Sunday, July 19, 2009
  Nightline takes control

CNN's media-analysis show mentions this morning that ABC's Nightline has taken first place in the late-night spot. It was ahead of Letterman already, and since Conan replaced Leno, Nightline has moved ahead of both.

I'm not surprised. The post-Koppel Nightline is a lively show with real human interest. Leno is a leftist but managed to speak to a cross-section of Americans. Conan is pure left, pure New York, purely disconnected from America. I tried watching him the first two nights, found him almost as funny as Seinfeld, almost as interesting as football. In other words, not worth wasting one microsecond of my time.

Here's what I wrote two years ago, shortly after Nightline was freed from Comrade Koppel:

Start reprint = = = = = = = =

Lately there's plenty of yakety-yak about the horrors of reintroducing the Fairness Doctrine, and about the wonders of our modern Hundred Flowers as opposed to the old uniformity.

Being thoroughly soaked in 1940's radio, I've been pondering this for a while. I've also been bemoaning the modern disconnect from classical forms of culture ... not in terms of availability but in terms of commonality. You can certainly enjoy Bach or Whitman today, but you can't expect anyone else to understand a reference to Bach or Whitman. I've said that before, but tonight I've realized something new.

Let's compare a tomographic slice of 1941 and 2001.

What was on the average American's radio when Pearl Harbor sliced into their lives?

And what was on the average American's TV when 9/11 smashed into our lives?

= = = = =

On Sunday afternoon, 12/7/41, when the first solid news from Honolulu interrupted regular programming:

NBC's Blue network had "University of Chicago Roundtable", an academic discussion of Canada's enthusiastic participation in the European war, including Canada's total mobilization of industry and placement of saboteurs and dissidents in concentration camps. [The Mayor of Montreal attempted to make Montreal into a sanctuary city. He was slapped in prison for the duration!] Strange as it may seem today, FDR was consciously emulating Canada's hard-ass example in mobilizing for war, and these academics didn't like it much.

CBS had a musical program of folk favorites by tenor John Charles Thomas, followed by the New York Philharmonic.

NBC's Red Network (which later became ABC) had two separate feeds: a program of Bach harpsichord music by Sylvia Marlowe, and "National Vespers" with a wonderful sermon by Harry Emerson Fosdick.

= = = = =

9/11 happened in the modern cable era, when you can get "anything you want" on TV. Nevertheless, the main networks are still around in some form, and NBC has grown several branches again.

So let's examine the wild cornucopia of diversity available on TV at the moment when Arabia attacked us:

ABC had a program of celebrity trivia falsely described as news.

CBS had a program of celebrity trivia falsely described as news.

CNN had a program of celebrity trivia falsely described as news.

Fox had a program of celebrity trivia falsely described as news.

NBC had a program of celebrity trivia falsely described as news.

MSNBC had a program of celebrity trivia falsely described as news.

CNBC had a program of stock-market hype designed to get suckers to
buy the right stocks so insiders could sell them at higher prices.

Yessir, diversity. Six flavors of shit and one flavor of fraud.

The networks justify this on the basis that the public wants it.

Basic problem with that logic: if you're never going to try anything other than shit and fraud, you don't have the slightest goddamn idea whether the public might want or appreciate anything other than shit and fraud.

The old law, set up by Herbert Hoover when he was Secy of Commerce in the '20s, and formalized in the Communications Act of 1934, required broadcasters to spend a certain amount of time on religion, education, and the arts. Their managers may not have liked it, but they carried out the mission with gusto and tremendous quality.

Why the gusto and quality? Because everyone had to offer some culture and religion; thus there was no competitive advantage in bottom-feeding. You had to compete with good stuff at least part of the time, so your advantage arose from finding the best and most interesting cultural and educational material.

And that's my new realization. Capitalists like to say that government regulation always pushes things downward, and letting "the market" function leads to highest quality. Nope. It doesn't always work one way or the other. FCC regulation of radio and TV pushed quality upward, and kept quality available to anyone who wanted it. This worked for several decades.

Under the newer setup, you can find preachers on Christian channels, and you can find Bach on your local NPR radio station. So what's the problem?

The problem is not availability but segregation, and segregation cuts three ways.

(1) The simplest effect is that ordinary people never get exposed to Bach or Whitman, because most people stay within their comfort zone.

(2) If you live in a big city with an NPR station, you can pick up Bach or Stephen Foster, but you'll need to have a fast finger on the Mute button if you don't want to hear Marxist propaganda immediately afterward. Might call it the Crackerjack Principle. If you want serious culture, you have to dig through the box of Communist Crunchies to reach it. Lenin is tightly coupled with culture, and pro-American thinking is tightly coupled to - God save us all - Charlie Daniels and The Oak Ridge Boys.

(3) Performers and creators of serious cultural products don't get exposed to wide audiences, which means there's no commercial motivation for good formal art or music. The performers thus stick to their academic ghettos, pleasing only their avant-garde colleagues. In religion, preachers talk only to the converted.

In sum, the modern segregated arrangement insulates ordinary people from the pleasures and benefits of high culture or religion, and insulates the purveyors of culture and religion from the pressures and rewards that would lead to understandable and universal works.

Is there an exception? A saving grace? Oddly enough, ABC's Nightline comes mighty close. Since the departure of Comrade Ted Koppel into the comfort of the NPR ghetto, and the hajj of Imam Dave Marash to al-Jazeera, Nightline has been reshaped into a mix of serious culture, religion, and ordinary but interesting lives, served up with a constant level of respect that Bob Trout would have understood perfectly.

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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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