Thursday, July 22, 2004

Unconventional Wisdom

To be fair, it's hard to say if this piece is unconventional, or just not wisdom.

But, from the BBC: “Jordan Levin, entertainment president of Warner Brothers, said the mood at the network was "approaching a level of giddiness" after excellent ratings [for several new 'reality' shows]"

Consider the following partial list of unbelievably successful reality shows on TV:
Amazing Race
American Idol
Fear Factor
Last Comic Standing
Simple Life

From the perspective of the networks, these programs are excellent. They cost almost nothing to produce, because common folk line up for the chance to be humiliated, mocked, or horribly patronized.

Why do we watch them? Consider the wisdom of Skye Lutz-Carrillo, son of the Texas farm family where part of Simple Life II was filmed. After meeting Paris Hilton and Nicole Richey, he captured the whole nuthouse in a nutshell: "They're a little ditzy maybe, but I wouldn't be opposed to making out with them."

All of these shows are a little ditzy. But there we are, making out with our TV screen, leaving the blessed "off" switch on the remote untouched. People feel involved. It is precisely because Everyman, and Everywoman, is up there on the screen that we watch. The shows that actually allow audience participation are among the most successful.

Political conventions are boring. They are also dying. The networks will give each party only three hours, total, of programming time for each convention. Now, you could watch the things on C-SPAN. You could also give up donuts and swim a mile every day. What could the parties do?

You have to realize that the parties are absolute ho's for free media, in nearly every other setting. The reason incumbents are so difficult to unseat is that they have so many free media opportunities, events where they get coverage simply by virtue of doing some part of their jobs. And of course you can make stuff up. If the local Representative appears at the ribbon-cutting for the new school, there will be a picture in the paper. This is true even if the Represenative voted against the bill authorizing the money for the building.

One could imagine, in fact, that an incumbent President could land on a carrier deck, wearing a flight suit, and address a huge number of sailors in front a "We Won!" sign. The media would cover this like a reality show, and everyone would win: Prez gets great coverage, media gets interesting and entertaining footage, and the voters get to think, "He's kind of ditzy, but I wouldn't be opposed to making out with him." Now, of course, this could never actually HAPPEN, I'm just making up an unlikely scenario.

Why do parties have this blind spot when it comes to conventions, then? The greatest free media opportunity you could imagine, and all the parties do is try to see who can be the most boring, and the most "inclusive". All they mean by inclusive, of course, is "Ethnicity / Gender/Job Bingo": "Oh, a black lesbian metalworker! All I need now is a male Native American architect and I win!"

In an earlier entry, I claimed that the conventions have traditionally had three functions:
1. Choose the nominee
2. Choose the platform
3. Get all the activists pumped, and give them a chance to display the worst color / fabric combinations the world has ever seen.

The problem is that conventions today are ONLY about #3. Nominees are chosen by primaries, and platforms (such as they are) are selected by focus groups and consultants.


The most obvious would be "Queer Eye for the Politicii", to fix those fashion gaffes. That would actually work, now that I think of it: have some REALLY bitchy guys just critique the outfits on the floor of the convention. I'd watch, for sure.

But a more substantive suggestion would be to bring back #2: platform selection. Let the convention delegates, and the folks at home, vote on platform planks. You could have debates, and decide which issues win. You could have a feature called "THE DOOR": as soon as more than 50% of the people calling in said they hated the speech, the speaker would fall through a trap door into a padded room full of cockroaches and grub worms. You could have a camera down there, so that you could watch on a split screen: blabbermouth gets the cockroaches, great speaker gets more time.

An idea whose time has come: a reality show called "THE CONVENTION"

In a recent article, James O'Toole of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette uncovered this nugget of a quote, where economist John Kenneth Galbraith composed a requiem for political conventions:
"These vast ceremonials are now a bloated corpse. ... A semblance of life is breathed into the corpse by delegates who, having been elected or selected and having traveled to the great event, wish to believe they are doing something. In this wish they are abetted by the press, which is enjoying an expense-paid reunion and a carnival untaxing to the mind. ..."


Anonymous said...

I have to post anonymously because I don't feel like signing up for an account. What a pain; I just want comment, not jump thru a hoop. The name's Jesse, by the way. Enjoying your blog. I was turned-on to it by a link from the Duke homepage.

Your despcription of a focus group as an eye exam is hilarious. Pilgrim's egress part one is a good read. Get a friend or an editor for parts two and three; my eyes were glazing over, and after a while I didn't care anymore if there was point. But the rest is a great blog. I am learning all sorts of stuff and will make it a point to tune in often.

Mungowitz said...

From KGM: I have never had a friend. But I can PAY an editor, so I bet I can find one of those.