Friday, May 06, 2005

Sign of the Apocalypse #3: Pat & Paula in prime-time

Last night, the chronological convergence of two really stupid entertainment stories brought our civilization slightly closer to oblivion:

1) ABC's Primetime Live examined -- in its characteristically shallow way -- the alleged affair between Paula Abdul (Laker girl turned pop princess turned talent judge) and former American Idol contestant and current opportunist Corey Clark (who apparently has a song called "Paula-tics" on his debut album -- yeah, that's it, nice and subtle.)

2) CBS's Dr. Phil, America's nagging nuisance (now in prime-time), interviewed Pat O'Brien, host of celebrity-worshipping gossip-fest The Insider and, as we now know, foul-mouthed, coke-snorting, sex-crazed boozehound, who, like Bill O'Reilly, left some nasty messages on a woman's phone.

Far be it from me to pollute the pages of The Reaction with any of the details of these two sordid affairs. What's interesting, however, is that two of America's leading TV critics, The New York Times's Alessandra Stanley and, my favourite, the San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman, linked the two stories to make a similar point about the degradation of our culture. What's so gross about these two stories is not just the obvious appeal to viewers during sweeps with tales of phone sex, drug use, cheating, and the like. Rather, it was the manipulation of those viewers for the sake of ratings and, of course, profit.

In the first case, ABC was trying to stick it to rival FOX, home of American Idol. It was that simple. In the second case, media conglomerate Viacom, which owns CBS, used Dr. Phil to resuscitate the flagging reputation of Pat O'Brien (not that there was much to begin with) and hence the prospects of The Insider, another Viacom property. When Phil led Pat back to The Insider studio, now cleansed by Dr. Phil's psychobabble, absolved of his sins through the power of on-air repentance, however insincere, it was all-too-obvious what was going on, and it was astonishingly phony even by the standards of mainstream television. And here's where it gets weird: Today, The Insider reported that Paula Abdul will make an appearance on this week's Saturday Night Live. Oh, and Paula Abdul just happens to be a "correspondent" for The Insider. Next thing you know, we'll find out that Corey Clark is Dr. Phil's illegitimate love-child. (Stop! My head is about to explode!)

For Stanley's take, click here. For Goodman's take, click here. For an interesting interpretation, by Slate's Dana Stevens, of American Idol as television's home to American-style democracy, click here.

But what's truly disturbing here? The two soul-crushing stories and their respective participants? The media conglomerates that suck profit out of human misery? Or the millions of herd-like viewers who obliviously tuned in to watch?

That rumbling you hear in the distance may very well be the Apocalypse. Be careful out there.

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