This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 14, 2006.
My home station, KGNU, like many others if not all others, is quite concerned about the conservative GOP still in power reinvigorating censorship, and especially graphic language that might embarrass it and cause financial penalty. Serious financial penalty. Wrapping themselves in God and morality, conservatives blend different legal concepts till nobody knows if indecency is obscenity but broadcasters are scared and penalties can be inflicted arbitrarily, which is the goal. On top of this, there is a strong movement afoot to allow phone companies to have an increased say about the Internet, and eventually to charge us for it. There is reason for concern, and it should be dealt with expeditiously. For how it could shake out, we need look no further than broadcast television and cable.
I love HBO, consider it far superior in its production values and taste to most mainstream movies, although it has programs I cannot stand. Still, there are infinitely better than the standard fare on broadcast television. The difference, for the benefit of those of you who donít have cable, is between The West Wing when Aaron Sorkin wrote all the scripts through 2003 and what happened when he left. It was once excellent melodrama. But when John Wells took over, the quality dropped down to that of his ludicrous emergency room show ER, an absurd but enduring work. The West Wing in its prime, despite having no sex or graphic language but great plotting, pacing, and wit, could have been set between any of the HBOís most graphic productions with no drop off in quality. Good writing and characterization are key and, like gratuitous pornography, you know it when you see it. And most people can appreciate both with no cognitive or ethical dissonance.
There is still great writing periodically on free airwaves, but what happens is that if the show is popular, the concept is milked dry and the show often kept on the air running on affection rather than merit to get up to the number of shows qualifying for syndication. That happened to The West Wing, and despite flashes of the old, it got painful.
What is happening is that cable offers the best of both the cinema world and the television world creatively. It has very quick response time, no censorship to speak of, and high production values. It also allows targeted demographic audiences, so that there is no need to go for the lowest common denominator. On the surface, well and good. Quality over quantity. Further, when you watch a program like The Wire on HBO, you realize the depth and breadth of acting talent from our ranks, but mostly of our African American community, and that it is extremely high. Itís reassuring to have proof that actual art and craftsmanship matter and work.
So, how itís shaking out is that the free airwaves - where the children of reactionary self declared Blood of the Lamb types Ė will become the safe babysitter and voter brainwasher for social conservatives. No risk of their spawn being deprived of idiot situation comedies of fat husbands with hot wives who are faithful with cute but insightful children. In short, the very sort of show of which The Simpsons is a standing mockery, although my experience is that most of its audience doesnít get it. But overall, broadcast has predictable and safe fare. The elite can have their Sodom and Gomorrah on cable, along with perpetual religious programming in the hope they can be won over.
And thatís the model for how I think the conservatives want the WEB to shake out. A free, highly sanitized version for everyone, and a paid-for Internet flensed off to appeal to the elite and/or the political fringes as the conservatives define them. The vast majority of Google research will require, as the New York Times already does for its better columnists, that you pay to visit certain sites. And then, most sites. And the great promise of the Internet dies for the satisfaction of temporary greed. The WEB as is Ė messy, virus laden, pornographic, paranoid, sometimes insane, has some of the best writing and most insightful work, has shut down government lies and pretensions, forced politicians to the wall, and will probably be the one thing that opens China as it did Europe and will the women of Africa, a continent whose connections to the world sometimes seem to be composed solely of former Nigerian Oil ministers who need assistance obtaining millions. Some for you, of course. The Internet is a magnificent beast as is, and need be protected as surely as any owl.
But the example of broadcast offers such an easy compromise that I can see how it might change. There is a market for the division that appeals to snobbery and Third Way ease of water flow both. But what it would do, in conjunction with other events, is deprive people of one more commonality of daily existence that everyone can see and have an opinion on. Whatever the damage to art and whatever fanned flames of mass boredom it instigated, broadcast television gave our nation something to talk about with each other. Ralph Cramdens could chat about Milton Berle with a Rockefeller, because both had seen and enjoyed it. The Sopranos? It happens, but not so much.
And if the Web is bifurcated by profit as well, we'll have less to say to each other because we're less aware of each other.