FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 20, 2020
Airs minstrel shows instead: The comical history of basic cable suggests a possible interpretation:
We the people may be less lofty than we may understand.
The history of basic cable involves a persistent, comical trip down the ladder of conventional notions of taste. Court TV makes way for "World's Dumbest." Comically, Arts and Entertainment (now A & E) treats the Olympian gods to this:
The network was originally founded in 1984 as the Arts & Entertainment Network, initially focusing on fine arts, documentaries (including its then-flagship series Biography), and dramas (including imported series from the United Kingdom). In 1995, the network rebranded as A&E, in an effort to downplay the negative perceptions of arts programming...
So says the leading authority on this comical transformation. How those great gods must laugh!
Such transformations are general in the vineyards of basic cable. Consider what happened to Bravo, no exclamation point added.
By way of background, the Italian people used to shout "Bravo!" after they'd sat through an opera. At its inception, the brave new channel tried to draft along behind this lofty cultural history:
Bravo is an American pay television network, launched on December 8, 1980. It is owned by the NBCUniversal Television and Streaming division of NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast. The channel originally focused on programming related to fine arts and film.
Performing arts programs seen on Bravo included the show Jazz Counterpoint. During the mid-1980s, Bravo converted from a premium service into a basic cable channel, although it remained a commercial-free service. Bravo signed an underwriting deal with Texaco in 1992 and within a month broadcast the first Texaco Showcase production, a stage adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. By the mid-1990s, Bravo began to incorporate more PBS-style underwriting sponsorships, and then began accepting traditional commercial advertising by 1998.
This was lofty stuff. For eighteen years, the founders refused to accept traditional ads. Instead, they favored lofty, PBS-flavored corporate sponsorship deals.
So deluded were they about what they could sell that they offered Shakespeare and jazz! Eventually, reality—and "reality"—came crashing down on the project and on their high-minded ambitions:
In the early 2000s, Bravo switched its format from focusing on performing arts, drama, and independent film to being focused on pop culture such as reality shows, fashion and makeover shows, and celebrities. Bravo's "makeover" occurred in 2003 with the reality series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which garnered 3.5 million viewers. Entertainment Weekly put "Bravo reality shows" on its end-of-the-decade, "best-of" list, saying, "From Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Fab Five to Project Runway's fierce fashionistas to the kvetching, perma-tanned Real Housewives franchise, Bravo's quirky reality programming mixes high culture and low scruples to create deliciously addictive television."
It was all "entertainment" now!
Today, Bravo retains its lofty name, but the fuel on which the channel runs is an endless succession of highly confected "Real Housewives" programs. As a general matter, the women in question are neither "housewives" nor are they observably "real."
The leading authority on Bravo's decline describes the sprawling franchise as shown:
[Real Housewives] is critiqued as promoting consumerism through programming. It is also seen as perpetuating gender stereotypes by highlighting women as shoppers more so than career women. Their lavish lifestyles have also contributed to the misconception that financial wealth equals happiness. Feminist leader Gloria Steinem has vociferously criticized the "Housewives" franchise for "presenting women as rich, pampered, dependent and hateful towards each other." Steinem summed up her dislike of the show in 2013:
"It is women, all dressed up and inflated and plastic surgeried and false bosomed and incredible amount of money spent, not getting along with each other. Fighting with each other. It is a minstrel show for women. I don't believe it, I have to say. I feel like it's manufactured, that the fights between them are manufactured and they're supposed to go after each other in a kind of conflicting way."
It's a minstrel show for women! At least in this one observer's view, Bravo had brought us a long way from Dunsinane Castle, baby!
Inevitably, the New York Times delivered the final critical blow, complaining about the "segregation" within this sprawling franchise. Truly, this is the only form of analysis this newspaper seems to know:
The New York Times ran an article in October 2019 criticizing how the casts of the different Housewives franchises are "segregated" by skin color. Author Tracie Egan Morrissey pointed to Potomac and Atlanta for their almost entirely African American casts, while the other iterations (Beverly Hills, Orange County, Dallas, New York, and New Jersey) are overwhelmingly white and have featured few women of color. Real Housewives of New York has never featured a woman of color as a "Housewife", while the addition of Kary Brittingham to Dallas in 2019 marked the show's first Hispanic cast member. Beverly Hills, with the exception of Season 4's Joyce Giraud, featured "a racially homogeneous cast throughout its run", until the addition of Garcelle Beauvais, also in 2019.
The essay was written by Tracie Egan Morrissey, author of Pot Psychology's How to Be: Lowbrow Advice from High People. In the present day, our Hamptons-based, upper-end culture tends to adopt this form.
The history of our basic cable channels tends to follow the path from the sacred toward the profane. The Discovery Channel was highbrow too, until so-called reality hit:
Discovery Channel (known as The Discovery Channel from 1985 to 1995, and often referred to as simply Discovery) is an American multinational pay television network and flagship channel owned by Discovery, Inc., a publicly traded company run by CEO David Zaslav. As of June 2012, Discovery Channel [was] the third most widely distributed subscription channel in the United States, behind TBS and The Weather Channel...
It initially provided documentary television programming focused primarily on popular science, technology, and history, but by the 2010s had expanded into reality television and pseudo-scientific entertainment.
According to the leading authority, scientific discoveries had made way for pseudo-scientific entertainment. According to that same authority, the lofty channel had plainly slipped a bit by the year 2014:
Eaten Alive was a [Discovery Channel] television program in which wildlife filmmaker Paul Rosolie was purportedly going to be "eaten alive" by an anaconda. It aired on December 7, 2014. When the special aired, the anaconda attacked Rosolie but did not swallow him, as its title had implied, prompting numerous complaints of a bait and switch.
The American people are pretty sharp. We won't accept such blatant examples of bait and switch—presumably, no pun intended.
For the record, there's nothing "wrong" with watching such entertaining cable fare; beyond that, most people don't. Presumably, though, even fewer of us the people were willing to sit through programs about Shakespeare and jazz, or about the finer points of Newton's miracle year.
The comedy comes when you turn to The History Channel and find yourself sunk in a full day of Ancient Aliens. As a people, we may not be as sharp as our pundits tell us we are, but it's fairly clear that our corporate suits are ridiculous and incorrigible.
Excuse us while we watch the latest doo-wop retrospective on PBS, supported by "viewers like us." In closing, a quick review:
Stephen Brill launched Court TV in 1991. Before too long, the channel had given way to programming which was literally called World's Dumbest.
Next week, we'll briefly consider Brill's subsequent magazine launch. In the main, we'll turn to the larger question about the intellectual capacity of major elites in this, the age of Trumpism.
For now, a minor spoiler:
Trumpism wasn't invented by Donald J. Trump. Over the past three or four decades, Trumpism had spread all through our culture, not excluding our upper-end culture, long before its lunatic adoption by Donald J. Trump.
The devolution of basic cable is a comical example of this unmistakable cultural shift. Next week, we'll move to the realms where the apparent cognitive shortfalls have had serious consequences.
"I saw you from afar," the Bushmen of the Kalahari famously say or once said. As we'll start to note next week, The Family of Man [sic] is much alike wherever it's found in the world.