Weapons of Mass Distraction

Larry Gelbart, writer of M*A*S*H and Tootsie, wrote an HBO movie called Weapons of Mass Distraction. The title is one of the best things about it.

Mass distractions distract everyone from thinking about war, help us stop thinking about Dick Cheney or the share price of AT&T. Mass distractions help keep us focused on which guy with sticky hair will win "American Idol" and encourage us to become hypnotized by Britney Spears, a mentally unstable hillbilly.

I'm not coming at this from a cultural mountaintop. I'm a veteran of E! Entertainment Television, have produced bio-docs on Arnold Schwarzenegger and Warren Beatty and have been doing pop culture movie segments for ReelzChannel. I'm in this pop culture thing really deep, ok? Lots of my colleagues in cable are doing great things melding pop culture with science. Exciting pop media is on the horizon with iPhone and Motorola phone aps. I get that pop culture is a powerful engine. But who's driving?

Diane Keaton: It's so clean out here [in Los Angeles.]
Woody Allen: That's because they don't throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.
-- Annie Hall.

It's relaxing to watch garbage on TV, more relaxing than taking out the real garbage. ("Is that starting to smell bad, or is it the television?") People say mass media is dead, but nearly 29 million people watched the finale of American Idol. The most popular video on YouTube has been viewed about 56 million times. The pop audience is big and it's a cultural powerhouse.

We need better shows."
-- Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal, quoted in the New York Times.

Zucker's network is struggling in the ratings so making better shows seems an admirable directive. But what does better mean? I'm willing to bet that for Zucker and his product placement guru Ben Silverman, better means servicing the advertisers who pay for the shows. Judging by the garbage NBC puts on they haven't been thinking much about the viewers.

Why do they put garbage on TV, anyway? Because people will watch it. If people will watch singers singing off key, that's what goes on. Network TV programming, like banking these days, is a remarkably morality-free occupation. There is no cabal determining what goes on. (Sorry, Dan Brown, no Illuminati.) It's all market driven. So who's driving the culture train? Nobody, really. It's kind of driving itself.

Here's the thing: I believe in editors. As in Managing Editors, as in people who make a point of figuring out what might be visionary, necessary and important to know. I believe you can do this and cater to pop culture and mass culture.

Now that I have trashed the soldiers of television and maybe irritated some hard-working and dedicated others who could pay me good money, may I issue a few retractions? Britney Spears is a good entertainer who can draw and hold an audience. Naked celebrities are entertaining. Some of the people on "American Idol" can carry a tune. The dry humor of "The Office" is almost as funny as a real office. Tyra Banks might not be completely evil. Kittens are really cute. Kittenwar.com is an important website that has sucked down hours of my time. Just another weapon of mass distraction.