Saturday, December 02, 2023

Even Stranger Wine: The Late Stage Teevee Brain

This is an excerpt from my late friend Harlan Ellison's introduction to his book Strange Wine

Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don't Look so Terrific Yourself.

I used to know Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza. He was a wise and a kind man, and there are tens of dozens of people I would much rather see dead than Dan. One time, around lunch-break at Paramount, when I was goofing off on writing a treatment for a Joe Levine film that never got made, and Dan was resting his ass from some dumb horsey number he'd been reshooting all morning, we sat on the steps of the weathered saloon that probably in no way resembled any saloon that had ever existed in Virginia City, Nevada, and we talked about reality versus fantasy. The reality of getting up at five in the morning to get to the studio in time for makeup call and the reality of how bloody much FICA tax they took out of our paychecks and the reality of one of his kids being down with something or other . . . and the fantasy of not being Dan Blocker, but of being Hoss Cartwright.

And he told me a scary story. He laughed about it, but it was the laugh of butchers in a slaughterhouse who have to swing the mauls that brain the beeves; who then go home to wash the stink out of their hair from the spattering.

He told me–and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases–that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, "Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family."

So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I've ever met), "Excuse me, ma'am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I'll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting."

And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, "Yes, I know . . . but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said . . . "

For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same...

Bonanza ran from September 12, 1959, to January 16, 1973.   That's 14 seasons and 431 episodes; the second longest running Western television series in U.S. network history.  It was also the first Western series televised in living color.  So, this conversation probably happened sometime in the mid- or late-1960s.   Back when teevee was still a magic box that brought you Three!Count!'Em!Three! networks to choose from.  When color teevee was still a rarity.  When Blocker would come into your home as Hoss Cartwright every week, year after year.   

You would have known who Hoss was and what he was about.

Another part of your brain would have also known who Walter Cronkite was and what he was about. He was serious. The news mattered. And however addled you might get, you'd never have mixed up the news of the day with life on the Ponderosa.  But somehow, through the magic of teevee, sometimes some element of that fictional drama on teevee would get to feeling familiar and real.  Especially if it was part of an ongoing drama that you spent time with over and over again for years.

Even though a part of that teevee brain knew it wasn't, it seemed like it was 

This was a principle theme of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.  

Mildred kicked at a book. “Books aren’t people. You read and I look around, but there isn’t anybody! . . . Now. . . my “family” is people. They tell me things; I laugh, they laugh! And the colours!”
The "family" she's referring to is the television program that's playing all day, every day on the walls of her "parlor".

Back to Ellison:

There was a woman who had the part of a home-wrecker on a daytime soap opera. One day as she was coming out of Lord & Taylor in New York, a viewer began bashing her with an umbrella, calling her filthy names and insisting she should leave that nice man and his wife alone!

One time during a college lecture, I idly mentioned that I had actually thought up all the words Leonard Nimoy had spoken as Mr. Spock on the sole Star Trek segment I had written; and a young man leaped up in the audience, in tears, and began screaming that I was a liar. He actually thought the actors were living those roles as they came across the tube.

The teevee brain is still with us, but in some incredibly toxic ways it has changed.  It has evolved to deal with 300 channels instead of three, and in the process, the teevee brain has, in a way, reversed the flow of credulity.  

Today, teevee viewers are used to seeing the same actor play many different parts in many different places.  No one is trying to arrest Bryan Cranston for cooking meth or Idris Elba for running a Baltimore drug empire, because [spoiler] A) both of the characters they played died in-series, and B) both actors (especially Elba) are well known for a variety of other standout roles.  

Similarly there is no confusion over who Julia Louis-Dreyfus is.  Or Edie Falco.  Or Danny DeVito.  They are talented professionals, who can put on a costume and inhabit a role that makes us laugh or cry or both. What we feel while we are being entertained is real, but by now the teevee brain knows that the actors are not the characters.  They're playing a part, and then they'll move on to the next part.  Different costume, different character, different feelings.  Then they'll move on once again.  Maybe a movie this time.  Maybe the stage.  

What the teevee brain now processes coming through the magic box is an overwhelming, kaleidoscopic tsunami of comedies, dramas, biopics, animation, docudramas, reality teevee, politics, westerns, news, science fiction, reruns, ancient aliens, cooking shows, bitchy housewives, wealth porn, porn porn, all stitched together with a million ads for better sex, sad dogs, happy dogs, eczema cures, floppy penis cures, baldness cures and Little Pills with Big Stories to Tell.

It's all just teevee.  

And the teevee brain has learned to expect performers to go from one role to the next, just as the sports brain has learned to expect that today's heel who pitches or QBs for our rival, might be tomorrow's hero when he's traded to our team and performs his miracles for us.  We'll cheer them when they play the hero, and boo them when they play the villain, but there are no world-ending stakes because it's all a game.  All just teevee.  And when they come through the magic box, the teevee brain accepts them for who they are now, not for who they were in their last series or when they wore a different number on their jersey.  

As I said, the teevee brain has reversed the flow of credulity: it now values how the performance makes it feel over whether or not the performance is strictly "real".

And the teevee brain doesn't care whether the person on the screen right now has ever been in anything else.  It is impossible to imagine watching, say, this season of Fargo with someone who rolls their eyes at Juno Temple's amazing performance because, "Who's she trying to fool?  Everybody knows that's Keely Whatshername from Ted Lasso.  I mean, she's not even American?!?  And OMG, that guy's not a sheriff.  That's Don Draper!" 

Now hold that thought in your mind while considering this story, which, if you're of a certain age, you might remember as making national news 26 years ago:

This is during the same period when when television networks began demanding that news division start showing a profit.  

From Nieman Reports, a quarter of a century ago:

The Transformation of Network News

How Profitability Has Moved Networks Out of Hard News

Twenty years ago, there was no network news “business.” The Big Three broadcast television networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—all covered news, but none generally made money doing so. Nor did they expect to turn a profit from news programming. They presented news programming for the prestige it would bring to their network, to satisfy the public-service requirements of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, and more broadly so that they would be seen as good corporate citizens.

Back then, the networks earned enough money from entertainment programming that they could afford to run their news operations at a loss. And so they did. Former CBS correspondent Marvin Kalb recalls Owner and Chairman William Paley instructing news reporters at a meeting in the early 1960’s that they shouldn’t be concerned about costs. “I have Jack Benny to make money,” he told them.

It is no exaggeration to say that just about everything has changed since then. Today, ABC, CBS and NBC operate in a competitive environment in which most viewers have dozens of channels from which to choose. That has transformed not just TV news but the entire television industry. Those most severely threatened by the way the broadcast business operates are the Big Three. The ABC and CBS networks (now subsumed into larger corporate structures) are losing money, according to Wall Street analysts. NBC’s network profits are also falling sharply. Those who own these networks—Disney (ABC), CBS Inc. with its major stockholder, Mel Karmazin, and General Electric (NBC)—all demand that their news operations make money...

So that's what was happening to the news.  And it's no secret when the line separating "actor/entertainer" and "politician" began to collapse:

Conservative media figured this out the minute Reagan and his henchmen killed the Fairness Doctrine.  Radio and teevee were powerful tools for making listeners and viewers feel something, and that's exactly what Rush Limbaugh and all his imitators, and Fox News and all their imitators sold their customers.  Feelings.  

While Democrats were out there trying to sell policy solutions to actual problems,  Fox News was selling its customers rage and thinly-veiled racism.  Paranoia.  Patriotism.  Moral superiority.  Sexual arousal.  The vindictive joy of making Liberals cry.  And because the consumers of Conserative media were also the base of the Republican party, the language of Republican politics quickly became indistinguishable from the language of Fox News and Hate Radio. 

From The New York Times, December 12, 1994:

Republicans Get a Pep Talk From Rush Limbaugh

...The freshman class, which included not a single "femi-Nazi," one of Mr. Limbaugh's favorite epithets for supporters of women's rights, whooped and applauded, proving itself one big fan club of the man it believes was primarily responsible for the Republican avalanche in November.

Mr. Limbaugh was made an honorary member of the class as its members tonight finished a three-day orientation here sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and Empower America, two conservative Washington research organizations.

Barbara Cubin, an incoming freshman from Wyoming, told Mr. Limbaugh that because 74 percent of the nation's newspapers had endorsed Democrats, "talk radio, with you in the lead, is what turned the tide." On behalf of the women in the class, she gave him a plaque that said, "Rush Was Right." He also received a pin like the ones the freshmen wore, saying, "Majority Maker."

"Rush is as responsible for what happened here as much as anyone," said Vin Weber, a former Representative from Minnesota, now of Empower America. Citing a poll taken after the election by Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, Mr. Weber said that people who listened to 10 hours or more a week of talk radio voted Republican by a 3-to-1 margin. "Those are the people who elected the new Congress," he said...

At this point the trajectory was clear.  As traditional news networks became more and more focused on entertaining and soothing their viewers rather than alienating them with information that made them uncomfortable, the Republican party devolved further and further into a for-profit division of Conservative Media, Inc. incorporated.  

Tony Snow could go from having his own show on Fox News and being the primary guest host of Rush Limbaugh's radio program, to being George W. Bush's press secretary and no one said "boo".

Karl Rove could go from being "Bush's Brain" in the White House ...  to Wall Street Journal contributor and Fox News political analyst ... to advisor to Donald Trump's 2020 presidential campaign, without breaking stride.  

And as the language that brought the Republican customers into the tent and kept them there -- the language of  rage, racism and paranoia -- was amped up and up and up, the mainstream media kept increasing the dosage of the anesthetizing language it uses to hang onto its customers.  Over and over again, mainstream news customers are told that there is nothing to be alarmed about.  That whatever noise you might be hearing on the Right, it's just a kooky fringe, which is loud but mostly harmless, and just as loud and just as mostly harmless as the kooky fringe on the Left.  And you all are safe from all that mishegoss here beneath the sheltering bower of the Sensible Center.

And anyway, it's all just teevee.  There's nothing dangerous going on here.  No need to raise an alarm.  It's just actors changing costumes.  Everyone knows the four walls of our democracy are solid and eternal.  Everyone know the inerrant, Capraesque wisdom of the American people will always kick in during the third act and save the day, so nothing really really bad can happen here.  Things might get weird every now and then, but the stakes aren't really real life or death, so remain calm and keep shopping.  

And this dynamic goes on and on until we arrive at a place where the entire Republican party can go very publicly insane and plunge right off the cliff into out-and-out fascism...while the Great Middle of America still can't decide whether to go with Biden or Trump, because aren't both parties pretty much the same?

Never doubt that the people at the helms of the media corporations and the political party that brought us to this precipice began this project decades ago with very definite agendas in mind.  Eliminating taxes on the wealthy.  Deregulating everything.  Gutting social programs.  And for the leaders of  Conservative Media Inc., turning the Republican base into a zombie army of reprogrammable meatbags who would believe any nonsense that was shit into their skulls as long as it made them feel righteous or furious or giddy began as nothing more as a means to those ends.  

But now -- as we on the Left warned them over and over again would happen -- the leaders of  Conservative Media Inc. have lost control of the monster they made.  Now, feeding the insatiable, junkie-hunger of that rage-drunk mob has become an end in itself.  It's either feed the monster, or lose your seat in congress.  

Feed the monster, or watch your audience share drop as the mob finds someone else to tell them what they want to hear.  

Feed the monster, or they'll come for your family.   From The Washington Post:

The role of violent threats in Trump’s GOP reign, according to Republicans

Tim Alberta is out with his latest must-read this week — a profile of freshman Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.). Meijer joined Congress just days before the Capitol insurrection and almost immediately jeopardized his political career by supporting Donald Trump’s impeachment

It’s a must-read, but a tough read. That’s because it describes an exceedingly ugly situation: one in which lawmakers are disregarding private principle in their votes and often doing so out of literal fear. Not only does Meijer describe members who advocated for invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office later voting against impeachment, but he cites fears of physical violence directly impacting such votes...

This is the late stage teevee brain of the MAGA mob.  Completely immune to facts.  Lost to reason.  Unmoored from their own past.   Moved to action entirely by the ganglia-twitching trigger-words they get from the magic box.  

Meanwhile, bathed in the soothing, narcotic hum of Both Siderism, the late stage teevee brain of the mainstream media customer is barely aware that any of this is happening.  And if it is, well it can't possibly be as bad as all that...because...uh...Both Sides Both Sides Both Sides.

And finally, let's not forget that late stage teevee brain is what makes it possible for "liberal" MSNBC to run a full-time reputation laundromat for a whole menagerie of current and recently-former Republican scumbags.  For example, does anyone doubt that, sooner or later, Steve Schmidt's old friend Nicole Wallace will find a way to get his mendacious, grifting ass readmitted yet again into the circle of the Heroes of the Resistance?  Just like she has already done?   Twice?

Remember, Schmidt was the GOP mercenary that put Sarah Palin into our lives.


But then he Came to Jebus and started calling Trump a poopy head on MSNBC, and almost as one, Liberals on social media threw themselves at him like a drunk prom date.  


He loves us!  He says all these beautiful things that no one else says!  OMG, let me get my checkbook and how much should I make it out for?

And my oh my didn't these same credulous dopes loudly and angrily scold those few of us that could not fucking believe they were falling for this guy.

Then he threw all those pretty words out the window for a Howard Schultz payday.


He said he loved us?  How could he have betrayed us like that?  

But Howard Schultz show eventually closed down and once again Steve Schmidt found himself "at liberty" as the vaudevillians used to say.  

And so, once more through the MSNBC Reputation Rehab Laundry and...he's back baby!  


Spinning all those beautiful words.  Saying things that no one else has the guts to say!  OMG, do you prefer Venmo or PayPal!!

And once again, I'm over here in my little corner of the internet wondering how the hell are these otherwise intelligent mopes falling for this con man again?

Then Schmidt threw all those pretty words out the window for a Dean Philips payday.


He said he loved us?  How could he have betrayed us like this?

Schmidt could do this, because Shmidt understands late stage teevee brain.  He was a performer, playing the role of Hero of the Resistance.  The pay was good.  The hours were good.  The reviews were good.  Then he got offered a better part as Howard Schultz's political consultant.  Six weeks.  No heavy lifting.  And when that show closed, Schmidt changed back into his Hero of the Resistance costume at MSNBC.

And the late stage teevee brain was willing to go along with it because, really, it's just teevee.  So whatever parts he had played before in any other teevee drama, what did that matter?  At that moment Steve Schmidt was giving the audience the feels it craved, and that's all that mattered.

You can go right down the line at CNN and at MSNBC and watch this happening.  Joe Scarborough. Bill Kristol.  Matthew Dowd.  Michael Steele, who will now be given his own weekend show.   Liz Cheney was a performer who worked for the political division of Conservative Media, Inc. and when she played that part she repeated the horrifying, unforgivable lies about Democrats.  

Now Cheney is this month's hot property on the not-Fox News cable news and book circuit, and she's playing that part by spilling the beans about what went on behind closed door while she was the third most powerful person in the GOP.

This is why it doesn't really surprised me when I see someone like Chris Cuomo saying trash like this:

Cuomo is a media creature and he understands the various species of late stage teevee brain.  He knows that, in the long run, whatever outrageous garbage he spews today to hang into the spotlight a minute longer, it won't be a barrier to being welcomed back into the media insider club tomorrow.  A change of costume and a new script and he'll be right back in the good graces of enough credulous chumps to make it worth his while.  

After all, it's just teevee.

I Am The Liberal Media


SteveSteve said...

This is true. It's just political entertainment.

Robt said...

Dome resin that eludes me. This made me think of when the big networks decided they were going to dedicate a channel 24/7 exclusively on NRED.
Couple of their ideas for such a channel was that when big devastating events occur. Like big hurricanes, they could have the air time to cover all the catastrophe and dearth in detail coverage. Having that channel designated for such big news 24/7 that did not have to upset other channels of the networks programming.
In-between such big devastating catastrophes. The dedicated news channel could bring more reporting of stories with more time for more details and updates.

What I can tell is, they have all ended up telling the same stories of the day. The same two r three selected stories'. peated over and over 24/7 and repeated over by different news/opinion hosts.

And they still do not have time for details. They still narrow down "top" stories narrow vision and find themselves ending a segment on a news story with the words, "
we ran short on time and will have to leave it there until next time. Of course, there is never a next time.

We do not really get any foreign news unless it effects the entire nation somehow. Reports/ stories out of individual states is not reported until it breaks out like a pandemic and then, then once it is full pathogen. Then they can report the existence. Now that the pathogen has fully ran rampant.

The Tsumani'ed us with Trump reports. Did you heart what he said? Put their cameras on his empty podium until he arrived. and had a guest on that reinterpreted Trump's words take in context to try and make a two week dead fish head smell like roses somehow.
Never finishing reporting on Trump's last toilet overflow of words and going on to the latest Turd he dropped.

Point is, Think of your local paper and how it has shrank. No state house reporting on misfits and extremist proposing legislation. You will find out when it hits becomes law and kicks you in the butt. Not until then or else you might do something to stop them.

Several networks with dedicated 24/7 air time for specifically "news" finds a way to retell the same few selected stories to be told by all the channel's hosts throughout the 24/7.
They cannot report on Ukraine updates and Israel updates in a 24 hour period. The network CEO doesn't want to confuse viewers or bore them with inundated news from a news channel.

I say create a 8th day of the week to give these 24/7 news channels more time to tell us about the same three stories.
Just so they would have to change from 24/7 to 24/8 and it would Crete jobs .FOX would have an extra 24 hours Not sure if FOX could babble an extra 24 hours to lie and mislead. Even they would have to hire more writers to script more lies for the hosts.
How about you?

Fritz Strand said...

You've been knocking out of the park lately (more than usual).

The only explanation I can think of why you two don't have a vastly widen audience is you're just too smart.

Alfred Lehmberg said...

Quite simply just wonderful at all levels and indices... You and the wife are the best five dollars a month I can spend! Thank you!

Neo Tuxedo said...

Molly Ivins tried to warn us in 1987 ("Killing the Messenger", The Progressive, March '87, reprinted in Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?):

"The trouble with waking America up so rudely, after six years of letting it slumber happily in dreamland, is that we're now being greeted with all the enthusiasm reserved for a loud alarm clock that goes off much too soon. 'Ah, shaddap!' 'Turn it off!' 'Throw it at the cat!'
"And when the going gets tough for the press in America, the press fudges, the press jellies. That's what we're doing now. We are retreating to a fine old American press cop-out we like to call objectivity. Russell Baker once described it: 'In the classic example, a refugee from Nazi Germany who appears on television saying monstrous things are happening in his homeland must be followed by a Nazi spokesman saying Adolf Hitler is the greatest boon to humanity since pasteurized milk. Real objectivity would require not only hard work by news people to determine which report was accurate, but also a willingness to put up with the abuse certain to follow publication of an objectively formed judgment. To escape the hard work or the abuse, if one man says Hitler is an ogre, we instantly give you another to say Hitler is a prince. A man says the rockets won't work? We give you another who says they will.
"'The public may not learn much about these fairly sensitive matters, but neither does it get another excuse to denounce the media for unfairness and lack of objectivity. In brief, society is teeming with people who become furious if told what the score is.'
"The American press has always had a tendency to assume that the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press presents the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its journalistic duty.
"This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject. Thus we see, night after night, on MacNeil/Lehrer or Nightline, people who don't know jack-shit about Iran or Nicaragua or arms control, but who are ready to tear up the peapatch in defense of the proposition that Ronald Reagan is a Great Leader beset by comsymps. They have nothing to offer in the way of facts or insight; they are presented as a way of keeping the networks from being charged with bias by people who are themselves replete with bias and resistant to fact. The justification for putting them on the air is that 'they represent a point of view.'
"The odd thing about these television discussions designed to 'get all sides of the issue' is that they do not feature a spectrum of people with different views on reality. Rather, they frequently give us a face-off between those who see reality and those who have missed it entirely. In the name of objectivity, we are getting fantasyland."

Mr XD said...

Great piece of writing there brother. Thank you . The story about Bonanza shook loose a memory from 1969 or thereabouts. I had imbibed a dab of psilocybin of an evening and wandered over to my neighbors place to see what was shakin. They had an episode of Bonanza on the TV so I joined them in the glow of the tube. It was some standard western plot about self-reliance, fences and bootstraps. I never considered the show more than light entertainment, but that night I saw it as pure capitalist propaganda. That altered perception gave me a lens with which to view the media landscape that I still employ.

Anonymous said...

Any chance you could let my comment get published? It's not the most urgent request ever, but...


Anonymous said...

Thanks! Yer a pal!

I liked the other one better. It lavished praise and credit where it was due. But I'm not complaining! I've been leaving them but this is the first one to make the grade.

Thanks again!