Survivor Guilt

I missed the biggest thing in media this season – in fact, possibly the biggest news this summer. It went over my head. Sometimes I make a conscious effort to miss this stuff – I always ostentatiously skip the Super Bowl – but no effort was required here. It never occurred to me that this was something that should have involved me in any way. This could be a demographic issue – I don’t think anyone I know even mentioned it to me. I almost can’t even conceive of anyone I know trying to discuss this in any sort of specific way (“Who do you think is more manipulative?” “Is it really just a game?”), and I know my fair share of shallow people.

I can’t quite get an answer from my children about whether they watched – they watch many things simultaneously.

But we know, to a scientific certainty, that lots of people, at least 50 million, have tuned in more or less attentively.

There are, therefore, two phenomena: this second-largest audience of the television year, after only the Super Bowl, and then the only somewhat larger audience of people who missed it entirely. What is the cause of this striking divide?

Indeed, given that the show somehow graduated from entertainment to major cultural event, you can perhaps not unfairly begin to describe the people who didn’t watch it as the odd ones, the out-of-it, the disengaged and apathetic. We were, suddenly, the equivalent of people who don’t read a newspaper. People who don’t take an interest in the issues of the day. Although, of course, we who missed it would likely describe those who became devoted to it in similar ways.

Certainly, having missed it, I was confounded, and disturbed, to wake up the next morning, after the climax of the – what? (show? event? reality presentation?) – and find out that this thing that I might have surmised to be about exotic travel, or adventurism, or simple voyeurism, was in fact about the large social and moral issues of the day. And, lest social and moral issues seem boring, it was about business, too – a mini-primer on the whole capitalism-success thing.

I would have chosen the sub. What a story! I would have done it minute-by-minute. Real-life drama doesn’t get better than this. One hundred eighteen people at the bottom of the ocean, and no one is doing anything about it!

This was metaphor on the grandest scale. Microcosm. This was the mirror we always seek in great works of expression.

There were many commentators – people I know personally to be men and women of high standards and journalistic probity – who plunged into the dissection and deconstruction of this event as though it were Chicago in 1968 or Woodstock or, of course, O.J. Indeed, they were reporting this out, as though it were, well, happening.

It was a major reversal. It was not news becoming entertainment but entertainment becoming news.

And we who did not watch now find that we lack some vital piece of the cultural pie. We are absent some piece of information necessary to understanding not only the commonweal but the media itself (and, of course, not at least trying to understand the media is apathy of the kind that failing to take an interest in the political process used to be – it’s civic irresponsibility!). And, unlike ordinary television, where you can catch up – get with The Sopranos, or tune in to Millionaire, or, after years of inattention, pay heed to your kids’ MTV – this was it. Appointment television. If you missed it, you lost it. It was like old-fashioned news – a big fire, a public hanging. You had to run down to see it.

My excuse is that I was caught up (if you can call it that) in politics. I was doing conventions. Politics, especially a presidential campaign, is supposed to be reality programming. This is the reality drama that television audiences are, in theory, supposed to be following – at least it’s one that they have followed in the past. In a successful political system, the process is supposed to suck you in; it’s supposed to be easier to be part of it than to stay out of it. But that system seems to have reversed itself here – it was much easier to ignore politics and much harder to ignore the show. (Even if you managed to ignore it, the aftermath shortly caught up with you. Two days later, people were much more concerned about whether Rich was an asshole – or Sue was a bitch – than about whether Al Gore was really his own man.)

I was about to say, snobbishly, that it’s the nonvoters (yes, a much faster-growing and more potent audience segment than voters) who were watching. But now I’m not sure who the real nonvoters are. We traditional voters (no doubt an older, less desirable demographic) are the ones who, it would seem, are not paying attention to the larger and more meaningful stuff.

Of course, lots of pundits, including me, have been saying that there is absolutely no reason to pay attention to politics – that politics has no news value, no real drama, no meaningful conflicts. That politics is no longer a mirror of the concerns of the populace. Still.

I never expected such a purposeful leave-taking.

CBS obviously benefited from the serendipity (doubtful they were sly enough to plan it like this) of going up against the campaign and the conventions. The ratings made it clear that you had an anti-politics, or at least non-convention, audience looking for somewhere to go, looking to vote with its feet (or clicker). Various colleagues, in the rush to analyze the success of the event, have offered that the conventions were staged, and this show was real (or realer). But there is another contrast that might be more meaningful. It is the political messages, I think, that stand in counterpoint. For politicians, their message is still about the allocation of goods and power in society, which, for better or worse, may not be an analysis that moves people too much anymore. Whereas in this made-for-television event, the message has to do with relationships and office politics, where happiness and wealth (personal satisfaction and career advancement) derive for most people.

I guess I could go with that.

still, as events go, especially summer news events – Di- and JFK Jr.-like events – I would never, in my wildest news sense, even my best tabloid sense, have led with this one.

I would have chosen the sub.

What a story (as we used to say)!

I would have done it minute-by-minute. If I were a cable network, I would have gone round-the-clock on this one. Real-life drama doesn’t get better than this. One hundred eighteen people at the bottom of the ocean, and no one is doing anything about it! Oxygen running out. The man responsible off at the beach. And all of these guys from the same place (with mothers!). I know I spent a few private moments (on the floor of the Democratic National Convention) imagining myself locked in a metal tomb at the bottom of the sea.

The poor bastards.

If this had been in Cold War days, we would have been riveted to this tale.

So perhaps my interest in the Russians – like my interest in political conventions – is nostalgic. But modern America just isn’t interested in such stories. What’s it to us? Foreign lives, foreign incompetence, foreign technology. Feh!

Well, then I would have gone with the ice cap – or lack thereof.

The Times gave prominent mention to what appears to be (and the Times suggested was) the signal event in the largest catastrophe ever to face mankind. Everything is melting. The center cannot hold.

If I had a camera crew at my disposal, I would have been on the spot ASAP. This, too, is a story that could not have more going for it. Indeed, it has similar elements of exotic travel, adventurism, and even voyeurism – of the Internet-cam type. I mean, there seem to be large numbers of people staring at traffic signals and coffee pots and Coke machines online, so you’d think they might want to get a glimpse of the polar ice cap decomposing before our very eyes.

If I were Geraldo, I would have set up shop there. Ice station CNBC.

But it’s wishful thinking on my part. Obviously, I have an older idea of news. Indeed, I think a great many people who failed to even look in on Survivor are people with a prosaic notion not just of reality but of what constitutes a public event.

The notion of mainstream news – those events that affect us as a nation, a people, a society, etc. – has, of course, been undergoing a transmogrification: celebrification, tabloidization, cable-ization. Even the front page of the Times gets relentlessly softer and softer (Survivor made the Times’ front page). So while there remains an audience segment with traditional news values – a hierarchy that begins with politics and descends through international stuff, domestic-policy issues, natural disasters, other calamities, and crime to sports and entertainment – that is a fast-shrinking segment. And it has fewer and fewer outlets that support such orthodoxy. (Newsweek, overlooking the Democrats, did its post-convention cover on Survivor. Time did its issue on single women and Sex and the City.)

This new sort of news, more intimate, more personalized (“p2p,” as they say in Internet business plans), more about feelings (we might blame Clinton here – why not?), wherein the media process replaces the political process as the all-important subtext, attracts the people (the demographic) you want to attract. Where those in this segment see information that impacts how they live – i.e., news – we in the other, more rigid segment see pandering, and a lowering of all kinds of standards, and a vast and ever-deepening trivialization of information.

As much as I sympathize with that latter view, I know what happens to this other, older segment, and I find myself hardly eager to identify with it. Alas.

For the networks, this new news has the advantage of being ownable – if you create this sort of news, you can maintain all rights to it. That’s obviously a much more profitable news concept than having to share public events up and down the cable dial and across the Internet.

Still, you continue to have the basic problem with news events, even if you make up and own these events. Phony news has the same dynamic as real news. There are always greater and lesser events, real or not. Survivor burned brighter than its cousin, Big Brother – so hardly anyone bothered with that show at all. Then, too, in the world of events, phony or not, something else always happens. Even something else that has been made up happens. Consider how quickly Survivor wiped out Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which means, probably, that Survivor, too, will be wiped out within a season.

There’s some comfort in that.

Survivor Guilt