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DISH and Dat 

Vivendi’s Jean-Marie Messier, PBS’s Charlie Rose, MSNBC’s Alan Keyes and the Beeb’s (fictional) Roy Mallard

Wednesday, Jan 30 2002
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If the president appeared on The Charlie Rose Show, would he be received as warmly as the average media titan? I doubt it. In the hierarchy of Charlie‘s guests, those who stuff our entertainment pipelines with goodies reign supreme. As the latest supernova to blaze into the Murdoch-Eisner-Bertelsmann-AOLTime-Warner galaxy, Jean-Marie Messier, the chairman and CEO of Vivendi Universal, was bound to receive the full measure of Rose’s warmth last week, and did so. “Not since Napoleon,” quoth Charlie from Business Week, “has France produced an empire builder as ambitious as he is.” And then the two men dissolved in mutually appreciative back-slapping laughter. Friends. Buddies. Titans.

I tuned in to hear more about Messier‘s plans for satellite TV, something he’s become heavily involved in since Vivendi poured $1.5 billion into EchoStar, which owns DISH Network, one of whose many satellite dishes was screwed to my chimney recently by a guy called Joe. An independent contractor hired by an independent contractor hired by DISH, Joe seemed like a decent guy, but shortly after he left, I realized that the Personal Video Recorder he‘d installed was a cheap knockoff of the TiVo box and that I really should have gone with DirecTV. By then it was too late: I was locked into DISH for 12 months, and the operators at the 800 number were, to put it mildly, unsympathetic when I requested a cancellation of my order.

So last week, resigned to my enforced status as a DISH customer, I took my now unneeded cable box to AT&T’s office on Cahuenga Boulevard, where the line stretched out the door. About half the people were there to pay bills, and the rest, like me, had come to return a variety of inscrutable black boxes and other forms of techno-garbage. The office of America‘s most venerable telecommunications company was only slightly larger than a trailer and operated by drones whose connection to the AT&T familiar to us from advertisements seemed notional at best.

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Had the company’s offices been in some swank postmodern skyscraper with well-compensated, sleekly uniformed workers manning the monitors, you‘d have felt as if you had a right to complain about the service. But by setting up shop in a shack, and sticking someone whose socks probably needed darning in front of every flickering screen, AT&T had neatly turned any potential customer complaint into an act of cruelty. One man did finally protest, but there was no response either from the AT&T representatives or the people around him. Shut off from each other, the only thing for us to do was to stare at the TV screens and give thanks for that electronic heaven in which old Hollywood movies, international soccer matches and thousands of programming options are forever on tap. And the more brightly that heaven shines, it occurred to me, the dingier will be the reality on the ground -- the shoddier the offices, the longer the lines, the more disenfranchised and downtrodden the employees.

No such reality intruded on Rose’s conversation with Messier, of course, which was of the visionary gee-whiz variety. Though he speaks with a heavy Gallic accent, Messier is a thoroughly globalized Frenchman who has mastered every cliche to have emerged from corporate America in the last 20 years, along with some English ones (“At ze end of ze day, Charlie . . .”). Looking like a less-manic Robin Williams, he spoke smoothly of beaming Eminem and Dr. Dre through our cell phones, and movies, music and games through everything else. But why it takes forever to get someone from DISH on the phone, and why they hang up on you as soon as you voice a complaint, wasn‘t discussed. DISH is a good deal, of course -- the amount of stuff available on satellite TV is fairly amazing -- but it’s notable how the ever-increasing magic of technology is accompanied by the ever-shabbier treatment of the people paying for it, as anyone who has been on a plane recently will know. All in all, subscribing to DISH network isn‘t much different from sneaking around the corner to buy pot. There’s no office, there‘s no return policy worthy of the name, and you don’t know what you‘ve got until you’ve smoked it.

Having done my share of interviewing over the years, I was ideally suited to appreciate People Like Us, a BBC mockumentary series about the middle-class workplace that had me laughing, howling and finally emitting strange gagging noises alone in my living room shortly before midnight. Two episodes (“The Estate Agent” and “The Managing Director”) from the original 12-part series were shown on BBC America last Saturday, and two more will be shown this weekend. If they‘re anything like the first two, they may be the funniest things you see on television all year.

Among other things, People Like Us is about the inherent absurdity of a complete stranger (Roy Mallard, played by comedy veteran Chris Langham) stumbling into other people’s lives, asking them questions and then presuming to make sense of it all. In short, it‘s about journalism. The humor lies not only in this particular journalist’s spectacular incompetence, but also in the way his subjects keep displacing his agenda with their own internecine warfare, sexual gamesmanship and emotional turmoil. Not that Mallard really has an agenda, or even an idea. Raised in the Church of the Beeb, he simply believes that by showing up at an office building with a camera and a microphone he will coax into being a meaningful documentary about the contemporary workplace.

We never see Mallard, who, in traditional documentary fashion, remains offscreen. We only hear him -- diffident, muddled, bored -- and to hear Mallard is to know him. Verbally, he has two gears. The first is purely phatic -- “Um, yes,” he‘ll say. “Er, no.” “Right.” “It’s a lovely day. I love hedges” -- but the second has ambitions. A past master of the insight that, on closer inspection, turns out to be a nonsensical cliche, Mallard is capable of describing London‘s Heathrow as “a self-contained city with all the facilities and infrastructure a city requires, including its own airport.” Interviewing is always problematic. “So what does a typical day consist of for you?” he asks an executive in “The Managing Director.” “Well, there’s really no such thing as a typical day,” comes the reply. “Right, well what does an untypical day consist of then?” Mallard responds.

“In the end, it‘s not about houses. It’s about people like us,” Mallard intones hollowly at the close of “The Estate Agent,” although nothing in the film (about a small real estate agency that is what Mallard might term a “lukewarm hotbed” of fractured sentences, disruptive computers and sexual scheming) supports his claim. Substitute the word politics for houses, however, and you‘ll have hit on a motto for Alan Keyes Is Making Sense, the bizarre new political chat show (airing Monday through Thursday evenings on MSNBC) that sports a regular segment called “People Just Like You.”

When he ran for president in 1996, Keyes was an anomalous, speed-talking African-American Republican firebrand, but for his TV show he’s gone all cute ‘n’ cuddly. But no matter how nice he tries to be, he can‘t do anything about his uniquely chilling smile, which sparkles from the screen like a warlock’s curse. Even his Cosbyesque sweater is strangely sinister, and the show itself plays like a fireside chat with damp, hissing logs.

One got a sense of the man during a segment on 911. Sequestered with a group of painfully “ordinary” citizens breathing sweet reason through every pore, Keyes got them to talk about 911 in the customary way: It was evil, it was a sneak attack, innocents were slaughtered, etc. Obvious, but true. Staging a nifty sneak attack of his own, Keyes then turned the entire discussion around. The date he had in mind, it turned out, wasn‘t 911 but 122, the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade -- which just happened to be the day the program aired. It now became clear that the September attacks were a conversational Trojan horse in which Keyes had hidden the real subject of discussion, namely abortion. If it was evil for Islamic terrorists to slaughter innocent Americans, he demanded of his guests, then wasn’t it equally evil for Americans to slaughter the innocent unborn?

Whatever you think about abortion, there was something so underhanded about this approach you never wanted to watch the show again. But time wounds all heels, as Groucho Marx said, and no doubt I‘ll be back for more.

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