Cable News Cretinism

Live jammy-cam at the Michael Jackson trial.

Michael Jackson’s late arrival to court this morning made for some irresistibly tawdry TV, and the cable networks milked it for all it was worth. Both Fox and MSNBC featured a ticking clock counting down to the court-ordered deadline for a warrant to revoke Jackson’s bail; Fox even assigned a photographer to follow Jackson’s car, O.J.-style, as it sped toward the courthouse. When Jackson showed up a few minutes past the deadline in slippers and pajama bottoms, claiming a back problem had sent him to the emergency room, an arrest warrant was duly issued before the day’s proceedings began. The question is, will the judge, Rodney Melville, enforce the warrant and have the singer taken into custody at the end of the day?

But as MSNBC’s Lisa Daniels said to reporter Mike Taibbi, “The big question we all want to know is, is Michael Jackson still wearing his pajamas, and can the jury see that?” Taibbi’s dead-serious response may qualify as the first Cable News Cretinism of the year: “I’m not absolutely confident they’re pajamas. He’s worn some outfits to court that are certainly not something that I would wear. They do look like drawstring-type pajamas, sort of a paisley blue. He’s sitting there with a T-shirt with buttons in front and a blazer on top of it, looking quite shaky.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (subscription only) elaborates on the details of Jackson’s loungewear: “a tailored black blazer over blousey, blue silk pajama pants and a collarless Henley-style top.” On his feet, what looked like slippers were described as “thick-soled leather sandals.” Worse yet,  Jackson’s hair, “normally a flowing, flowing mane,” looked “dull and lifeless.”

Tonight, MSNBC’s Abrams Report, which focuses on legal stories, will have a special live report from the Jackson trial at 9 p.m. ET. But I love imagining the backstage scuttling that must be going on at the E! channel, where re-enactments of the trial are aired each night, with less than 24 hours of prep time. Tomorrow night’s re-enactment of today’s developments will be the first chance for the E! producers to engage in some real dramaturgy. Finally Edward Moss, the Jackson impersonator hired to play the defendant, will have something to do. And E!’s wardrobe designer must be busy right now, picking out the perfect pair of blue silk jammies. … 12:42 p.m.

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

According to the Associated Press, WWTV, a CBS affiliate based in Cadillac, Mich., got so many viewer complaints in advance about Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers, a one-hour special scheduled to air after Rather’s final newscast tonight, that the station took a viewer poll Monday evening on its Web site asking for input on whether to broadcast the special or not. According to a spokesperson for the network, around 63 percent of the 1,000 viewers who responded voted against airing the special. But this morning, the ballot was abruptly pulled from WWTV’s Web site, replaced by an apology from the station’s general manager, William Kring. In it, he announced the station’s intent to air the special as planned and suspend the online poll. Kring also expressed his regret that the poll, a “simple act of broadcasting localism” on the station’s part, had been “grossly misinterpreted” (who exactly was doing the gross misinterpretation was unclear from the telegraphic language of the press release). “It was never our intent to embarrass Mr. Rather or the CBS network,” Kring wrote. “We were simply trying to maintain the great tradition of local viewer input that is the foundation of our modern day broadcasting system.”

L’affaire Kring typifies a phenomenon we’re likely to see more of in the near future, as special-interest groups with political axes to grind, like the Parents Television Council, attempt to bully programmers into denying airtime to programming they perceive as unacceptably liberal. The idea of allowing a tiny, self-selected sample of disgruntled respondents630 people, to be exactto speak for the population of more than 41 counties in Northern Michigan and parts of Ontario is ludicrous on its face. But no more ludicrous than the language of WWTV’s apology, which cloaks its quavering fear of viewer disapproval under the mantle of “localism” (a political buzzword, misapplied in this instance, for initiatives that seek to offset media consolidation and mandate more airtime for the coverage of local political campaigns.) If WWTV is as committed as it claims to the brave tradition of “broadcasting localism”i.e., scared to death of offending a few viewerswhy poll its viewers and then proceed to ignore the results? In this battle between the bullies and the hypocrites, I guess I’ll have to side with the hypocrites. But it’s a silly and dispiriting conflict. If 630 people in Northern Michigan want to bury Dan Rather without praising him, they can bloody well change the channel like everyone else. … 2:26 p.m.

Monday, March 7, 2005

You don’t need premium cable to watch tonight’s premiere of Showtime’s new half-hour comedy series Fat Actress. You don’t need cable at all. In fact, you don’t even need a television set. For the first time, Yahoo! is partnering with the cable channel to stream not just clips, but an entire episode of a television show on the Web. The Webcast, which will stream simultaneously with Showtime’s broadcast of the show at 10 p.m. ET, is the brainchild of Lloyd Braun, the former ABC chair who was recently named head of Yahoo! Media Group, the newly formed show-business division of the Internet portal.

Upon assuming his new post last fall, Braun went around dutifully singing the praises of the Yahoo! Media Group, which recently set up shop in MGM’s former building in Santa Monica, Calif., far from the company’s geek headquarters in Silicon Valley. The company, Braun claimed, was “uniquely positioned to develop a comprehensive, integrated approach to online content opportunities, establish stronger relationships with the media community, and attract the best and brightest talent.” But beneath this eye-glazing business-speak is a man with a plan: Braun wants to figure out how the Internet, which is already stealing audiences from television, can figure out how to copy TV’s skill at making money hand over fist.

The advertising blog Adrants tweaks Yahoo! for its decision to air Fat Actress with commercials online, when it can be viewed ad-free on Showtime. But the reason viewers would choose to put up with commercials and substandard image quality in order to watch Fat Actress online is simple: The money spent on premium cable is still viewed as an expendable luxury in most households, while broadband Internet access in the home is fast becoming a kind of necessary utility. The question is not “Why buy the cow when the milk’s free?” but rather, “Why pay $80 a month for the cow, when you can sample the milk online for a monthly fee you’re already paying anyway?” In any event, Kirstie Alleyand I mean this in the nicest wayis not really an $80-a-month cow. Fat Actress is HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm with neither the crack ensemble nor the antic sense of absurdity, a half-hour of stilted improvisation that feels like a celebrity vanity project of the very sort Larry David would spoof. No amount of publicity onslaughtbe it Web simulcast,  product tie-ins, or even free cable, in the form of the descrambled signal  Showtime is offering tonight in some marketswill convince viewers to spend money or time on a comedy that isn’t funny.

After the Internet bubble burst in the late ‘90s, claims media consultant Jack Mackenzie, the entertainment industry heaved a sigh of relief, saying, in essence, “We are still kings, and the Internet isn’t what we thought it was going to be.” But as we enter the age of widespread broadband access, continues MacKenzie, show business had better watch its back, because “it turns out the Internet is exactly what everyone thought it was going to be.” The only problem with this line of reasoning is that, in the ‘90s, no one had any idea what the Internet was going to beand when it comes to how best to integrate entertainment content, they still don’t. Lloyd Braun was a prodigy as a television executivehe was behind the development of The Bachelor, Lost, Desperate Housewives, and The Sopranos. But he has his work cut out for him in figuring out how the Internet can make TV work for it, rather than vice versa. Braun has promised to bring about a revolution in how we perceive of both media, in the form of a “big, signature event.” But all lame double-entendres aside (you’ll get plenty of those in tonight’s premiere), tonight’s Yahoo! Webcast of Fat Actress is not that big a deal.