Archive for john oliver

It’s Not What You Know, It’s HBO

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s one of the great cultural shames that people are denied access to works of art based on their income. For decades now, premium cable network HBO has been in the business of producing some of the finest television in the medium’s history and preventing large swathes of the American population from seeing them. Consumers (for that is what they are) need to be above a certain socio-economic line in order to pay HBO’s monthly subscription fee – historically between 6 and 15 dollars – along with the exorbitant cable company charges and, y’know, food and shelter, stuff like that. Of course, quality television in the US has always implicitly discriminated on socio-economic grounds by wielding cultural capital. Put very simply (and no doubt wrongly to some), cultural capital relates to the idea that what we judge as artistic or culturally worthy is determined by the social exposure that class, wealth and educational background permits, and so the elites have a collateral advantage when interpreting works of art and culture. When advertising executives in the 1980s discovered it was more profitable to target the high-spending TV viewer than the mass-audience, TV like Northern Exposure and Hill Street Blues went after educated professionals with a litany of fine art references and allusions. But whereas visiting libraries and museums would be enough to crack that code, there’s no getting around the bare economic fact that you either have the subscription money or you don’t, and if you don’t you have to actively steal culture.

The most educational show since 'Sesame Street'

The most educational show since ‘Sesame Street’

There’s no shame in that. As HBO’s own John Oliver commented, ‘A good way to know which side of the income equality gap you’re on is if you’re currently paying for HBO or stealing it’. But HBO was making great television long before fluid internet theft of television was the desirable option, and I know from experience that HBO (for obvious reasons) are more militant than most TV networks at shutting down piracy of their programmes. This is bad but it’s what HBO has been doing forever, and in the back of our minds we secretly know that the quality of the TV they produce is proportional to the number of Americans it excludes from watching. What concerns me more these days is that those without HBO are being left out of the cultural conversation. News-with-a-side-of-comedy series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is informing and engaging Americans on political issues and debates that mainstream media and government have left too intangible for the average person to unravel, whether that’s taxes, government espionage, or the system of electing judges. As such, it’s more like Sesame Street than The Daily Show. Yes, you can find out what John Oliver discovered on your own (he did!) but he makes politics accessible without compromising their labyrinthine complexity, which is rather rarely telling you what you need to know without what to think. You can pirate Last Week Tonight and even legally watch key highlights piecemeal on YouTube, but this is only the beginning.

While the LAPD will tell you they’ve been looking into accusations of murder against Robert Durst for years, it’s hard to see how The Jinx, HBO’s documentary mini-series about the real estate heir and his alleged past crimes hasn’t at least catalysed his arrest in March while the series was still airing. The series had audio of Durst seeming to confess – somewhat sensationally reserved for the season finale – and provided evidence of a handwriting match that many think was the trigger for the LAPD to make an arrest. TV investigative reporting like CNN’s The Hunt with John Walsh has always had these aims of impacting on criminal justice – and often they do – but what’s special about The Jinx (despite its inherently lurid qualities of true crime entertainment) is that it’s a documentary about a subject that has yielded the capture of a suspected killer without that being the stated aim of the programme. Durst’s confession tape was stumbled upon during the rigorous process of compiling footage and wasn’t the result of a super-cloak of crime-fighting conservatism the show had shrouded itself in. This is because HBO has to appeal but it doesn’t have to pander. The network or basic cable equivalents of The Jinx and Last Week Tonight are significantly diluted by gestures to mainstream entertainment orthodoxy – sycophantic celebrity interviews, monster-of-the-week journalism – but the former spends a series on what would be an hour on any other channel and the latter expands a 5-minute news segment into a quarter-hour dissection.

Advertisements

Channelling History

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

Doing television history on TV is a daunting task. It’s hard enough trying to convey how television connects with social and political events of the past, not to mention avoiding ending up saying TV is a ‘window on the world’ (hall-of-mirrors more like) or making it a medium of communication rather than art. And how do you talk about the history of broadcasting without it becoming a dry recital of telecommunications regulation of the kind John Oliver parodies or a series of backslapping celebrity anecdotes? This is before having to package all this into an inevitably narrow television format that’s supposed to have a broad appeal. So I’m not at all surprised that CNN’s The Sixties: Television Comes of Age was a failure but I am surprised that AMC’s Mad Men, a piece of historical fiction with only a passing interest in sixties television, managed to do so much with the idea.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

Recently, Jon Stewart has been using rather a lot of his daily timeslot to attack CNN with the kind of scrutiny and vigour the network never exhibits in its news coverage. He’s been forsaking more gratifying targets, such as Fox News, because CNN’s bloated, ignorant and downright incompetent news reporting is such an insult to journalism and yet still poses as a legitimate news outlet, rather than just an extended campaign ad like Fox or MSNBC. The decline in CNN’s journalistic practices seems to be inversely proportionate to the rise of their original documentary films and series. A mixed bag, to be sure, but with some real highlights, like Anthony Bourdain’s myth-busting travelogue Parts Unknown and archaeological verite Our Nixon. Consequently, I was enthused about the network doing a documentary series on America in the sixties and encouraged that the first episode would be about television. So what’s my problem?

Well, first of all, Tom Hanks. Clearly a selling point for the series if the roadside spinning-sign branding of his producer credit is anything to go by, Hanks has also enlisted himself as a talking head for the show. The actor’s irrelevance to his own industry continues into the documentary, with his inarticulate babbling at the camera about his (unprocessed) memories of watching TV as a child which even a Den-of-Geek editor would call fanboyish. I’m not exactly smitten with the talking heads format anyway. From talking to people who’ve done them, it seems that their words aren’t chosen on their own merits but as a grammatical bridge in the programme’s narration. This pretty much does for anyone who might have a critical stance, but the majority of guests worked in sixties television or now work in the industry and are unlikely to offer much in the way of perspective.

But if this were the only problem with the series, you’ll be inclined to forgive since the researchers and editors have done such a masterful and artful job of finding and fitting together footage from sixties’ television shows. After all, there can’t be many clips out there of Orson Welles winding Dean Martin’s head 360 degrees with a handle. I know it’s not the way things are done now but it’s a great shame that the footage wasn’t left to speak for itself, as it really tells its own story and a better one than the narration. The fundamental problem here is that it doesn’t say anything about what it would have been like to watch television in the sixties, or any other time for that matter. We know what people watched, when they watched it, and some of what it was trying to say. But did audiences get it?

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

This is where Mad Men steps in. In the recent mid-season finale, the characters are all trying to catch as much as they can of the ongoing TV coverage of the Moon Landings. Ad executive Peggy has to follow this with a client pitch the morning after men walked on the moon. Struggling for a segue, she – and writer Weiner – manage to distil the essence of the dial and bandwidth-restricted TV viewing of the time as ‘everyone doing the same thing at the same time’. If that weren’t profoundly elegant enough, Peggy goes on to talk about how this rare moment of unity (and possibly television itself) masks the social disharmony of late sixties America. This isn’t even for our benefit, but for that of fast-food executives looking to cash in on a conservative backlash. Any documentary about American TV history is going to have to beat that.

%d bloggers like this: