August 20, 2002

I don't watch much television, but lately I've been watching a lot of MSNBC. No, it's not the most impartial, objective news source out there (if you have any negative stereotypes about the "liberal, Jew-run media," this network will do little to dispel them), but it appeals to a more intelligent class of people than the everything-bashing, stay-off-my-lawn Limbaugh-worshippers that comprise FOX News's viewership. Anyway, MSNBC editor-in-chief Jerry Nachman has his own show where he gets to sound off about the issues, and something he said recently regarding the Anna Nicole show's ratings really stuck with me.

He mentioned that Anna's show was the highest-rated program ever to air on the E! network, and then castigated his viewers for their hypocrisy: You're always complaining that there's no quality programming on TV, but when the ratings come in, it's the "quality" programs that are inevitably down at the bottom, and it's the sensationalist reality/tabloid trash that gets all the big numbers. We offer you the kind of programming you say you want, and you'd rather watch girls jiggling their breasts than listen to intelligent political commentary. So it's your fault.

I agree completely, and I'd even liken Bill O'Reilly's by-the-numbers jingoist/religious rhetoric to Anna's breasts -- it gets people sucked in even when they swear they're above that sort of thing. There's an article in the New York Times about Phil Donahue's declining ratings on MSNBC. Donahue's show is engaging, thought-provoking, and presents its host as one of the few voices of sanity in the frequently hotheaded "pundit" medium. But nobody watches. It's just not entertaining enough. Not like Connie Chung. Not enough celebrity profiles. Not enough of a shock factor.

So now there's the matter of Opie and Anthony's latest stunt on New York's WNEW-FM. For years now, Opie and Anthony's ratings have kept them above the law. They've been fined several times since their show began, and their various radio stations have happily forked over the money as "the cost of doing business." The duo's ratings are so high that stations will accept those FCC violations and fines as a way to keep getting eggs out of their financial golden goose. A little history about WNEW-FM: It started out in the '60s as one of New York's first FM stations, and it applied the college radio "freeform" format to a commercial outlet. Over the years, it developed a reputation for being one of the great rock radio stations, home to famous and influential DJs like Scott Muni, Allison Steele, and Vin Scelsa. In 1999, due to poor ratings and industry pressure, WNEW abandoned its music format and became a talk station. But Opie and Anthony's most recent prank may cost WNEW its operating license -- this is a big deal. The two hosts, who apparently make it a habit to ask couples to have sex in inappropriate places and then report it in a play-by-play, asked one couple to do it in St. Patrick's Cathedral, and they complied. I didn't hear the broadcast, but supposedly there was some Catholic-bashing as well. WNEW's highest-rated program advocates religious discrimination, and thinks it's cool to disrespect a house of worship (note: I'm not religious and I'm against the idea of worship, but if I'm gonna set foot in someone's house of prayer, I'm gonna try to act like a decent human being). Not only that, but it asks people to break the law (indecent exposure in a public place) for no other purpose than the amusement of the hosts and the listeners. And these assholes get away with it because of RATINGS, BABY. The people have spoken. This is what they want. Democracy's pretty cool, huh?

I want to defend this as "art," but there seems to be no artistic, ethical, or political intent here -- they're jackasses being encouraged (by WNEW, by Viacom, by Sumner Redstone) to act like jackasses and make a whole lotta other jackasses a whole lotta money.

The Opie and Anthony Show has been put into reruns indefinitely, and WNEW's program director has been fired. I would yank the reruns from the air too -- ratings be damned. I grew up listening to WNEW, even after it had passed its rock 'n' roll prime, and I was disappointed when it went over to the talk format. I considered that the end of an era, and all this is just symbolic of the horrible new era. Why do I feel like all this firing and stuff is just a formality, and it'll be business as usual within a few days? There's an awful lot of "investigation" going on regarding corporate scandals and other atrocities, and talk about the crass inhumanity of it all, but it feels phony to me, a temporary and false display of goodwill begrudgingly played up for the cameras like a fake orgasm. What's changing? Nothing. Entertainment is closer to pure pornography than it's ever been.