The Austin Chronicle

TV Eye

What you want

By Belinda Acosta, August 6, 2004, Screens

I was recently at a small gathering when a "TV Eye" reader tapped me on the shoulder. When this happens, a TV question is not far behind. In this case, the "TV Eye" reader wanted to know why I hadn't written about Last Comic Standing, the summer reality-competition series that recently ended on NBC. I hadn't kept up with the series this year, I explained, but knew there was some rustling behind the scenes. Some of the celebrity judges were upset that the series' producers overrode their choices to make the show "watchable." Meaning that in order to make good TV, the producers stepped in to select suitably conflicting personalities to create the appropriate amount of drama, lest we at home get bored and change the channel, to say, the Democratic National Convention (more on that later).

Now, most intelligent TV watchers know that the use of "reality" in reality TV is an oxymoron. They understand that reality series are heavily shaped. In the end, the producers want good TV, and you can't have good TV without a little drama in the mix. Viewers don't much mind, it seems, as long as the pretense of spontaneity remains intact.

That didn't happen with Last Comic Standing, according to my "TV Eye" reader. His complaint was that the behind-the-scenes drama of the celebrity judges was brought to the show and that the producers defended themselves by saying their job was to put together a good TV show. Furthermore, they justified their dismantling the one-man/one-vote rule because they knew what was best for TV viewers. The naked paternalism of this was offensive enough, but that "being real" with the behind-the-scenes conflict somehow made it all OK troubled this viewer. It's one thing when TV producers massage and manipulate behind the scenes. It's something else when it's done with overt condescension.

My "TV Eye" reader said he and a friend wrote a letter of complaint to NBC and the producers of Last Comic Standing.

I don't blame him.

Yes, I know it's just a reality show. With the wake-up call of Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Hunting of the President, the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, and more importantly, the appalling voting irregularities in Florida during the last presidential election and new shenanigans coming to light in the present, it's time to critically address TV, beyond quicksand discussions around obscenity.

As the most pervasive of all media, does it concern anyone that the broadcast networks collectively devoted only 12 hours to coverage of the Democratic National Convention? "In 1992, the networks allotted 20 hours of coverage. ... Back in 1960, the coverage hovered around 120 hours," according to Jennifer Harper of The Washington Times.

The lack of broadcast coverage tells viewers that the conventions are not important. And when "respected" anchors like Dan Rather call the convention "dullsville" (according to Harper), it furthers the idea. Yes, I know there's cable TV, and thank goodness for public television. Don't get me started. Most disturbing is that the medium is convincing viewers that they don't know what's good for them. Not because reality-competition shows are pristine and untouchable but because of the way in which the message – we'll give you what we know you want – was delivered and digested with hardly a burp.

No, I don't think there's a chip implanted in my head, and I won't say there's a "vast right-wing conspiracy." But when conservative media pundits complain about TV's liberal slant, I nearly blow my coffee through my nose.

I'm sure many of you have found alternative sources of information in print, online, and even over the airwaves. And for those of you still content to believe you are above watching TV, your ignorance will not save you. We all need to become more media literate, even if it means pointing a finger at what we think is just a guilty pleasure.

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