Monday, March 31, 2008

"The Audience Writes The Script"

Two quarters ago, I took an Extension class at UCLA called Sociology and Mass Communication. The course offered some illuminating revelations, especially on the physiological effects of watching television. But its central concern was, in my view, not nearly as serious as my sociology professor made it seem, though I’m sure she would vociferously disagree.

The professor insisted we should all be alarmed that a diminishing number of corporations – something like six – control of all the major media outlets. To her, this situation insured a conservative ideological bias in the media.

Earl says, you don’t have to worry. (A view that made me not tremendously popular in that class.)

In my view, media corporations, do not care about ideology anywhere near as much as they care about money.



Am I crazy?

Probably, but not about this.

Fox News is conservative. No argument there, except maybe from Fox News, but, you know, please, we have ears. Fox News is not conservative, in my view, because the company’s boss, Mr. Murdoch, is conservative. Fox News is conservative because there was a marketing niche – conservative-leaning news viewers – whose proclivities were not being met anywhere on television – and Fox News filled the gap.

And they made a lot of money.

What evidence do I then have that Mr. Murdoch’s corporation is not ideologically committed to a conservative bias?

Fox Television.

Fox Television is not conservative. Much of Fox Television’s programs, starting with The Simpsons and Family Guy – let alone When Animals Attack Babies, or whatever – are so, comparatively, extreme, they would never be considered by Fox Television’s more conservative competitors, CBS, NBC and ABC.

Fox Television was trying to appeal to an audience that, once again, the other networks were ignoring, in this case, men, particularly younger men, around fourteen. Fox Television, with demonstrably non-conservative programming, filled that gap as well.

And they made a lot of money.

You see the common denominator there? It’s not ideology that’s at play here, it’s cash. Unless you’re against the maximization of profit – which would make you frighteningly un-American – you have little to fear from the media companies who, like the rest of us, are merely trying to get rich. Or, in their case, “Holy Moley!” rich.

Rest easy, America. Corporations care less about ideology than they do about “da dollah.”


Corporations may own the media, but they do not, in the end, control the media. Who does?

You do.

Every Friday, new movies open around the country. The corporations have millions, often, hundreds of millions, tied up in these movies. They’ve done their best – through market research, tracking movie trends, pre-release screenings – to insure that their movies will be successful, but, unlike people with real power, they can’t guarantee anything.

That’s why, after those Friday openings, executives (and filmmakers) endure a tortured Saturday and Sunday, awaiting reports on how their movies did on that first, invariably, success or failure-determining weekend. The movie companies hope their endeavors will be successful, but there’s no way they can control what’s actually going to happen. Who can?

You can.

The same goes for television. Generally, new T.V. shows debut in September. Their futures will be determined in the first few broadcasts. Who will determine their futures?

You will.

In both movies and television, the outcome has eluded the corporations and fallen into the hands of the American (and now the worldwide) entertainment-viewing public.

“Corporate control”? Not so much.

Wait, it gets better.

Not only does the audience control the commercial result, the audience, in my experience, has a fundamental influence on the material itself. Hence, the above title:

The audience writes the script.

A personal example.

I’m in charge of running Major Dad. I write a script about the Major and an unknown adversary locked in a yearlong battle of “chess by mail.” Here’s how it works. Before the Internet, people – often strangers – would mail each other alternating moves in a chess match they were playing long distance, matches that could take months, even years, to complete.

In my Major Dad episode, the unknown adversary the Major is playing announces that he’s coming to town; he suggests that he drop by the Major’s house, so they can finish the chess match in person. The Major enthusiastically agrees. He’s excited to confront his opponent in the flesh, imagining, based on his Slavic-surname – and the Major’s boundless self-regard – that his opponent is some super-genius Russian physicist. The opponent arrives. It’s a twelve year-old boy.

That’s the funny surprise.

The kid’s an easy-going delight, bopping to James Brown on his headphones and he takes on the intense and increasingly irritated Major. As the confrontation unfolds, the Major’s almost-teen stepdaughter develops a crush on this chess prodigy. He’s a great, gifted, totally normal kid. And he’s driving the Major batty.

The advantage goes back and forth, the Major attacking, the kid deftly countering. Finally, it’s down to the wire. It’s my script. I get to decide the outcome. And I do. The kid wins.

This episode was filmed in front of a “live” studio audience. When the deciding moment arrived, and the kid prevailed, the “live” studio audience, in unison, uttered this response:


Can you believe it? I couldn’t. The audience wanted the Major to win. It was incredible. I let this sweet, smart, delightful kid prevail against a tight-assed, competitive jerk of a Major

and the audience “awwwwww’s” me?

I hated that! But I learned a bitter lesson. Writers can write whatever they want, but if that’s not what the audience wants

you’re going to get “awwwwwwed.”

So what happens? You end up writing what the audience wants, raising the creative “white flag” in the form a conscious or – even worse – an unconscious, self-censorship. Or, you might truly believe your story should go in a non-traditional direction, but your financial backers decree a more audience-pleasing revision. Maybe you put up a fight. Or maybe you don’t, or your opposition’s a feeble formality. Why didn’t you fight harder? Because somewhere deep down, despite what the story, if told honestly, demanded

you didn’t want to get “awwwwwwed.”

That’s how much control the audience has. It’s something to remember. You, in your overwhelming numbers, can control the choices writers and the media behemoths decide to make.

You’re the tail that wags the dog.

Take advantage.


Max Clarke said...

One of your best posts. I Don't mean it the way it reads, since you haven't had a lot of posts yet. Pretend you've done this a year, and now I'm telling you, "One of your best."

San Francisco has a reputation for being left of center, sometimes so far left the town should be out by the Farallon Islands. Can't recall the last time a Republican won an election here. Still, there's a popular radio station that calls itself Hot Talk and carries Rush Limbaugh. They're doing it because there's an audience. Meanwhile, everybody else in that building, which is the ABC affiliate, leans left a bit. It's a business decision, and ABC profits by playing both sides of the field.

That said, there are some stories the major media outlets won't touch, and not because of left bias or right bias. Fear. They won't touch 9/11 truth, at least until after the elections, and they generally won't cover stories which are listed in Project Censored by Sonoma State. That said, you're right.

MikeThe Blogger said...

Sociology- it seems Earl has the same respect for it he had at U of T. I remember he quipped, "They do a study and discover rich people have more money than poor people."

growingupartists said...

If you're not worried, I'm not worried.