Profiting from Reality

There’s a subset of a subset of a subset of Americans who never watch reality shows, and some of us actually live right here in Hollywood. Everyone else seems to watch them, and reality shows have saved Hollywood. Just as television killed the movies, turning everyone’s basic entertainment into a special event, with six-dollar popcorn, reality shows killed sitcoms and scripted drama series on television. Sitcoms and scripted dramas played themselves out – each successive one was a not-that-clever clever variation on something that had been done before. No one was really interested to see Law and Order: Altoona. The crimes were all the same anyway, and a new Sherlock Holmes, in contemporary New York, with a sexy female Chinese-American Watson, was pretty clever, but Basil Rathbone in scratchy black-and-white is still more satisfying. And how long did you really want to hang around the same bar with the same loveably eccentric people at Cheers, week after week after week? Jerry Seinfeld famously said that his long-running show was pretty cool because it was about nothing. He was right, and the friends in Friends turned out to be a pain in the ass. Crime shows and sitcoms, like the variety shows of the fifties and early sixties, from Ed Sullivan through Carol Burnett to the Smothers Brothers, are dead. The networks know it, but they will squeeze the last bit of profit out of these dinosaurs, if they can, until they can’t.

That means there are more and more reality shows out there, as a matter of corporate strategy, from the absurd contests – like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars and all their imitators, and the original Survivor and its imitators and the Great Race and so on – to Jersey Shore, now mercifully gone, and the Real Housewives of this city or that. We got all that slice-of-real-life stuff, and something else was going on too. The action moved from network television to basic cable, and then to premium cable. Network television is in deep trouble, but then everything will move from cable to mobile devices soon enough – Netflix and others are creating their own shows and feature movies now. Alternatively, people might start reading books and talking to each other. That would really be the end of Hollywood. Luckily, only a subset of a subset of a subset of Americans read books anymore, save for the nonsense that’s useful on long plane flights, when Wi-Fi isn’t available or too damned expensive. Hollywood is safe for now. The Seinfeld sets on the other side of the hill out back in Studio City are long gone now – that wasn’t really Manhattan of course – but such things aren’t really necessary any longer.

That’s the beauty of reality shows. They cost next to nothing to produce – no sets, because the real world is the set, and no scriptwriters to pay, because there’s no script, and no expensive stars to pay the big salaries that stars demand. There are certainly no crowds of extras who have to be paid scale either. Even the stars who judge the contests come cheap – they want the exposure, and that’s not their real career anyway. It’s a lark for them – and a useful reminder to everyone in the industry that they’re still around – and for many of the other reality shows there’s no need for grips and gaffers and best boys and all the rest. There will be no fancy tracking shots or boom shots, and bad lighting only makes things look more real. The folks in the trades out here aren’t very happy about all this, and a lot of b-list almost-stars and rather fine character actors can’t find work of any kind, but that’s too bad. Hollywood hit the cost-containment jackpot. They’ve all been outsourced – and anyone who comes to Hollywood with that killer screenplay or amazing concept for the ultimate crime show or sitcom, hoping to get rich, is a fool. Things changed.

None of this would work if America didn’t love these reality shows, and they do. There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing someone sing badly, and get ripped in public for it, and something even more satisfying in seeing some unknown actually pull it off and suddenly get famous – in real life, not in some hokey script. The former satisfies an ego-need to see others fail, when your own life hasn’t been going well, while the latter provides a kind of hope, however unlikely that hope might be. And it’s cool to see famous people dance really badly – serves ‘em right. As for the Survivor kind of shows, it’s all about wondering what you would do in an extreme situation – a real one. It’s a cheap thrill. The slice-of-real-life stuff is all about sneering at others at no social cost at all. Do people really live this way? They’re awful folks – repellant and stupid – or conversely, they’re authentic and you’re not, so you promise yourself that you’ll insult a policeman and see what happens. It’ll do you good. (No, it won’t.)

All this is fine with Hollywood. There’s big money to be made – advertisers will beat down the door to buy thirty-second spots on a show that really takes off – while spending next to nothing at all. Who needs actors? What could go wrong?

Plenty could go wrong, and for one show it just did:

As anyone who’s watched even a few minutes of A&E’s reality hit “Duck Dynasty” can tell you, Phil Robertson is a pretty conservative guy.

But in an interview published in January’s GQ Magazine, the duck-call inventor and Robertson family patriarch goes on record with comments about the sinfulness of gays and black people under Jim Crow that are about as forward-thinking as his Old Testament facial hair.

These folks are authentic, in the extreme, and the show is now the most popular reality show on television because of that, but authenticity can make the cable network look real bad:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he tells reporter Drew Magary. “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers – they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

He also muses rather colorfully about his own sexual orientation: “It seems like, to me, a vagina – as a man – would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

In a quote that may raise even more eyebrows than his feelings about gays, Robertson claims he “never” saw black people mistreated during the pre-civil rights era in his home state, and strongly suggests that African Americans were more content under Jim Crow.

“Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash,” he said. “They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ -not a word!”

You may find this appalling, or refreshing, because you know this is what everyone thinks but is afraid to say, but this put the Arts and Entertainment Network in a tight spot. They thought they just had an amazingly lucrative big hit reality show, running along smoothly with no muss or fuss, costing them next to nothing to produce, and now they’ll be asked if they endorse these views, or if they don’t endorse these views, what they plan to do about this. There’s no way out of that box. They said they’d present reality. Is this reality? Scripted shows must look pretty good to them right now. With those, these things can’t happen.

There was no choice. They suspended him from the show:

We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty. His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely.

Hollywood has always known there was big money in shows about absurdly crude rednecks. The Beverly Hillbillies was the model for all that followed – everyone laughed long and hard at the antics of that crew – but that was scripted. The network could always tell anyone who was offended by what some character said to relax, it was all made-up. This however, is real life, and the network can’t hide anywhere now, and they see advertising dollars slipping away. Sponsors know who buys their products, and it’s not poor rednecks living in the swamps shooting ducks. The corporate entity here, the network, might have been morally appalled – assuming that corporations are people, my friend, with moral feelings and sensitivities to the pain of others, along with their constitutionally guaranteed free-speech and religious rights – but that’s unlikely. The network knew the sponsors would run for the hills if they even implied they agreed with this colorful fellow. This was a business decision.

If only it were that easy, because the whole family may walk away:

“We have had a successful working relationship with A&E but, as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm,” said the statement, which was released on the Robertsons’ “Duck Commander” website. “We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of ‘Duck Dynasty.’”

The statement said the Robertsons have “spent much time in prayer since learning of A&E’s decision. We want you to know that first and foremost we are a family rooted in our faith in God and our belief that the Bible is His word.

“While some of Phil’s unfiltered comments to the reporter were coarse, his beliefs are grounded in the teachings of the Bible. Phil is a Godly man who follows what the Bible says are the greatest commandments: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Phil would never incite or encourage hate. We are disappointed that Phil has been placed on hiatus for expressing his faith, which is his constitutionally protected right…”

The network didn’t need this. Now they don’t believe in the Bible, or in God Himself. They don’t even believe in the free-speech rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

There is, however, a party the does believe in the Bible and the Constitution, often arguing that they’re one in the same if you think about it, and of course the Republicans pounced:

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. Ted Cruz are defending Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson’s free speech rights and decrying the backlash over the reality TV star’s anti-gay comments. …

Jindal and Cruz, both Republicans and potential 2016 presidential candidates, joined former Alaska governor Sarah Palin in siding with Robertson’s First Amendment rights.

That’s the Holy Trinity there – Jindal and Cruz and Palin being the Father, Son and Holy Ghost – and they offered this argument:

“If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson,” Cruz, R-Texas, wrote on his Facebook page. “Phil expressed his personal views and his own religious faith; for that he was suspended from his job.

“In a free society, anyone is free to disagree with him – but the mainstream media should not behave as the thought police censoring the views with which they disagree,” Cruz said.

Jindal said in a statement that Robertson and his family are “great citizens” of Louisiana. The governor took issue with individuals who condemn people with opposing viewpoints and essentially chastised A&E – without naming the network specifically – for being politically correct.

“The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with,” Jindal said. “I don’t agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV. In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive.”

“But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views,” he continued. “In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment. It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.”

Wait as second here. If corporations are people too, as these folks have maintained for years – and as they are now arguing in the matter of letting “corporations” who (not “which”) are morally offended to refuse to offer health plans that include any coverage for any kind of birth control – what about the corporation in question in this case, the network? Isn’t this network free to say it finds this fellow’s comments offensive and that’s not what it thinks at all? Aren’t they too trying to suppress free speech?

Matthew Yglesias is blunt about it:

The only relevant First Amendment issue here is that A&E has a constitutional right to make its own decisions about what kind of programming it wants to air without bullying by the governor of Louisiana. The First Amendment very much does not prevent private firms from declining to air certain kinds of content that they think will alienate their audience, or private citizens from engaging in organized criticism of private broadcasters who don’t bend to their will.

Zack Ford is reduced to saying the obvious:

Robertson is a free man. He has not been arrested for his beliefs. He could continue to say whatever he’d like and, given the current media frenzy, it would probably be quickly published in many other places. Robertson could even take to his own website and publish whatever he wants to say, and individuals could share it through social media the world over. His freedom of speech has been in no way encumbered.

A&E, as a company, enjoys constitutional protections as well, and is under no obligation to provide a platform for messages it disagrees with.

Something else is going on here:

What actually is taking place is that conservatives are taking umbrage because a fellow conservative’s beliefs are being publicly criticized. This happens all the time. When Chick-fil-A head Dan Cathy, whose company gives millions of dollars annually to anti-gay groups, said that homosexuality is “twisted up kind of stuff” that is “inviting God’s judgment,” LGBT groups called for awareness-raising and boycotts while conservatives rushed to show their “appreciation.” The exact opposite happened when companies like Starbucks and General Mills announced their support for marriage equality: LGBT groups offered praise, while anti-gay groups vowed to dump their products.

All of this is emblematic of free speech. Free speech allows citizens to say things that are offensive and unpopular and it allows other citizens to disagree, as well as to choose whether to provide an ongoing platform for those remarks. If anything, the claim that Robertson’s free speech has somehow been inhibited is just a straw man to avoid addressing the merits of what he actually said: that all gay people are going to Hell and that African Americans don’t deserve a seat at the lunch counter.

Ford might be onto something here. It may be that Jindal and Cruz and Palin know full-well that what they’re arguing is utter nonsense, and thus they too are only looking for exposure. It’s no more than that. Lay down a marker. Make sure the base knows they have no use for gays and black people, at least black people now, because they used to be such happy darkies and now they’re not. This has nothing to do with making a logical point about free speech. This is about sending a message – a useful reminder to everyone in the industry that they’re still around. It also sends the message that the party wants no gay votes or minority votes in the future, ever, or the votes of anyone who thinks we should “respect” such people – but you can’t have everything. It’s a trade-off.

As for the Duck guy at the core of this, Andrew Sullivan is just puzzled:

A&E has a reality show that depends on the hoariest stereotypes – and yet features hilariously captivating human beings – located in the Deep South. It’s a show riddled with humor and charm and redneck silliness. The point of it, so far as I can tell, is a kind of celebration of a culture where duck hunting is the primary religion, but where fundamentalist Christianity is also completely pervasive. (Too pervasive for the producers, apparently, because they edited out the saying of grace to make it non-denominational and actually edited in fake beeps to make it seem like the bearded clan swore a lot, even though they don’t.)

Now I seriously don’t know what A&E were expecting when the patriarch Phil Robertson was interviewed by GQ. But surely the same set of expectations that one might have of an ostensibly liberal host of a political show would not be extended to someone whose political incorrectness was the whole point of his stardom. He’s a reality show character, for Pete’s sake. Not an A&E spokesman.

Still, Sullivan is fascinated by the man’s statement:

This is a fascinating glimpse into the fundamentalist mind. You’ll notice that, for the fundamentalist, all sin – when it comes down to it – starts with sex. This sexual obsession, as the Pope has rightly diagnosed it, is a mark of neurotic fundamentalism in Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity. And if all sin is rooted in sex, then the homosexual becomes the most depraved and evil individual in the cosmos. So you get this classic statement about sin: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there.”

This emphasis is absolutely not orthodox Christianity. There is nothing primary about sexual sin as such in Christian doctrine. It sure can be powerfully sinful – but it’s not where sin starts. And to posit gay people as the true source of all moral corruption is to use eliminationist rhetoric and demonizing logic to soften up a small minority of people for exclusion, marginalization and, at some point, violence.

If you think I’m hyperventilating, ask yourself what the response would be if in talking about sin, Phil Robertson had said “Start with Jewish behavior…” The argument would be totally recognizable, once very widespread, and deeply disturbing. What we’re seeing here – and it’s very much worth debating – is how fundamentalist religion seizes on recognizable, immoral minorities to shore up its own sense of righteousness. You can gussy it up – but it’s right there in front of our nose.

Yeah, there’s that, but even Sullivan feels sorry for the guy:

Robertson is a character in a reality show. He’s not a spokesman for A&E any more than some soul-sucking social x-ray from the Real Housewives series is a spokeswoman for Bravo. Is he being fired for being out of character? Nah. He’s being fired for staying in character – a character A&E have nurtured and promoted and benefited from. Turning around and demanding a Duck Dynasty star suddenly become the equivalent of a Rachel Maddow guest is preposterous and unfair.

What Phil Robertson has given A&E is a dose of redneck reality. Why on earth would they fire him for giving some more?

There’s a simple answer to that question. Why would they fire this guy for giving them even more reality? They’d fire him because reality shows were a stupid idea in the first place. There’s no control. Reality is what it is, and sooner or later you’ll never quite know what it is that you’ll actually be presenting. How are you supposed to market that? The business model is fatally flawed.

Of course reality shows were seen as the only way to save the entertainment industry, the new low-cost profit center that couldn’t fail – but now people might actually start reading books and talking to each other, as an alternative. One can hope.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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