14 years after “Da Ali G Show,” people still fall for his tricks?

I have a professional interest in this question. Having worked in public relations for a long time, I’d like to think that no client of mine would even be interviewed by a disguised Sacha Baron Cohen.  It is the job of a PR handler to vet the interviewer well before anyone agrees to talk in front of a camera.  You do this by talking with his or her producer, then verifying everything they’ve told you via Google searches and databases like Cision and Gorkana.  Best practices would then call for the PR team to produce a briefing memo with the bio of the interviewer, some suggested themes, and maybe even some potential questions.

It’s fair to say that none of these procedures were followed before Baron Cohen’s victims agreed to be interviewed for “Who Is America?” However, those of us on the outside are in no position to second-guess too aggressively, because we don’t know what claims were made to induce the subjects to be interviewed.

There are allegations that Baron Cohen and his staff gained credibility by telling interview targets they were working on a series for Showtime.  If that’s true, I think this is the last time any sane person would allow himself to appear in a program described as a Showtime documentary.  On the other hand, at least one of the Baron Cohen characters apparently represented himself as a representative of truthbrary.org, which purports to be a conspiracy-oriented website.  If anyone clicked on this outlandish site and still agreed to the interview, then he got everything he deserved.

My guess is that few if any PR handlers were involved in arranging these interviews.  The people who appear in “Who Is America?” fall into two general categories: 1) politicians like Bernie Sanders, Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney, who have been interviewed so many times that their staffs probably no longer bother to do rudimentary checks on interviewers; and 2) regular schmoes who are interviewed so rarely that they don’t even know they should do some research first.

Reporters sometimes claim that public relations people run interference between them and potential newsmakers — but shows like “Who Is America?” and “The Daily Show” demonstrate why so many people use PR staff to shield them from potential mockery.   If I were in the Public Relations Society of America, I would launch a PR campaign based solely on Sacha Baron Cohen clips with the tagline, “Don’t Let This Happen To You!”

Mr Rogers

The surprising popularity of the recent documentary about Mr. Rogers – “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” – shouldn’t really be a surprise given the state of the world.  After all, we could all use a hug from a kind uncle in a cardigan sweater right about now.

To be sure, the film is “popular” only in comparison to other documentaries, not in relation to something like “The Incredibles 2.”  But playing mostly in art houses, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” has already sold more than $12 million in tickets and still increasing audiences after five weeks in the theatres, which makes it a major hit on the documentary circuit.

Fred Rogers, the Episcopalian minister-turned-children’s-storyteller, was such an overwhelming presence in popular culture in the 1970s and 1980s that’s it’s hard to believe there’s been an entire generation of Millennials who have grown up not knowing who he was.  Since his 2003 death, he has largely faded from public view and it’s been ten years since reruns of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” were regularly rebroadcast.

Mr. Rogers was a product of his time, but it would be inaccurate to say that he lived in a gentler era.  As the film makes clear, Fred Rogers developed his show in response to the violent programming that dominated children’s television at the time.   And he emerged in a period that was even more brutal than our own.  One of his earliest shows dealt explicitly with the issue of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination and the Vietnam War loomed over all television programming in those days.

In a turbulent time, Mr. Rogers believed that the way to calm children’s fears was to address them directly and reassure young viewers that it was OK to be scared but that their parents would keep them safe.

In an effort to hype the importance and uniqueness of Mr. Rogers, the documentary fails to acknowledge earlier gentle, calming shows that helped to socialize and reassure young children.  “Captain Kangaroo” and “Romper Room,” groundbreaking shows from the early days of television, were the philosophical antecedents of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

But Captain Kangaroo” and “Romper Room” were on commercial television, which would have diminishing enthusiasm for shows that appealed to preschoolers.  Network children’s programming grew increasingly aggressive and was eventually seen primarily as a vehicle for selling toys.

Mr. Rogers was important because he came along at the dawn of public broadcasting.  One of the most arresting sequences is the movie is his testimony before a Senate committee in 1969, which essentially saved the young PBS network.  At a hearing to defund PBS, Mr. Rogers so charmed Chairman John Pastore in just six minutes that Pastore completely changed his mind about public television and restored the full funding on the spot.

It’s hard to not to get a lump in your throat watching Mr. Rogers’ Senate testimony – or any other part of the movie, for that matter.  When we came out of the theater my wife said she’d been in tears the whole time and I know what she meant.  The whole movie is a meditation on what it’s like to be a young child and if you can remember your own early days or even if you can remember being the parent of a four-year-old, the movie reminds us of how fraught those years can be.

It was Mr. Rogers contention that children are swirling with more emotions than we give them credit for.  And not just joy and wonderment, but also fear, anger, and sadness too.  Mr. Rogers wanted to acknowledge and respect those feelings so children could learn how to process them and grow into mentally healthy adults.  Seeing how he implemented this philosophy on the show and in his direct dealings with children is actually quite moving.

It’s a sad commentary on our cynical society, though, that the documentary felt it necessary to address the question of whether Mr. Rogers was gay.  He was a happily married man with two children of his own.  There were no rumors of any improper extra-marital activity with either gender, and yet people remained suspicious of an adult man with a natural sing-songy voice who liked to spend time with children.   People mistrust those who seem too good to be true, but apparently “in real life” Mr. Rogers was exactly as patient, generous, and kind as he seemed on the screen.

The big unanswered question from the movie is whether Mr. Rogers was on the winning or losing side of history.  Everyone gives lip service to his principles but children today are exposed to more screen violence than ever before through video games, the Internet and old-fashioned television that increasingly features swearing, sexual content and violence every night.

All the more reason, then, to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”  It might be a losing battle to treat children with respect but Mr. Rogers can inspire us to think that it’s worth the fight.

 

 

The Fourth of July is the day we celebrate America and what better way than through a celebration of America-themed music? I’m not talking about overtly patriotic songs.  I doubt the Marine Band will ever play any of these songs on the White House lawn, but still, they do offer a glimpse of the vast tapestry that is America:

America (Simon and Garfunkel)

We’re An American Band (Grand Funk Railroad)

America (West Side Story)

Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (Toby Keith)

American Tune (Simon and Garfunkel)

Living In The USA (Steve Miller Band)

Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen)

American Pie (Don McLean)

 

Philadelphia Freedom (Elton John)

American Girl (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)

R.O.C.K. In the USA (John Mellencamp)

Living In America (James Brown)

Coming to America (Neil Diamond)

Rockin in the USA (Kiss)

Party in the U.S.A. (Miley Cyrus)

anthony-bourdain

Over the past six weeks three well-known writers have died.  All of them received big send-offs on the front page of the New York Times and respectful appreciations in The New Yorker and other high-end publications.  But only one of them was rewarded on social media with an outpouring of grief; that was largely because this writer also hosted a TV show.

These would be Philip Roth, America’s most respected novelist, and Tom Wolfe, our most renowned non-fiction writer, both of whom merely got the full-respect treatment; contrast them with the food and restaurant writer Anthony Bourdain, who was also widely mourned on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.  To be sure, part of the grief over Bourdain is that he was 25 years younger than Roth and Wolfe, and died by his own hand less than a week after the designer Kate Spade had also committed suicide.  Still, it was remarkable that the passing of these two literary lions was so overshadowed on social media by a food writer.

The reaction to Bourdain’s death was another reminder, as if we needed one, of the power of television to create the illusion that we actually know the people we experience on the screen.  These people come into our living rooms and bedrooms, sometimes when we are at our most vulnerable, and it feels like they’re our friends.

I started musing on this phenomenon because I only knew Bourdain through his books and articles.  When I heard that he had died, I did feel sad, as I would hearing about any person’s death, but I didn’t feel the deep personal loss that so many others did.  What was I missing?  And then I realized, “Oh, he had a TV show.”

The social media outpouring on behalf of Bourdain reminded me of the even more profound grief following the suicide of Robin Williams and the passing of Leonard Nimoy, two other deaths that caught the public by surprise.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that TV celebrities are not our friends.  These are very one-sided relationships. They don’t post about us when we die. There’s a psychological term for the way we think about celebrities: “parasocial relationships,” which are defined as relationships where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time while the other person is completely unaware of the other’s existence.

The benefit of a parasocial engagement is that you can’t be rejected by someone you admire from afar.  But here’s the problem with parasocial relationships and the mass media.  Because celebrity culture is so pervasive, there are hundreds if not thousands of people with whom we have parasocial relationships.  We feel connected in some way to anyone who ever starred in a TV show we watched, and by the rules of chance dozens of them will die every year.  That means a lot of mourning about people we’ve never met.

Now it’s one thing when someone like Abe Vigoda dies at age 85.  You might think, “gee that’s too bad” even though you might have thought he was already dead.  It’s the completely unexpected ones, like Bourdain, former “Glee” star Cory Monteith, or Robin Williams that hit us the hardest.

And yet, although that sense of loss is real and not imagined, I’d like to see a little more restraint on social media when there’s a celebrity death.  Sometimes Facebook becomes an echo chamber where each post about a dead celebrity magnifies on the feelings of other Facebookers until they’ve just got to post something to unburden their social-media-heightened feelings.

Regrettably, it doesn’t take long on social media for everyone to be sharing the same warmed-over platitudes. One or two of my Facebook friends posted reminiscences about the times they met Anthony Bourdain and I thought that was great because it illuminated my understanding of him as a person.  But a lot of what people posted seemed self-indulgent and focused more on their own personal loss rather than on Bourdain himself.

Here then, is my general rule for social media posting after we lose a TV star.  It’s an inversion of the old adage that if you can’t think of something nice to say about someone then don’t say anything all: if you can ONLY say something nice about a person don’t say anything at all.  Platitudes actually diminish the deceased by reducing them to abstractions.  Exert yourself to say something original or interesting.  Or maybe just don’t jump on the grief bandwagon in the first place.