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File photo of Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News  in Pasadena

Last summer I recounted the time that Roger Ailes tried to get me fired from Nielsen, claiming I had leaked Fox Business News’ bad ratings to The New York Times.

But that wasn’t the first time I had run across Ailes and his modus operandi.  An earlier encounter was almost as revealing of the Ailes ideology of enemies, revenge and hate.

In the mid-1990s, I worked for a PR agency that did a lot of work for NBC, which came to us with those in the business called an “executive transition” assignment. Ailes, then the head of CNBC, had expressed his displeasure with the way things were going. Among other grievances, “America’s Talking,” the cable network he created for NBC, had been taken from his control and changed into MSNBC through a partnership with Microsoft.  He’d indicated that he planned to leave CNBC at some undetermined time in the future. But NBC didn’t want to wait until he jumped.  They were going to push first.

So we created a PR plan announcing that Ailes had resigned and that Bill Bolster, the head of NBC’s New York affiliate, was taking his place.  On January 7, 1996, NBC informed Ailes he was resigning that day, and the day after that we made the announcement.

As executive transitions go, this was pretty benign.  NBC said very nice things about Ailes, and the media played it as we wanted: that this was his decision, which was mostly true.

Ailes, of course, was quickly hired by Rupert Murdoch to create Fox News, a competing cable channel, proving that NBC had been right to force the issue when it did.

So everyone should have been happy, right?

Apparently not, because someone started planting negative stories about the new CNBC management in the New York tabloids — personally nasty stories about the new executives and how much everyone at CNBC hated them.  Whenever Ailes hired someone new away from the CNBC newsroom, this would be the occasion for another negative story. Reporters soon told us that Ailes’ PR guy was behind these stories.

There was really no strategic reason for this vindictive campaign against CNBC.  Ailes gained nothing from it other than revenge. The new Fox News was not going to be competing against a financial news network like CNBC.  It was just nastiness for its own sake.

Ailes went on to create the juggernaut of Fox News and changed American politics forever (it’s also worth mentioning that CNBC itself became an immensely more profitable asset after Ailes left).  You have to wonder, though, the extent to which Ailes’ rage powered his success — and whether it actually was a good thing for the political causes he supported.

The day Ailes died, Ross Douthart tweeted that there were two eras in conservative journalism: the William F Buckley era and the Roger Ailes era.   Buckley’s form of journalism was rooted in intelligent argument, wit, and sunniness.  The Buckley approach to politics reached its climax with the Reagan presidency.  Reagan was considered by his opponents to be an amiable dunce, but he was actually a man of ideas and a Buckley acolyte.

By contrast, Ailes began his career advising Richard Nixon and ended up as a consultant to Donald Trump.  What these three had in common was a burning resentment at real and perceived slights.  They passionately hated anyone who dissed them, starting with the political and media elites.

The Buckley era resulted in the most successful implementation of conservative ideas in a century. And the Ailes approach?  The New York Times’ Bret Stephens made a good point about Ailes and Fox: that they were really in the business of hating the Left, not in pushing conservative causes. Ailes-style candidates gave us one disgraced presidency that resulted in a huge expansion of government, and another presidency on its way to disgrace and the potential destruction of the Republican Party.  That’s some legacy.

Here’s the thing. Ailes was a genius to recognize there was a huge audience for a news network that was not dominated by the liberal elite.  For the Right, Fox news coverage actually was “fair and balanced,” for a change.

But a lot of conservatives can’t stand to watch Fox, with its nastiness, conspiracy theories, anti-intellectualism and endless grievances.  Liberals sometimes conflate conservatism with populism, but they are two entirely different things.  Fox’s goal was to generate huge ratings by stoking resentment, decidedly not a conservative approach.

So when Ailes launched his vengeful campaign against his successors at CNBC in 1996, none of us could understand why he couldn’t just move on.  Little did we know that he was in the process of constructing a network explicitly dedicated to not moving on – to being perpetually outraged.  And maybe it made business sense to keep his audience of older white men in a state of fury.  But let’s not pretend he was successfully making the country more conservative.

prom_dates

When some Nineteenth Century Harvard genius had the bright idea to schedule a “promenade” for the upcoming graduating, he had no idea that it would eventually evolve into a bacchanal for high school juniors and seniors featuring limousine vomiting, lost virginity, floral abuse, ruffled tuxedos, untold hurt feelings, and incalculable charges on already stretched credit cards.

Like many rituals of the middle and lower classes, the prom began its existence as an exclusive, somewhat snobby display by the One-Percenters.  Most historical research suggests that it evolved from dress-up Ivy League dance that eventually filtered down to the masses.  Based on no historical evidence whatsoever, I also believe that the early high school prom was also inspired by the “coming out” traditions of High Society in which rich parents would present their daughters for inspection by their friends, neighbors and eligible bachelors.  In other words, the early prom was actually a poor man’s debutante ball.

For about 50 years the American prom was a relatively innocent affair: a fancy, heavily chaperoned dance in the high school gym.  And as rites of passage go, this seems fairly benign and a little sweet.  And there was a certain logic to the original proms: until the 1960s, young adults wanted to be actual adults — they yearned to grow up and enjoy the freedom and excitement of being  independent contributing members of society.  Wearing a first formal dress or first tuxedo really was a sign that they had crossed the line into adulthood.

But just as they ruined so many other aspects of American culture, the Baby Boomers ruined the prom.  Baby Boomers famously worshiped youth, not adulthood.  They didn’t want to grow up, get a job, and go out in the world.  They wanted to prolong adolescence.  So the prom morphed from a rite of passage into a costume party, with participants dressing up as adults without actually planning to be adults anytime soon.

At the same time, post-war affluence meant that a simple dance in the gym was no longer good enough.  The prom moved to restaurants, country clubs, and other event spaces and the price of admission rose correspondingly.

When I came of age in the 1970s, the prom was on its way out.  I didn’t go to the prom — none of my friends did either.  It was not even a consideration.  The prom?  What a joke.  I was hardly a radical cultural revolutionary, but the prom reeked of corniness, wastefulness and affectation.  It was such an inconsequential event in our eyes that my friends and I didn’t even bother to arrange a counter-event to demonstrate our anti-prom solidarity.  I don’t remember what I did that night — probably just stayed home and watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

IMG_0977.jpg

This is an actual picture from my high school yearbook!

Having said that, I was surprised when I later looked in my high school yearbook and saw that the prom had been fairly well-attended, not only by the well-to-do kids but by a bunch of ordinary schmos in powder blue tuxedos and frilly shirts who really should have known better.

I went off to college fully expecting that the prom would die out completely in the next few years, especially after the movie “Carrie” exposed its deep social pathology.

What I didn’t foresee was that Ronald Reagan would be elected president in 1980 and that a lot of cultural events that seemed helplessly retrograde in the Seventies would be resurrected with a patina of traditional American values.    Just ten years after “Carrie,” the prom would be transformed back into a delightfully romantic event in John Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink” (1986).

Traditional values?  An homage to a more innocent time? As a young enthusiastic Reaganite, I was, for the first time in my life, suddenly OK with the prom.  And I didn’t really think about it again until my own son was old enough to attend his own prom.

Remembering how much my friends and I had disdained the prom in the 1970s, I was surprised to discover that hardly anyone was against the prom now.  If my son had opted out he would have been branded a social misfit, and worse, would have betrayed his social group by failing to offer himself up as an acceptable date for one of his female friends. Should some poor girl go dateless because he didn’t see the point of it?  How selfish would that be?

I was also surprised to find out that from the perspective of most of the guys, the prom is not that much fun.  So if it’s not fun, why does it still exist?  it persists because there are powerful forces arrayed behind it.  In terms of who wants the prom to exist, here is the ranking from “most in favor of the prom” to “least in favor of the prom”:

  1. The girls’ mothers
  2. Girls
  3. Dress shops and tux rental businesses
  4. Florists
  5. Limo drivers
  6. The boys’ mothers
  7. Venue owners and caterers
  8. Fathers of either gender
  9. Boys
  10. School administrators and chaperones

The worst thing about the modern prom is the sheer scale of it.  It’s not just a dance any more, it’s an industry.  The most insidious recent development is the advent of the promposal,” in which the inviter (usually the guy, even in supposedly enlightened 2017!) has to come up with an elaborate stage-managed invitation that’s supposed to be even more original and creative than a marriage proposal. And it needs to be social media-worthy.

Once the dates have been sorted out, the credit card gets a work out.  Which leads to my second objection to the prom: the cost.  I try not to be too judgy on how other people spend their money, but the the cash outlay for show-off ceremonies like the prom, weddings, bah mitzvahs, sweet sixteen parties, even funerals, always rubs me the wrong way.  The ticket to the prom in the town where I live is now up to $85 a person, and what you get for that doesn’t even include a band — just a DJ.  But the ticket is just the start of the expense — there’s the tux rental, the new dress, the flowers, and the hair appointment. Needless to say, the hair is so important that 90% of the girls get their mothers to call them in sick to school that day so they can go to a hairdresser instead of wasting time in classes.

Then there’s the cost of the transportation.  Because no one actually drives themselves to the prom.  You need a limo, or better still, a party bus, to drive you and your friends from the photo location to the event.

The aforementioned photo location is actually the most important part of the whole prom process.  In the old days, the photos would be taken when the guy would arrive at his date’s house to pick her up.  Usually his parents would come with him and then both sets of parents would snap photos of the happy couple in her living room.  The process now is that the parents drive their own kid to a central location where five to ten other couples are meeting for photos.  This is the backyard of the richest family in the group, a country club, maybe the beach, or a park.  All the kids line up one one part of the yard and then their parents line up opposite them for an orgy of photography, trying as many permutations as possible: all the girls, then all the boys, then everyone with their date and then groups of best friends in small groups, etc, etc..  When the parents have had their fill and have all mused on how it doesn’t really seem that long ago that they brought this kid home from the hospital, then the dates pile into the limo or bus.

The limo and party bus came into fashion because it was once generally understood that there’d be a certain amount of out-of-sight drinking at the prom and parents wanted to make sure their kids got home in one piece.  That’s not so much the case anymore – after too many vomit-splashed proms, high schools started breathalyzing, so now you can’t even get through the prom doors without proving your sobriety.

prom bus

No, the real point of the limos and party buses is to make the night that much more special — like Cinderella and her coach.   But also, let’s face it, the party bus enforces a certain exclusivity.  If you’re not tight with a group of friends large enough to support a bus, you’re out of it.  Sorry!

As for the event itself, it’s kind of a letdown after the photos and the ride in the bus.   My guess, not having seen the polling data, is that the girls have a more intense experience, either positive or negative, than the guys, who see it as one more ritual that must be endured.

Here’s an indication of how kids really feel about the prom — the doors have to be locked to prevent them from leaving early because God knows what kind of shenanigans they’d get into if they were allowed to sneak out after an hour, which totally would happen, $85 ticket or not.  If they really loved eating buffet and standing around listening to a DJ in formal wear, the school administrators wouldn’t need to guard the doors.

The doors are unlocked 15 minutes before the official end of the prom and five minutes later the venue is empty.  Time for the after-parties!  More often than not, this involves drinking and a co-ed sleepover at someone’s house and if you’re a parent you can only pray the the host’s parents have the good sense to keep an eye on things.

afterprom

In the end, most kids survive the prom.  Maybe there are some hurt feelings over the being asked/being rejected element; or maybe there are some hangovers and rueful memories.  And maybe there are some people who who actually don’t look back on it with chagrin.  All I know for sure is that as I parent of an only child, I’m glad I only had to go through this twice (when my son was a junior and then as a senior). I’d hate to have a parcel of kids and go through it more six or seven times.

So for all those seniors and juniors heading out in your limos tonight — keep expectations low, relax and go with the flow, and stay sober enough to remember all the craziest parts so you’ll have a good story to tell forty years from now.

 

 

Dear White People

Netflix recently debuted the first season of “Dear White People,” a sitcom about the micro-aggressions visited upon African American students at a fictional Ivy League University.  Almost simultaneously ABC’s “black*ish” spun off its own college show starring the show’s oldest daughter Zoey, who leaves the nest to become a college freshman next year.

In other words, after decades of TV not paying attention to a frequently transformative experience that more than half the population goes through, we suddenly have two series about college.

What interests me, though, is not why we now have two shows about college but why we’ve had so few in the past.  There are 20 million people in college at any one time.  Yet in television history there have only been a handful of series set at college.  There was “A Different World,” in which Lisa Bonet, the eldest daughter on “The Cosby Show,” was spun-off into her own show (almost exactly what’s happening with the “black*ish” spinoff).

Then there was “Felicity,” a highly regarded drama set at a New York university that followed the ups and downs of Keri Russell’s title character from her freshman to senior year.  Also there’s the cult classic “Undeclared,” the before-its-time Judd Apatow series about a group of college freshmen at a northern California university.

FELICITY, Scott Speedman, Keri Russell, Scott foley, 1998-2002

And that’s about it, unless you want to count “Community,” which I don’t because it’s really a workplace comedy in which the workplace is a community college.

Television’s reluctance to create shows about college contrasts with the cinema, where some of the most successful comedies (“Animal House,” “Pitch Perfect” and “Legally Blonde”) and dramas (“Good Will Hunting,” “The Social Network,” and “The Paper Chase”) are set on campus.

And why not?  College is frequently one of the most intense, dramatic and ridiculous times in a person’s life.  A writers’ room would be able to come up with enough real-life material to produce dozens of scripts.  And there’s a built-in narrative too.  Students usually start out callow and insecure, proceed through a sometimes-disastrous, sometimes-triumphant period of self-discovery, and graduate as much more mature adults.

Part of the problem might be that although most people go to some kind of college, not that many attend the elite colleges that factor so significantly into the upward mobility aspirations of the upper middle classes.  Millions of students attend two-year community colleges; millions more commute to state colleges and universities.  Many drop out burdened with debt.  It’s hard to depict a college experience that is relevant to a large section of the population when there are so many different ways of attending college.

Then there’s the problem that actors quickly age out of their roles, precluding the possibility of a long run.  Even if the series begins with a group of freshmen they can credibly play their characters only four or five years before viewers start asking why they aren’t graduating.  This was a bigger problem back in the days when a production company dreamed of extending a series to seven or eight years and then cashing in on syndication.  Today, when the name of the game is creating a content library that can be accessed forever or monetized on a streaming service, you don’t need a hundred episodes to turn a profit.  In fact, I’d bet that the single season of Apatow’s “Undeclared” is far more valuable on Netflix than most of the other longer-running series that debuted the same year.

Something else that perplexes me about college TV shows is that they are usually told from the perspective of the students, not the professors or administrators. A show with adult staff at the core (a professor, dean, or admissions officer) would provide anchor characters that could be supported by an evolving cast of students.  Probably the most successful college series was “Coach,” starring Craig T. Nelson as a put-upon college football coach, which lasted nine seasons.  Yet even with the success of “Coach,” most college series focus on student life.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the excellent “Dear White People” were to spark renewed interest in this tiny genre.  A series doesn’t need to attract 20 million viewers to be a success these days.  It just needs to attract a loyal audience who will keep subscribing for the one show they really love.

So I’m looking forward to shows about fractious basketball teams, crusading student newspapers, bored faculty wives, university chaplains who have lost their faith, unrestrained political correctness, and kooky campus security officers.  There are a million stories to tell about college life and a thousand platforms to tell them.