May 27, 2014

The FOX in the chicken coop

Feral - a good word for Fox and Murdoch
There will be a point to all of this eventually, so if you'll just be patient for a moment, I'll explain how a story on a blog devoted to classic television begins in Lisbon, Portugal at the finals of Saturday's UEFA Champions League soccer tournament.

The match itself was a thriller, with Real Madrid rallying in extra time to defeat its crosstown rival Atletico Madrid.  But nearly as entertaining as the match itself was the online commentary decrying FOX* Sports' announce team of Gus Johnson and Eric Wynalda.  Fox's decision to put an "American voice" on its soccer broadcasts, filled with the requisite American style, has been widely vilified by soccer fans and media critics everywhere.  According to World Soccer Talk's Christopher Harris, "FOX’s coverage of soccer has moved from being a joke to something that’s just second-rate. Unfortunately,given that Fox seems to have no consideration for the soccer fan, preferring to dumb its coverage down to the lowest common denominator, " I have no confidence or faith that it’ll get any better in the future."

*Is there anything more pretentious than the convention that the network's name is spelled in all caps?  I know it, but other than making the point in this article's title and in quoting other sources, I just can't bring myself to do it that way.

With that established, suddenly it seems that Fox is popping up everywhere.  At the website Awful Announcing, this was this morning's headline:  "Fox Sports Putting Viewers Last By Cutting Corners With Production Costs." The story relates how last Saturday's coverage of the Angels-Tigers game on Fox Sports 1 was hampered by shoddy camerawork, including losing fly balls, because the network hired "cheap, inexpensive labor" after failing in an attempt to lowball the regular Fox Sports Detroit camera operators.

Of course, it goes on.  NASCAR fans criticize Fox for having way too many commercials in their coverage (turning off the fan just trying to keep up with the race) and the incessant cheerleading from its commentators. Liberals have decried Fox News for years, and the network's emphasis on shout-a-thons and talking heads in lieu of actual broadcast news has even begun to turn off conservatives.  Even before that, the Fox broadcast network has been criticized for its dumbing-down of programming, including its plethora of tasteless reality shows.*

*Probably an oxymoron.

What do all of these stories, and others like them, have in common?  Well, when one thinks of Fox, of course, one thinks of Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon who displays something of the reverse-Midas touch, turning everything he touches into crap.

In 1988 Murdock, the "titan of tabloids," purchased TV Guide.  In my opinion, the magazine was already on the downhill slide; it's best days had been in the '60s and '70s when it combined intelligent writing about the business of TV with incisive commentary about the role TV played in the cultural landscape, and added political and historical perspectives to the shows being broadcast.  By the late '80s I felt that TV Guide was heading toward being just another fan magazine, but under Murdoch's ownership the slide became a total freefall, as documented in Changing Channels: America in TV Guide by Glenn Altschuler and David Grossvogel, the latest offering in the Hadley Institute of Cultural Archaeology's reading list.

Altschuler and Grossvogel's book takes us only through the early '90s, before Murdoch's destruction of the magazine had become complete, but it didn't take them long to size up the situation.  Whereas in the past TV Guide prided itself on articles written by renowned critics and historians, the new management
Grumbled that articles on news and public affairs were too long or too boring...Within the year the new management had doubled the number of personality profiles, added more photos, inserted a soap opera summary, and even offered a horoscope (where readers followed Uranus, the planet that rules television).

Of all the sections in the national edition, the "Insider" was least in need of alteration, given the emphasis on fun.  If anything, its tidbits grew more childish.  For example, on September 2, 1989, it revealed that Vanna White considered her greatest beauty flaw to be her ugly toes and that Robin Leach stole soap from hotels.  And nastiness now accompanied the childishness more frequently...In essence, the tabloid-thinking Murdochians expanded the "Insider" to the rest of the magazine.  
As one observer put it, the image of the average TV guide reader became that of "a couch potato who lives in a trailer park."

Under Murdoch's management, TV Guide now sought to create news as much as they covered it, as was the case with the 1990 "TV Beauty Poll."  By 1989, the magazine's Managing Editor "implied that investigative reporting was no longer valued," telling his bureau chiefs that "We feel that the overwhelming majority of our pieces require no more than two weeks to write and report," when in fact even a simple profile used to run to dozens of interviews and several weeks' preparation time.

Time referred to all this as the "Tarting up of TV Guide."  Under previous owner Walter Annenberg and his chief lieutenant Merrill Panitt, it was always emphasized that TV Guide was "a family publication," and that any articles and pictures that appeared in its pages should keep that central fact in mind.  The joke in the newsroom was that Panitt kept a stamp in his desk drawer that said "Airbrush nipples."  And yet, anyone who's looked at an issue of TV Guide over the last two decades can vouch for how sexed-up it's become.  For me, the final straw came around 2000 or so, I think,when the magazine ran a feature on homosexuality in TV, including fawning pictures of same-sex kissing.  When I called to cancel my subscription, I explained that although I'd been a subscriber for close to 30 years, I had no desire to get a magazine that looked and read as if it ought to come in a brown paper wrapper.

Mind you, TV Guide was never a perfect publication - I've taken my share of shots at it during the course of this blog, and I expect to continue to do so.  In fact, in the coming months you'll see an influx of "This Week" articles coming from a decade we've rarely visited in these features, the '80s.  But the magazine had always had ambitions to be something other than a simple fan magazine, something that could be of merit not only in the quality of writing, but in the subject matter covered and the influence it might wield within the industry.  And while the decay might already have been visible in the early '80s, it bears scant resemblance to the tawdry stamp which Murdoch and his people have put on it in the years since.

As is the case, I expect I'll be excerpting various parts of this book as time goes on, before giving a formal review of the whole thing.  And by no means is everything in the book as bleak as the section covering the Murdoch takeover.  But that's all for another time.  Today, I seek only to lament the involvement of Rupert Murdoch and Fox Broadcasting in the television business.  If there's been a man or an organization that's done more damage to television, I'd like to know who.  Perhaps everything would have come to pass eventually, but it is strange, isn't it, that those same three letters seem to come up so often when assessing the state of the medium today?  I can't really say that I'm surprised.

2 comments:

  1. It is necessary to be personal:

    As it happens, I've got this book - had it for some years, as a matter of fact (got it almost new).
    But long before, I also had two books compiled by Barry Cole, about ten years apart, consisting of articles from TV Guide over the years, but concentrating on the '60s (the first one, published in 1971) and the '70s (the second one, published in 1981).
    These two collections (which do not duplicate their contents) demonstrate your point about the magazine that Merrill Panitt edited, as opposed to the current NewsCorp fan mag, in sizable detail.
    Add to that a book Panitt edited to mark TV GUIDE's 25th anniversary, which is a bit more showbizzy but every bit as varied in its content.
    Compare to anything that TVG put out since the Murdoch takeover - it's night and day.

    The personal part:
    I used to contribute occasional comments to Roger Ebert's Journal, where I often found myself in contention with one Randy Masters, a hard-line right-winger (as opposed to a conservative) who was always taking on Roger and his more leftish commenters.
    When Murdoch's scandals broke, Ebert, who'd witnessed NewsCorp's wreckage of the Chicago Sun-Times first-hand, wrote at somewhat gleeful about the events, tying it in to Fox News as much as he could.
    Randy Masters didn't care for that; as with much of the farRight, he regarded Fox News as the third source of Revelation.
    In several comments, he took pains to distance the Fox networks of Rupert Murdoch from the Fox News Channel of Roger Ailes.
    In Randy's view, Fox News was entirely the creation of Ailes, while the racy programming on FoxTV was solely the province of Murdoch.
    It sort of fell to me, as the TV Guy on the blog, to set the history straight:
    - that Fox News and its hard-to-starboard tilt was Murdoch's idea in toto;
    - that Ailes was hired specifically to implement this policy;
    - that Murdoch's interests were mainly in the news end, and entertainment was strictly a source of income.
    Randy Masters wasn't having any; as a True Believer, Ailes had to be The Man, while the scandal-ridden Murdoch was sent to the corn field.
    I'm guessing Randy still feels this way; he has a site of his own, but he takes his own sweet time updating it.
    Meanwhile, the Ebert site got a major makeover about the time of Roger's passing, which made it all but inaccessible to me. If curiosity moves you to look any of this up, the specific post is titled "The Dirty Digger" (an old Aussie nickname of Murdoch's). Best of luck in tracking it down.

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    Replies
    1. Great info, Mike. I'll definitely be looking into some of this in more detail. You never cease to be interesting!

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And now for something completely different.