They Would Do Anything For Ratings… But They Won’t Do That

bibleA while back, I stumbled across a fascinating interview with Brit Hume of the Fox News Channel. Hume was being asked questions by a non-Fox interviewer about the success of FNC, and why he believes the network has stayed on top of the cable news ratings for as many years as it has. After offering some fascinating insight and telling some intriguing stories, Hume voiced a pretty interesting observation. He expressed surprise that Fox News’ competition hasn’t bothered to emulate any of the network’s proven, winning formula for capturing the interest of conservative-leaning viewers in middle America who have long been turned off by the traditional media. He implied that the other news organizations have actually gone in the opposite direction, drifting even further left and demonstrating a sharper hostility toward the right.

He’s right, of course, and it’s really a pretty odd thing when you think about it.  After all, viewership is the livelihood of all television networks, whether they fall within the realm of news, sports, entertainment, or whatever. The ultimate goal is to earn strong ratings which means increased advertisement revenue and company growth. Anyone who suggests that these networks don’t exist to make money is a fool.

Yet, in the case of the cable news industry, a proven, lucrative model currently exists that the other networks just won’t touch. Instead, they continue to double-down on offerings that just don’t work, and repeatedly waste opportunities to bring in new viewers. They keeping giving shows to people like Joy Behar and a revolving door of wide-eyed, angry liberals, but they won’t even consider putting the spotlight, for an hour each night, on a formidable conservative voice who sees the world differently than they do.

Right now, CNN is reportedly even considering putting together a show co-hosted by raunchy comedian, Kathy Griffin. We’re talking about a woman who is best known for having the country’s worst case of Palin-Derangement Syndrome and simulating oral sex on Anderson Cooper. Does anyone honestly believe that she is the answer to winning over new viewers?

This same sort of tone deafness goes on in the entertainment world.

I’ve read a few articles lately detailing how “shocked” Hollywood has been by the huge ratings Mark Burnett’s The Bible television series has generated for the History Channel. The only thing truly shocking for me, however, is that anyone is actually “shocked” by the show’s success.

A few years back, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ proved that there is a HUGE appetite for biblical storytelling on film. Hollywood was “shocked” by The Passion’s success as well. The movie brought people to theaters who usually don’t go to theaters. It resounded big-time with America’s heartland, and after it became one of the highest grossing films of all time, many predicted that we’d begin to see more of these types of movies produced. Yet, we haven’t.

Just like Hollywood fiercely resisted Gibson’s film (he had to finance it himself because Tinseltown wouldn’t), they have continued to pass on projects from the biblical genre.

The audience obviously didn’t go away, as evidenced by The Bible. They’ve just been ignored.

Meanwhile, Hollywood seems to have no qualms finding the money to invest in sure-fire misses like anti-war films, movies based on video games, and all of those dopey comedies starring the Wayans brothers.

When it comes to appealing specifically to Christians, the product doesn’t even have to be about biblical literalism. Television shows like Touched By An Angel certainly managed to build a very strong audience, despite endlessly being mocked. Are such shows even pitched to producers anymore?

We always hear how cutthroat media-driven industries are when it comes to money being the bottom-line, and we tend to believe it’s true because we see how quickly promising television shows are cancelled if they’re not immediate ratings successes. We see that whenever a new show finds a strong audience (regardless of how perverse its content is), there are two others just like it that debut the following season. We watch people routinely being set up to humiliate themselves on reality television. We watch unscrupulous and addictive behavior exploited and glorified for entertainment purposes. We read of the extraordinary amount of money commanded by successful actors and media personalities, then watch how quickly the industries reject these people once their drawing-power starts to dry up.

Most of the time, the television and movie industries seem to be all about making a buck, which is perfectly understandable in a capitalistic society.

That’s why I find it so bizarre that the top decision-makers in these industries today will embrace just about any method for drawing viewership EXCEPT for appealing to conservative-leaning audiences who don’t share their liberal sensibilities. They are completely at ease disregarding that audience, regardless of what it costs them in revenue.

One has to wonder if that’s what’s going on right now with NBC and The Tonight Show. Host Jay Leno has long pulled in strong ratings for the network. Though he’s no conservative, he appeals to middle America and is one of the few late-night comedians who occasionally takes stinging shots at President Obama in his monologue (though it took him a few years to get there). Leno is a proven, lucrative commodity, yet NBC is going to replace him with Jimmy Fallon – someone who isn’t a proven ratings draw, but did “slow-jam” with President Obama, which apparently makes him cool” among the liberal elite.

For the record, I haven’t watched any of Mark Burnett’s The Bible. I thought The Passion of the Christ was a good film, but felt several other films that year were better. I’ve never seen an episode of Touched By An Angel. I don’t care for Jay Leno and very rarely ever watch The Tonight Show. But the numbers don’t lie.

There is a huge amount of money to be made by appealing to the masses in middle America. I’m smart enough to recognize that not everyone has the same tastes that I do. And if it was my job to invest in projects that make lots of money (like it’s the job of the big wigs in the media industries), I’d shelve my personal preferences, not worry about impressing my ideological peers, and pay close attention to what a strong market, like the American heartland, actually wants.

It’s just commonsense.


Why the Pop-Culture President Won’t Re-Energize the Youth Vote

I didn’t vote in the first two presidential elections that I was of age to participate in. Why not? Well, the truth is that I simply didn’t care. I didn’t think it really mattered which candidate won the presidency. To me, elections weren’t worth the time to stand in a long voting line and cast a ballot. I had better things to do. There was always new music to buy, movies to see, and concerts to go to.

Like many people in their early twenties, I lived in a bubble of self-interest. Political news and current events were the last things on my mind. Life was more about keeping myself entertained. In college, I could have told you which videos were in regular rotation on MTV, who was scheduled to appear on David Letterman’s show on any given weeknight, and everything about the upcoming summer blockbuster movies. Yet, I couldn’t have for the life of me told you what was going on in Somalia with Black Hawk Down. I hadn’t a clue the meaning behind terms like Whitewater and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I wasn’t even entirely sure who Newt Gingrich was, other than that he was portrayed occasionally by Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live.

Yes, I was so indifferent to the world around me that I had no reason or motivation to weave myself into the fabric of our democratic process. Pop-culture was far more important to me.

I don’t believe my experience was all that unique, and I really don’t think it’s all that different than today’s youthful mindset. Yet, just three and a half years ago, there was a man who managed to do something miraculous and energize the youth vote in his favor. Then U.S. senator, Barack Obama, enchanted our young Americans with his energy, glowing speeches, charm, and charisma. His campaign presented an image of him that young voters thought was cool and stylish. America found him to be fresh and entertaining. Sure, they might have not completely understood what all he was about as a candidate, but they knew they wanted to be a part of the spectacle at a time of war-weariness and Bush fatigue.

The youth vote and their grass-roots efforts were instrumental in handing Obama a historic victory. It’s the precise reason the president is still courting the pop-culture crowd. He’s appearing on late night talk shows to yuck it up with hip comedians. He’s offering up dinner with actor George Clooney as a fund-raising incentive. He’s been touring college campuses and serenading audiences with Al Green songs. It’s clearly important to his campaign that he keeps that “cool” factor going strong, and frankly… it makes perfect sense politically.

Obama does very well on that platform. It earns him style points with a portion of the electorate that otherwise wouldn’t care all that much about politics or the state of the country.  It drives Republicans crazy, not just because they sometimes find the appearances to be unbecoming of a president (a legitimate complaint that I happen to agree with), but because they also know that it’s a stage where they simply can’t compete with the president.

Republicans, for the most part, just aren’t all that cool. And let’s face it… The entertainment media isn’t compelled to help them appear as such. Hosts will never embarrassingly fawn over Mitt Romney on entertainment talk shows the way they do with President Obama. You’ll never hear a comedian like Jimmy Kimmel declare that it’s “hard to make fun of” any Republican, like he recently said about President Obama.

My advice to Mitt Romney would be not to even bother challenging President Obama in the court of coolness. He shouldn’t go on Saturday Night Live. He shouldn’t emulate the John Kerry of 2004 by wind-surfing, riding motorcycles with a leather jacket on, and throwing the old pigskin back and forth with his vice presidential running mate. He shouldn’t submit a video clip for the American Idol audience.

I say this for two reasons: First of all, it won’t work. Secondly, it’s not going to matter because the pop-culture/youth vote will not turn out for Obama the way they did in 2008.

In November of 2008, the economy had just begun spiraling downward. Its lasting effect on the country was unknown not just by young America, but across the board. People knew it was a bad situation, but they didn’t have an understanding of how directly they would be impacted. Up until then, the biggest campaign issue was the Bush administration’s handling of the War on Terror – a topic that struck a chord across college campuses as part of the youthful idealism of anti-war sediment. That demographic viewed Washington as a group of war-mongering, oil-thirsty, stuffed shirts who didn’t have their best interests at heart. This caricature not only hurt the Republican Party, but it also hurt Hillary Clinton who was weary of the hypocrisy she would surely be accused of if she took an anti-war stance following her strong support of military action in Iraq.

This opened the door for the outspoken and energetic Barack Obama who told young Americans what they wanted to hear. The Illinois senator was so new to national politics that he couldn’t be held accountable for the decisions made by previous congresses in the prosecution of the war. His competence on the microphone, irresistible charm, and million dollar smile let him be whatever young America wanted him to be, and they gave him their unconditional support.

Three and a half years later, the country has changed dramatically. The same people who walked through neighborhoods and campuses for Obama and volunteered tirelessly for his campaign have their college degrees but they don’t have careers. They’re living at home and working as waiters and waitresses because they can’t find anything better. They’re watching their parents’ family-businesses struggle to stay afloat. Those still in college are being sat down by their mother and father and told they’re going to have a hard time continuing to pay their tuition.

The realities of this stagnant economy are being felt by young America. The facts are staggering, as a recent ad from American Crossroads pointed out. Half of recent college graduates in this country are now jobless or underemployed. A report last year stated that 85% of them had moved back in with their parents. Student loan debt in this country exceeds one trillion dollars. Even if young adults in this country don’t understand the underlying causes of these problems (and frankly, I don’t think they do), they do understand that their president has been in office for nearly four years and their situations have not improved. No number of late night guest appearances, campus rallies, and comedy skits is going to change that.

One would think that young voters would be fed up with the situation and demand a new direction, but I really don’t think Mitt Romney will be on the receiving end of a mass exodus. Sure, he’s in a good position to sway at least some of them over. He can do so by spreading the message that he’s not running for president to dazzle them with his charm or be their friend, but rather to restore an economy that lets them rise to their potential. In all likelihood though, young America won’t defect over to Mitt Romney’s side of the aisle. They’ll stay home.

You see, most of that generation perceives the presidency of George W. Bush as a complete and utter failure. They were taught by the media and their college professors for years that Bush essentially ruined our country. When Barack Obama came along, he became their savior – a larger than life super-hero who would bring peace to the world and restore international respect for our nation. He woke up young Americans and got them engaged.

Yet, even the most optimistic of Obama supporters have now come to the realization that things have not changed for the better, even if they won’t admit it. So, if President Obama can’t make things different, no one can. That’s how I believe they look at it, anyway. And with that mindset comes complacency – the same kind of complacency that I experienced in the early 90s because I didn’t think elections mattered.

A good portion of young America will stay home in November, not as a protest vote against the president, but because they’ve accepted the new normal as a long-term inevitability that no president can change. They’ve entered the real world, but to them its become an extension of the world they knew before they graduated. The bar for success has been set so low by President Obama that getting used to falling short of their potential could become an almost acceptable outcome.

If that’s true, it’s a bad sign for our culture, but possibly a gift for the Romney campaign.