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.
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Okay, and how does American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and the dozens of other extremely successful competition-variety shows fit into your model?
Jonathan, excellent question, these shows are anti-variety for three reasons, 1) they conscript civilians instead of celebrities, 2) they create real narratives instead of canned Sammy Maudlin ones, and 3) they create real, competitive, outcomes. They are to this extend unpredictable. Its not a lot of unpredictability, but it is better and more dynamic than entertainment. Thanks, Grant
I’m inclined to agree with you, but am wondering how our appetite for a particular editorial voice squares with our apparent need to escape/embarrass/edify when viewing content (http://tr.im/threee).
Escape/embarrassment/edification-needs (may) represent a simple narcissism (we filter narratives [for ourselves] in ways that reassure us).
Why, then, would outsource our filtering in the name of a “common ground, circus net, continuity, [or] trusted supplier”?
Thank you for your time.
I would add that one of the main reasons Leno was ahead of Letterman in the ratings for so many years was because The Late Show is taped in NYC and the Tonight Show is taped in California, where the majority of celebrities live.
If you were a celebrity living in SoCal, which would you prefer: taking a 30 min drive (maybe chauffered) to The Tonight Show studio or a 5 hour flight to NYC for a 10 minute interview?
What better way to start your day than with the laughter-caused endorphins rushing around your system? I’m beginning to DVR Leno to watch in the morning. New marketing: Leno and Latte? Coffee and Cackles?
Ed, great question, I think we liked content that is sharpened with intelligence because it gives us a feed we can add to the several, sorry, multiple feeds we are monitoring. And this at the larger, sorry, meta, level is where we exercise our editorial freedom/tyranny. Best, Grant
I wonder if this post has as its focus the right change. Is it the audience’s preference for variety that has changed, or rather that more numerous, more specific entertainments have become available, and the audience as a whole splinters as a result?
Separately, we don’t have to look too far for an “old” example of a successful, “particular,” Jon Stewart-esque show. I’d suggest Groucho Marx on “you bet your life,” which I think began in 1947. Although it was nominally a quiz show, the show’s main attraction was the opportunity to talk with Groucho (or see the contestants chatting with him). What Groucho–and his style of conversation–represented are open to question, but perhaps that desire for particularity has always been there.