Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Feeding the TV Beast

We remember when political party conventions were hard work. There were delegates to be won over by the candidates, party principles to be articulated in writing, legislative proposals to be melded into a comprehensive party platform, and, yes, compromises to be struck, alliances to be forged or broken, disloyal or dishonest -- and sometimes just plain disgusting -- party members to be de-credentialed, and so on.

Those of you old enough to remember may recall one of the most exciting events in national political conventions occurred in 1956 when Adlai Stevenson threw the Democratic nomination for vice-president open to the floor and a nail-biting 3-ballot fight developed between Estes Kefauver and a young, upstart first-term senator by the name of John F. Kennedy. (Kefauver won the nomination but the ticket lost in November.)

Today, it's all just a stage show choreographed for TV. Choreographed none too well, we might add. Neither network nor commercial cable television really cares much, oddly enough, except for the fact it is free to produce. The only TV source covering the whole of the convention is C-SPAN.

Changing the rules for an event to accommodate the TV beast has consequences. Major league baseball learned that lesson when it invented the odious designated hitter rule to answer TV's demand for more hits and runs. Professional basketball learned it when it agreed to the "TV time-out" which more often than not kills team momentum on the floor just when it might make a difference in the outcome. Pro football learned it when it sold its soul to television and the game became interminable, losing much of its "pace and tempo."

As the Museum of Broadcast Communications candidly observes, the "soap opera" demands of television exact "concessions" from "the real world" like sporting events that can profoundly change the very nature of the "real world." So it is, too, with "real world" events like political conventions.

What changes in political conventions can we see? No one seems to ask anymore what principles does this candidate stand for? How smart is he or she? How effective is this candidate likely to be in public office? How consistent has he been in the past? How honestly is he depicting himself -- or his opponent?

Television thinks we want to know, instead, does his wife love him? Are his kids cute? Is he somebody I'd like to have a beer with? And, as always, the TV beast wants to showcase its own commentator stars, not the players themselves.

Little wonder that we're in the fix we are internationally, militarily, economically, and even constitutionally. Over three-fourths of the nation knows the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction. What to do about it? The TV beast says, Find out if Michelle Obama can "connect" with you.

We have nothing against Michelle Obama. We're happy for her that she "flourished" last night. For that matter, we have nothing against Carol and Cindy McCain, either. May they, or at least whichever one of them attends the Republican Convention, flourish just as much.

And it will be the same with the Republicans. Television, especially commercial television, homogenizes everything, even our national discourse, into an insipid soap opera to the point where it all looks like an Olympic competition, at best, and at worst like just another installment of As The World Turns.

The TV beast would respond, of course, that it's only giving us what We the People demand. Ratings are everything; judgment counts for nothing. In so far as that is true, as scholars have noted about the ancient games of the Roman Coliseum, television surely does serve a "purpose" but it's worth considering what that purpose might be:
While there is no doubt that the games were barbarous, sadistic, and, to say the least, reprehensible, it must also be admitted that they served their purpose. By the dawn of the Empire, the Romans had relinquished almost all their political rights to an autocratic government. This was the one place where they still had power--even if it was only over the life of one or a few miserable slaves. In a very real sense, then, the games served as a valuable outlet for pent-up frustrations.
History books also tell us that the more autocratic became the (former) Roman Republic -- the more political rights the people lost -- the more elaborate, bloody, and distracting the emperors made the games.

We're not arguing here that entertaining the plebes isn't a clever strategy. We're merely suggesting that the way television covers the conventions, and conventions mold themselves to meet television's demands, are not consistent with America's democratic values and the duty of every citizen to become informed about what really matters before Election Day.

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