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Queen for a Day

Why does network television suddenly seem to be back in the fifties, with "Millionaires" and wannabes on every channel? Welcome to TV for losers.


Over the past decade, network TV went from the generally puerile to the often intelligent. Disdainful households (like mine) were suddenly saying "What's on tonight?" with some anticipation. For several years running, there were many not-so-secret prime-time pleasures. This big leap forward occurred because of the competition from an expanded cable dial and because the networks began to target audiences in a much more precise fashion -- younger, urban, educated audiences got younger, more urban, more intelligent shows.

So, like, what happened?

Here's my theory about why we're getting this millionaire stuff and why Law & Order, with its clones and repeats, seems to be the only other thing on this season (okay, those divorced fortysomething people and West Wing, but otherwise, nothing!).

It is helpful to this theory to first consider Bob Iger. Corporate desperation is a profound thing. Powerful forces align against you; people who used to be your friends scream at you; people who once praised you tell you you're no damned good. Indeed, if Bob Iger failed at ABC, then Michael Eisner failed at Disney -- in other words, the whole corporate hierarchy comes down on you. So you either totally freak and shortly get fired or you throw off all your ambitions, conceits, and pretensions (not to mention the respect of your children, neighbors, and the media that covers you) and do what needs to be done.

In Iger's case, he went from the concept of running a major network -- i.e., the most powerful force in American society -- back to seeing television as a sort of novelty business. He went, in a season, from the front end of the culture -- the Bochco-Kelly dramas and single-people's-sitcom version of television -- to the back end, that is, having a hit game show. It's all so obvious (success always is, after you attain it). Those fancy, expensive shows were targeted at an informationally mobile market segment, while this cheap-to-produce game show is targeted at a going-nowhere-fast demographic.

And then there is Rick Rockwell.

Television turned out to be a viable common experience. If the Internet makes us lonely, we have only to turn to TV to see people more desperate than we are.

Rockwell, né Balkey (didn't the producers ask him his name?).

While his sketchy net worth derives from some beachfront houses in San Diego, his real professional interest is, apparently, in being a motivational speaker.

Motivational speaking, like game shows, is a particular kind of entertainment genre -- two parts desperation to one part salvation. Now, you might not think that motivational speaking and, for that matter, game shows, with their last-chance sensibility, their essential flimflam nature (Rick Rockwell's dubious, reinvent-himself biography is perfect motivationalist stuff), would be boom businesses in prosperous times. Too tawdry. Too cheap. Too not-of-our-class.

But in fact, the motivational business -- from Dale Carnegie to Oprah Winfrey -- flourishes best in eras of unprecedented expansion. The motivational speaker extols (and exploits) the belief that everyone is gaining but you. You're motivated by your fear of failure, your fear of being left behind. Your concern is not, principally, to be a success (if that were your concern, you'd be working or in school or writing a business plan) but that you should not be a failure (your real concern is that you have already failed). The fifties were the great day of the motivationalists because prosperity was breaking out all over, and, conversely, the fear of failure, of not being part of a new America (the equivalent now is the new economy), had never been stronger. Game shows work similarly. You're a contestant because you're desperate. You're here not because you want to make it but because you haven't made it -- and, indeed, have no other way to make it. This is pathos -- or bathos. It's Queen for a Day.

In the modern age, the target-marketing age, we tend to define our desired markets as functions of success -- college-educated homeowners in great Zip Codes and desirable age brackets. Game shows, on the other hand, successfully target failures (or the failure in us all). Indeed, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is not just a game show but a dumbed-down game show.

When you focus on success, you necessarily narrow your audience; failure lets you open it -- it's truly inclusive.

My theory has to do with this basic aspect of audience aggregation. Bob Iger, and the me-too programmers at Fox, have stumbled back upon the mass-media principle that you build broad audiences through emotional rather than demographic targeting -- and the strongest, most inclusive emotion, reaching across class and interest groups, is to make people feel their fundamental wretchedness and to offer them redemption.

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