Commentary

The Politicalization Of Television

The long national nightmare that has been the 2016 presidential campaign will soon be over, thankfully.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that one of the nominated candidates will actually win.  

The damage that the two political parties have done to the country by selecting these two intensely flawed presidential aspirants will be long-lasting.  And one of the casualties will be television itself.

There was a time when television was a unifying force in this country -- when nightly news anchors were respected figures of authority, and you could use the boob tube as an instrument of escapism, not aggravation.

Forget that.  Politics permeates everything on TV, and whatever credibility the news media had as neutral arbiters is long gone.  Of course, one-half of the country has always suspected that the media disliked and looked down on them.  This goes back at least to the days of Spiro Agnew’s attack on the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” but until now the media has at least pretended to be neutral.

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Donald Trump says he’s the victim of a massive conspiracy comprising the mainstream media and the political establishment, which have set out to deny him the election.  “Massive” is too strong a descriptor given that no one could commit voter fraud on a massive scale, but there is clearly some kind of media conspiracy and it’s not very secret.  Media commentator Bob Garfield has called for a media crusade against Trump, while the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg has advised reporters who think Trump is a menace not to get hung up with traditional values like balance and fairness.  Not surprisingly the media, with the exception of Fox News and right-wing Web sites and talk shows, have responded with an unrelenting stream of negative Trump coverage while pulling their punches on Clinton.

Conservative confidence in the media hit a new low in the first debate, when moderator Lester Holt went after Trump and gave Hillary Clinton a free pass on any negative questions.  The second debate was slightly more balanced, but only after the moderators finally prodded Trump into crazy mode by pressing question after question on his lewd conversation with “Access Hollywood”’s Billy Bush. It wasn’t until the third debate that the media offered up a neutral moderator in Chris Wallace.   

The news, balanced or not, is supposed to be political, but since when has the rest of television had a mandate to be political?  TV comedy is saturated with politics.  Many of the shows on Comedy Central have a political edge, as does “Saturday Night Live” and the late-night talk shows.  Only “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” has eschewed hard politics -- and how did that go?  Fallon was subjected to global opprobrium when Trump appeared on his show and wasn’t given a “Meet The Press”-style grilling.  Fallon was accused of endangering the republic by “normalizing” Trump.

Sports was once a refuge from politics, but now you can’t even watch football without making a political statement.  The conservative media, which blame the NFL for allowing Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem, are gloating that the football ratings are down this year.  Tom Brady has been excoriated for not denouncing Trump in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” leak. Some players display the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” gestures.  And worst of all are the opinions of the sports analysts debating these developments.  There’s nothing less illuminating than the political opinion of a sports analyst.

Entertainment television is not the refuge from politics it once was.  Writers on the sitcom “black-ish” decided they needed to do a show about the importance of voting that culminated with a clip from Michelle Obama’s recent DNC convention speech.  “New Girl” also had an episode on voter registration, although this one had a humorous twist in which the left-leaning main characters tried to register a group of sorority sisters who turned out to be for Trump.  Interestingly, the series that tend to be the least partisan are the White House-based soap operas, thrillers or satires that are actually set in Washington, D.C.

Award shows?  Full of self-congratulatory political jokes and acceptance speeches.  Reality TV shows?  Also no escape.  You can’t watch “Duck Dynasty” without filtering it through the right-wing politics of the show’s stars. And right there on “Dancing With The Stars” is former Texas Governor Rick Perry. Of course Sarah Palin had her own reality TV show, and “Pawn Star”’s”Rick Harrison campaigned with Marco Rubio.  

And a special shout-out to the reality shows that blessed us with our GOP candidate: “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice.”  Without these shows, there probably would not have been a candidate Trump.  But don’t worry, “Apprentice” fans.  Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is the new host of NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

Finally, who would have guessed that the TV show that would put the nail in Trump’s coffin would be “Access Hollywood”? Even the most innocuous, seemingly apolitical television genre – the celebrity gossip show – finds itself dragged into politics.

What this phenomenon means is that TV is becoming more like the Internet: an echo chamber where people go to get their political opinions affirmed.  Already the Right goes to Fox for their news, while the Left goes to MSNBC.  Soon it will be the same with the rest of television, with Republicans watching reality TV, Democrats watching comedy and everyone hating each other.  As the GOP candidate himself says, “Sad. Very sad.”

3 comments about "The Politicalization Of Television".
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  1. Adam Buckman from MediaPost.com, October 24, 2016 at 8:37 p.m.

    @GaryHolmes: Great column. -- ABuckman

  2. John Wiest from WIEST & CO., October 25, 2016 at 2:16 p.m.

    Agreed @GaryHolmes, important topic.
    I would add the old news saw "follow the money". Voters, consumers, everyday people prefer to read and see what they like. Logically, there is money to be made by producing programming that plays to those different "market segments". What seems the more extreme development is that old style news, with fact checkers, has devolved into partisanship...for a price. And I believe that price is fairness and more importantly respect -- for differing views. However, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."
    The net of this is I believe are more fractured world that needs mending.
    But as Americans, we all want our own opinions -- and freedom from Orwellian "truth commissions". Quite the dilemma.

  3. David Scardino from TV & Film Content Development, October 25, 2016 at 2:30 p.m.

    Excellent piece and your 2nd paragraph really nails the lesson as it might apply to marketing and advertising: both political parties lost control of their brands, the GOP far more than the Democrats. After the election there will hopefully be time to meditate on how a man who gave generously to the campaigns of Hilary Clinton, Anthony Weiner and Chuck Schumer, and who was a long time supporter of Planned Parenthood ended up with the Republican nomination. Similarly, how could a politician who had never, ever been a Democrat, who had done absolutely nothing for the party, and who seemingly had never looked up the dictionary definition of "socialist." end up coming close to winning the Democratic party nomination? If people don't think hard about our political parties and what they stand for (or should stand for), we will, for sure, be repeating this experience. How's that for depressing...?

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