All Silly All the Time
Dumb & Dumber
ABC lures Letterman over
while Koppel gets the hook
By MURRY FRYMER
I've got a really hot topic for a Ted Koppel "Nightline" program. Let's call it: Who Owns Television? No, scratch that. Who Owns the Media? Nope. Too narrow. How about who owns you?
Ted may find that a subject too sensitive for him at the moment. ABC Television, as you may have heard, is in the process of getting rid of Koppel, hoping to lure David Letterman to his nighttime hour. And the reasoning goes: Letterman gets a younger audience, especially younger males and, though the audience is smaller overall than Koppel's, it is the kind of audience that advertisers covet. Something like that. And ABC Television needs advertising dollars because, in the vast sea of enterprises that is Disney, there's a shortfall. Or something like that.
Anyway, as a media maven myself, who worked for the media, wrote about television and even watched television, all this sounds vaguely familiar. Of course, I am always surprised by how far the theory has gone. When I was writing a column for a newspaper I was on the one hand congratulated for its popularity and on the other hand kidded by editors that my readers were "old ladies in wheel chairs." An exaggeration, I'm sure, but it meant that it was not the young folks whom the publisher was seeking who could in turn be a draw for advertisers that the publisher was seeking. Somehow, it all had to do with the bottom line.
It took me a while to grasp that in today's media world it isn't how many people read you, it's who those people are and how old they are and whether they are vulnerable to advertising spiels. Or something like that.
I thought I was being victimized, but no, seeing how somebody as venerable as Ted Koppel has been hit by the same pie, I can understand that times have moved on and the needs of the advertiser, as perceived by youthful executives, are paramount.
So the fact that millions more people watch Koppel on ABC than do Letterman on CBS has nothing to do with it. Nor, of course, does the fact that Koppel's is a highly lauded serious news program in a time when serious news seems to be getting more serious all the time.
Well, as another aging newsman used to say: That's the way it is. This is our world, at least the American part of it. OK, let's roll with the times. We still have Bill O'Reilly and his Factor on Fox. Being a little less erudite than Ted Koppel, he grabs big numbers from a younger male audience who find barroom argument and the like reminiscent of sports gab shows. So news isn't disappearing. It is merely taking on attitude. Maybe a little dumb, but, for some, entertaining.
David Letterman has attitude, too, and though he is not nearly as funny as some of his late-night predecessors (an old man's opinion), he is far better, I am sure, than some who will come along to replace him.
All this has already played itself out in radio which has been transformed from the days of drama, comedy and thoughtful discussion, to nasty talk shows, rock shows and, mostly, advertising. Yes, there's PBS, but mostly I leave the radio off.
And as for the newspapers seeking young readers, well, it's the same struggle I remember when I was one of those young writers. Newspapers have always appealed to a more mature audience, at least those with families and mortgages. As publishers have sought to change that, circulations have dropped perceptively all over the land.
I could shrug all this off, I suppose. I can play CDs on my radio, DVDs on my TV and opt for various web sites for my reading. There are new choices offering new voices.
But I am wondering what kind of culture abandons all values except the chase for greater profits. What have we become? Do we recognize any purpose to our work beyond how much money it will bring in? Don't blame capitalism. The same economic system works in Europe and Canada and elsewhere with nowhere near the same pathetic results.
The idea is now uncontested that Americans just aren't too bright and that you only make money by appealing to a low common denominator. That's the theory. But I dispute that. Advertisers just don't want the brightest audience anymore, having decided that a younger, more vulnerable reader/viewer/listener, who has not yet made his product choices, as they say, is their patsy.
And you and I can't really do much about it. I think it would make a great Ted Koppel program, as long as there is a Ted Koppel program, of course.
© 2002 by Murry Frymer. The Frymer caricature is © 2000 by Jim Hummel. The other illustration is from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
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