Queen for a Day

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.

Obviously, it is an emotional note, and a weird one at that, that is being struck with this millionaire stuff – certainly, it’s a note way beyond reason. I mean, the millionaire notion today seems to be resonating as powerfully as it did half a century ago. But then, when Michael Anthony, on TV’s The Millionaire, was handing out weekly checks to various unworthies, the value in a million dollars was 20 to 50 times greater than it is today. Even the squirrelly attachment of multi- to millionaire only, officially, ups the ante by one. The producers guaranteed that Rick Rockwell was worth at least $2 million (Larry King characterized him as a “legitimate multimillionaire”), and people were willing to fall for that. Never mind that, even if true, his $2 million would merely put him among a not-unsizable portion of California homeowners. If you feel like a failure, you believe in almost anyone else’s declaration of success. That $1 million is chump change doesn’t much matter when your target market is made up of chumps.

My Dad, an adman in the sixties, was a terrific fan of game shows (although I’m sure he never watched one). First, they had a formula. That was good, because they could be endlessly replicated. And then it was a formula that reinforced the advertiser message: success and failure, winning and losing, gain and loss. It was perfect: There was one person, whom you identified with, who would be a winner, and another person, whom you also identified with, who would be a loser. For some reason, the kind of anxiety this created really made people buy stuff. Which door do you choose?

When I was 13, we went on a family tour of America culminating in Los Angeles, where my dad knew Monty Hall’s partner. After touring his mansion in Bel Air, we got to sit in special seats on Let’s Make a Deal. We were the VIP civilians surrounded by the desperate (although energized) citizenry who came from across the land in outlandish costumes, which, if outlandish enough for Monty’s taste, would get them on the show.

This, my father whispered to me, making a business point, is America. (Being an employee or family member of an employee of a network, advertiser, or agency precluded, by federal law, my being fully an American, I felt.)

But network television, or at least prime-time network television, got yuppified. The networks blithely followed the path of their own collapse. As the nation seemed to become more sexually and politically and personally adventurous, the networks tried to create programming that reflected this. Clearly, people who work in the network business, especially people who work in the prime-time business, are as upwardly mobile as anyone else. They created programming that reasonably educated people could talk reasonably about. Indeed, over the past few years, the place for writers to work has been in television. Network shows have attracted not only many of the best comedic and dramatic writers but the most well paid. A sure way to be a multimillionaire was to be a television writer. The programming theory was that if you produced higher-end, edgy shows, even though the network pie was shrinking, you’d still grab the lion’s share of key demographic groups.

Obviously, there were two flaws to this logic: The lion’s share got smaller and smaller, and the cost of holding this lion’s share got higher and higher. (The success of ER, the most expensive television show ever produced, is a watershed moment in the failure of the networks.) Briefly, the answer was to create more newsmagazine shows with low production costs. But while news shows were relatively inexpensive, they still largely spoke to an audience that was less and less interested in, and certainly no longer dependent on, network television.

The prime-time audience just got smaller and smaller.

Year by year. Month by month. Networks were regressing. Moving back in time. Retracing their growth. Until suddenly, they were back with an audience that looked a lot like it might have looked in 1958 or ‘59.

You’ve got to wonder if anyone actually asked the question: How did they do it back when they had these kinds of numbers? How did they makes these numbers work?

Was there anyone who would even remember? (Where is Monty Hall now?)

As it happens, European television, with its smaller national audiences, resembles nothing less than U.S. television in the fifties. They don’t have three-camera sitcoms and hourlong dramas (except when they’re imported from the U.S.); rather, they let people who don’t have to be paid very much do odd and embarrassing (or at least shameless) things – from dancing-girl variety shows to amateur hours to the new reality-based burlesque.

Cheap is the thing. Cheap and broad. Cheap and dumb.

Hence, desperately trying to make the numbers work, Bob Iger imported the so-you-want-to-be-a-millionaire concept.

Sandy Grushow of Fox, perhaps suddenly worried about the respect of his children and neighbors, canceled the rebroadcast of his marry-a-millionaire show (it was as though this whole replay of the fifties was compressed into a week, from the rise of game shows to the ensuing scandals and disrepute). But more likely, he’s just trying to avoid some shocked, shocked outrage that might get in the way of the flood of other cheap, sideshow, spectacle-ish shows on their way here from the television laboratories of Europe.

It fits my theory of the return to the early days of the medium that sociologists are now applying the Lonely Crowd critique to the new-media world. In a lonely, atomized world, people had to turn to the mass media for their identity, which compounded their loneliness because of all the Queen-for-a-Day desperation you saw on television. This analysis faded during the great 30-year heyday of television. Television turned out to be a viable common experience (we may have been lonely, but we had things to talk about). But here we are again. If the Internet makes us lonely, we have only to turn on the TV to see people more desperate than we are.

That’s a formula.

And here’s another: Somewhat more than 30 percent of the country doesn’t have cable and, apparently, never will (and, it’s reasonable to assume, will never be Internet homes either). Now take away the small slice of the audience served by satellites and what you have left is a not-so-small forgotten-in-time part of America subsisting on not much more than a diet of network television.

The other America (“Alex, I’ll take nonfiction of the fifties for $200”). If you’re in the network business, that’s who your real customers are.

The upshot of this is that Bob Iger, with wife Willow Bay, gets to move to Los Angeles and with a little luck becomes Disney’s chairman. And running the network becomes someone else’s rotten job.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Queen for a Day