Thursday, August 14, 2008

"Who's On Top?"

My experience in the entertainment business, as well as a preceding interest that goes back to my buying Variety when I was twelve, suggests that there’s a distinct and rotating cycle of power (and accompanying energy) at the top of the show business heap.

To wit: (as lawyers say, though more often in the Eighteenth Century.)

Before the advent of television, movie studios ran the show. The stars were the stars, but they were hardly in charge. The real power lay in the hands of the Goldwyns, the Warner Brothers, the Thalbergs and the Mayers. The movie stars may have been famous, but the studio bosses pulled the strings.

In the years after World War II, popular actors weakened the studio’s dominance by negotiating a share in their movies’ profits. Some formed production companies, optioning material and making movies on their own.

Independent producers were also emerging in this period. Roger Corman, Sam Spiegel and Dino De Laurentiis. The studios’ dominance was over. But, as power abhors a vacuum, there was always another entity ready to step in.

When television started, it was dominated by advertising. Every program has its distinct commercial backer. There was The Kraft Music Hall, sponsored by cheese. The Voice of Firestone, highbrow entertainment bankrolled by tires. Texaco Star Theater – Milton Berle, brought to you by gas.

The sponsors oversaw every element of the show: the talent, the scripts, the budgets – everything. Then they cheated on game shows, fell prey to blacklisting pressure groups, and the programs became too expensive for one sponsor to afford. Like the studios, the sponsors’ supremacy had come to an end.

Who picked up the ball? The networks. Now, they had the final say. During every “Pilot Season”, nervous producers agonized over the opinion of whatever network president was in charge at the time.

It was always the same fevered question. The only thing that changed was the name.

“What did Harvey say?”

“What did Brandon say?”

“What did Freddie say?”

“What did Jamie say?”

“Jamie’s out.”

“Who’s in?”


“What did Stu say?”

Frightened people, their futures hanging on the unilateral decision of a single executive. That’s power.

But not total power. Up to the Nineties, shows were independently produced, the law prohibiting network ownership due to conflict of interest. That later went away. Not the conflict of interest. The law.

For a while, independent companies, reliably providing successful programming, arguably held more power than the networks. MTM, Norman Lear’s company, Aaron Spelling. You know they had power because, even though they didn’t appear on the air, regular people recognized their names.

When the law changed, the “indies” were out of business. The networks, now programmers and the shows’ owners, reigned supreme.

Somewhere in there, agents and managers, serving as “packagers” took their turn at the top of the heap. Think Mike Ovitz. Again, you recognize the name, he’s somebody.

Studios. Stars. Sponsors. Networks. Independent producers. Agents and managers. Networks again. And, in movies, stars again, until their movies flopped, and then, they hawked calcium supplements. It was like this Power Wheel that gets spun. Whenever the pointer stopped, that category of people, for a while at least, runs the show.

Recently, a new contingent has emerged. They were always around, but on the periphery, generally viewed as hapless and third rate, scapegoats you yelled at when things went awry.

Who were these sorry subhuman Sad Sacks of show business?

The Public Relations people.

I knew one of these guys at Universal. Genial, didn’t take himself seriously, cognizant of his position in the pecking order and realistically aware of what he could expect. I will quote him now, describing his situation. Please excuse his language.

“I’d consider it a good day if nobody told me to go fuck myself.”

P.R. – a job with frighteningly low expectations.

Not anymore.

Today, P.R. Rules!

How did that happen? I once heard that magazines, fed up with being jerked around by legitimate stars, decided to create stars of their own, drawing on a pool of newly minted celebrities from cable, reality shows, and pornographic Internet videos.

It was a P.R. bonanza. Think about it. If there’s this enormous mass of humanity, clamoring to be famous, what does it take to emerge from the pack? Not talent; they don’t have any. What then?

Packaging and promotion.

Say “hello” to Public Relations.

I’m reading a book called Netherland. In passing, the narrator observes that he happened to be watching “Entertainment News, rather than actual entertainment.” What’s the meat and potatoes of “Entertainment News”?

Public Relations.

Lest this post succumb to the same sorry trajectory as my post about gossip – I was energetically against it, but numerous commenters shot me down – lemme take a slight turn here and give today’s focus of my attention some weight.

With P.R. geniuses bringing nonentities enormous success, it is not surprising that political operative started knocking on their doors, hoping they could work some similar magic on their nonentity candidates.

Unfortunately, this transition is not without its difficulties.

P.R. in show business: Who cares? P.R. in politics: I care. (To be read solemnly: “And so should you.”)

I’ve mentioned before that I’m addicted to cable news shows such as Hardball and Countdown. I try not to watch them and I generally fail. That’s how I know I’m addicted.

Cable news programs are the Access Hollywood of politics. Gossip for the “too good for gossip” crowd, like me. The fundamental difference is – and I think it’s a serious one – show business doesn’t ultimately matter. Politics does.

Politics affects our lives, If you’re in the military – literally. The P.R. arsenal of packaging and fluff may cause a cable news show’s ratings to go up, but it does nothing to consider the country’s problems.

So what? It’s just a show? Fine, but don’t call it news. Too harsh? I don’t think so.

Like all entertainment, cable news shows are about distraction. How do cable news shows distract us? By focusing on “the horse race”, which is pretty much all they do. You’ll find very little substance on a cable news show, especially during Election Season, which has now become, always.

Instead of discussing substantive policy, it’s who’s ahead, and who’s losing ground, and who misspoke, and who can’t bowl, and who’s elitist and who’s too old?

(By the way, I can’t get the concept of an elitist black guy. The closest I can come is he’s a guy who looks down on places they won’t let him into.)

You got these P.R. guys – Mark Penn – you heard of his name, so he’s somebody – and their legitimizing cousins, the nerdy pollsters, floating back and forth between representing candidates and oil companies, and they’re using the same strategies in both arenas.

“Let’s play down our obscene profits, and focus on how we’re filling their tanks for family vacations.”

Here’s how cable news programming gets things backwards. Movie analogy: There’s the movie, and there’s the (P.R.) marketing campaign. By focusing almost exclusively on the “horse race”, cable news programs are putting the marketing campaign ahead of the movie. That’s backwards.

Despite its offering of “feel good” and pizzazz, the P.R. powerhouse will someday surrender its preeminence. How do I know? An old stockbroker was asked during the “go-go” Nineties if the stock market would ever go down.

“Of course,” he confidently replied.

“Why do you say that?”

“It always has.”

Let’s hope, on the next spin of the Power Wheel, the pointer lands on something more helpful.

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