When Rosie O’Donnell attempted a variety show recently, some thought, “this could work!” Perhaps the best way to speak to diverse audiences on TV was to take a “pipe line” approach. Lots of acts. Something for everyone. Ed Sullivan all over again.
And then of course Rosie tanked. And people said stuff like, “well, it’s Rosie. I mean, she’s difficult. She antagonizes. Really, she was the worst possible choice. For variety, you need to go broad. Rosie just wasn’t broad enough.”
But now Jay Leno’s variety show is tanking, too. Clearly, the problem with Rosie’s show wasn’t Rosie. Apparently, broad isn’t working either.
So what’s the problem exactly?
The problem is that Leno’s show sprang from automatic thinking. It said, “Well, if our culture is fragmenting, let’s turn out TV that’s got something for everyone.” Mass marketers found an excuse for more mass marketing! Of course they leapt at it.
Automatic thinking is often stupid thinking, and this is especially moronic. It manages to forget much of what we know about the world. Like the fact that viewers are getting better at watching TV. Like the fact that culture is getting better at culture, as Emily Nussbaum noted recently. Like the fact that we are increasingly intolerant of bad TV unless its actually Slanket bad.
And that’s the trouble with variety. It is simple minded where we are smart. It’s undiscriminating where we are exacting. It jovial where we are skeptical. The trouble is that it is various where we now prize a point of view. Jon Steward is about everything in the world (or at least in the news), but this variety is always examined from particular point of view. Each news story is not there to cover off another constituency but to exclude all other perspectives except Stewart’s own.
It’s not a bad idea to have a pipe line. It’s not wrong to embrace variety. It just can’t look like variety, a bundle of diverse elements tossed liked a salad. We are happy to consider everything at once but only from a single point of view.
Jay Leno is worth talking about here. After all, we know that this guy was once the comedian’s comedian. When David Letterman was still funny, he told us that Jay Leno was his hero. Then Leno dumbed himself down to make himself the king of late night. He turned cerebral Jack Parr’s invention into the tele-visual equivalent of Ambien. Jay’s being doing variety for years.
The old variety needed a genial host like Ed Sullivan. The host was the common ground, the circus net, the continuity, the trusted supplier. But new viewers don’t need these qualities anymore. They much prefer someone with a brain used to sharpen a single point of view. We may or may not embrace the point of view. We may actually dislike the point of view. But without it, the show in question turns to pointless, irritating mush, a exercise in the exhaustingly obvious. (Think about the medical dramas before and after House. Think of detective dramas before and after Homicide: Life on the Streets or perhaps something earlier.)
This doesn’t seem like a fabulously complicated or original act of media criticism, except that it appears not to have occurred to anyone at NBC. This brain trust doesn’t know the new truth of marketing. Mass marketing is over. Agreeable marketing is over. Inclusive marketing is over. Variety as variety is dead. You are now particular or you’re a bore.
Nassbaum, Emily. 2009. When TV became art. New York Magazine. December 4. here.