Whether TV has a useful place in American political and social discourse is doubtful. The big three networks still draw viewers to nightly news and Sunday shows, but these formats are moldy at best, and the Sunday shows especially are full of talking-points, interruptions, and annoying hosts. Cable shows are mostly a shout-fest, and if people aren’t interrupting people, commercials are. I mean, how many of us would rather watch a dog vomit than watch any of these shows? Don’t answer that. I can cut Rachel Maddow some slack; she’s courteous and knowledgeable, and she lets guests talk. At the same time, she seizes on issues of dubious value sometimes and bores in.
So, indulging in some magical, counter-reality thinking, let’s a imagine a different televised space. Let’s start by clearing the set, as it were.
Literally clear it by getting rid of the fake desk and fake backdrops. Figuratively clear it by eliminating all commercials, weird sounds that punctuate parts of shows, and distracting “visuals.” Get rid of interruptions. They are against the rules. Feel free to get rid of anything else you find annoying about these shows.
Now let’s start to put things back. A moderator–not a “host.” The show focuses on the discussion, not on the personality. Two or three guests representing different viewpoints but not necessarily diametrically opposed. That’s right. We’re adding subtlety, maybe ambiguity. The moderator’s main job is to set and keep the terms and topics of discussion, improvising cautiously, as needed. He or she also stops interruptions and points out glaring cheap-shots and fallacies. Guests may of course ask each other fair questions, with the moderator’s permission. The show should run a full 60 minutes. I’d include one more addition: an expert on the topic, and preferably an expert who’s not a think-tank hack or on the fringe of the issue. Yes, I’m afraid we’re talking mostly about academics, although of course you could include specialists in business, construction, the non-profit sector, or whatever.
The main role of the expert would be to correct patently bad information or to introduce obviously helpful new information. No gas-bags or blow-hards. Minimal assistance.
I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’ll guess. “Boring.” “PBS.” I grant you the point.
However, I also grant myself a counter-point. If such a format is deemed “boring” in contrast to shows about “real” (phony) house-wives, tattoo-artists, bikers, bounty-hunters, and addicted celebrities, etc., then we’re sunk anyway. Turn in your citizenship–you might as well. If we’re saying we require the ridiculous compressed segments, the noises, and the visuals, and the interruptions, we’re admitting we can’t concentrate as adults should. Think of it: every night, people hear Bill O’Reilly say, “Talking Points believes . . .”, and they think it’s okay, as if Talking Points were a legitimate entity, as if O’Reilly were plausible. And, sure, pick your favorite example from the alleged “other side,” if you want to.
William F. Buckley was a classic American huckster, complete with phony mannerisms and ivy attached to his league, but by golly, he had something close to the right format with FIRING LINE (except lose the name). And before he deployed a rhetorical fallacy, he at least let people make a point. And he never cut to commercial. So a tip of the cap to Gore Vidal’s late bete noir.
Well, I mentioned this imagined space sprang from magical thinking. We won’t get such a space–unless of course we demand it, and if we can stop disagreeing for a moment and concentrate on venue and format. If we were to build it, perhaps not enough people would come to justify the ratings. Except I’d get rid of the ratings, too. (Has anyone taken a serious look at the methodology of TV ratings, by the way.) Let’s say a really low number of us tuned in. A quarter million. Fine. We’ll start there. We’ll let the FCC insist that all three main networks and cable ones carry the show or multiple shows like it. –Because we want the FCC looking out for adults who can concentrate and follow an argument: what a concept.
Imagine a new televised, discursive space.