Why We Deserve Your
by Martin Siegel
In the late forties, an ingenious retailer selling television sets in the hills and valleys of Pennsylvania came up with a clever idea to help sell his products. If a huge, sky-high antenna could be placed on the roof of his store's building, the signal would be improved. A clearer, better TV picture would be the outcome, leading to an increase in sales. It worked. Since one clever notion feeds on itself, he knew that there was money elsewhere to be made. Lots of people in Pennsylvania live behind a hill or in congested areas where the signal was weak; unfortunates robbed of seeing someone stabbed while eating dinner, or another thrown off a roof, or still another crushed by a bus, or watching a helpless citizen go crazy while his or her home burned to the ground. Thus, to fill this need cable was born. And everyone was happy: the retailer charged the common folk a few bucks and got rich, the TV networks were applause galore because the audience was expanded, and a greater number of people got the chance to take a true immersion into television.
However, there soon proved to be a downside to this fleeting, cheerful scenario. The American system is ferociously competitive, if allowed to be so. Entrepreneurs took notice, only they discovered that there were sizable numbers of citizens, particularly parents with morality, who didn't particularly care to see someone stabbed at dinner, or another crushed by a bus, and all the rest. They wanted alternative programming, which cable operators wanted to create. When this became known, the TV networks used their enormous power with Congress, ever the best that money can buy to cite Mark Twain, to keep it from happening. Without shame or the blink of an eye, CBS's president, Frank Stanton told a hearing that what's in the public interest doesn't always interest the public. Perhaps this is true, but easy to say when you're the one of three (NBC and ABC the others) selling laxatives to a town full of people suffering conditions causing constipation. Put another way, a key player in the highest of power structures of a corrupt system sang the virtues of free choice while denying it to the masses to enrich himself. Only after over thirty years, Watergate, Vietnam, and other horrors, did the force of public opinion change the situation to what it is now: the networks wielding less and less power as the nation in rising numbers is pulling the plug. Luckily, the Web is too big to control, but nevertheless we should be aware of the freedom we have to select what we choose to see and read without an oligarchy standing in our way at every turn.
Concerning public opinion, in the days of network dominance, there was (and still is) the cute way its nebulous power was assessed. Once a universal sytem of color was agreed upon in 1968, television became tremendously seductive and expensive for advertisers. It quickly became apparent that, simply put, if the same message with super production was repeated between pablum-like programming, viewers, almost by osmosis, began thinking it to be the truth. Previously this government, unlike Great Britain and many European countries, decided to totally abandon television to the private sector, so it became a giant-sized marketing tool for big business; entering millions upon millions of homes with far greater effect than radio ever enjoyed. Before one could say "we'll have more after this," television became, besides a vast wasteland, the domain of the highest bidder.
Enter the Nielsen rating, the chief determinant of success and failure in the land ruled by time alone. Brevity forbids a lengthy discussion of the reasons why the Nielsen rating is beneath a sick joke, or why the networks invested such credibility until a challenger from England forced them to reconsider its (Nielsen's) accuracy. I'll give one literal and metaphorical example. Assume you are one of 60,000 packed into a football game. At half-time, you are called to the 50 yard line and asked what TV shows you've watched over the last few days: the reason being that your taste will reflect the entire 60,000 in the crowd. If this sounds like the ranting of a lunatic, multiply that result by four or five and you have the reality: one representing anywhere from 240,000 to 300,000. This would be absurd even with a relatively homogeneous country like Japan or Sweden. Here in the most heterogeneous country on Earth, it's much like Hardy telling Laurel "this is another nice mess...." Right now, the Nielsen rating is being challenged by the networks, and many cable companies disregard it altogether. Again, the Web is too big and webzines too many for Nielsen's bogus intrusions, and for those bothered by the stupidities of cookies being thrown right and left, inexpensive software programs gobble 'em up without even a burp.
Recently, 60 Minutes ran a feature about how easy it is for anyone to create a website and put anything online. I think the real reason to air this segment was their fear of losing public confidence and control. Yea or nay, with a little design everyone can look pretty equal on the Web. Time and Newsweek appear a lot different on a newsstand than they do here and, face it, everything is image these days. Further, the ton of commentary that appears on the Web can lead to thoughts about what journalism is (or isn't). For example, is a journalist someone who reports? Answer yes and anyone with a driver's license will do, especially with spell check available. Perhaps a journalist gives wise interpretations of things? If so, there are precious few left now that Mike Royko died. Also, who would put credence in comment coming from the mouths of such as Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, to name two of twenty dozen, who accepted $35,000 and upwards for luncheon talks before special interest groups and trade associations? (They don't now because of the public outcry upon discovery, but that figure represents the average income of an American home; on the high side at that!) Maybe a journalist's role is to ask "tough" questions? If so, it's the easiest way to pay the mortgage! The person who asks the question controls (or tries to) the situation. And when you have a vast staff at hand to do the real work of research, as Ted Koppel and Barbara Walters would, it's as easy as reading a teleprompter. The "answer my question" of Perry Mason has dual meaning.
So why should you love us? Firstly, while virtually everyone in the press and television is a crook (although the ones on TV may have a nice smile), the people who do webzines would be crazy to do it for the money and usually couldn't care less. Their motivation is an admixture of creative pride and conviction; things refreshing to see remaining strong in America. Secondly, where else is there such intellectual freedom from monied power? After all, who signs Peter Jennings check? Indeed, a case could be made that all of them are PR diversions, or fronts, for a pack of whoremasters whose real fortunes come from the mass electric orgasms resulting from watching stupid sit-coms to portrayals of depraved criminality. Thirdly, although cookies are annoying (and, to repeat, easy to get rid of), there are no nauseating, status-stimulating car ads, vomit-like grins and mugshots of McDonald's personnel, no beer, no Oprah, no Sally, and all the rest. Fourthly, while not quite as good as building a chair or genuinely interacting with friends or developing human relationships, using the Web calls for involvement and interaction of some sort, with control in the hands of the participant. One's brain is alive, far removed from the passive, soporific mindset the expensive "experts" want us to be in. The last reason (and here I'm treading dangerous ground) is that you might even learn something...while having a good time doing so!