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The Empire of the Air

A friend of mine, asked once what he wanted out of life, replied, “I want to be entertained.” This was an amusing thing to say, but he wasn’t kidding, and he wasn‘t alone. After a long day under the fluorescent lights, many if not most of us would rather be entertained than entertain ourselves (or anyone else), and are happy enough to pick and choose from whatever’s on the menu. (“I‘ll have an hour of Ally McBeal, with half an hour of Jeopardy! to start, and a side of Moesha.”) Questioning the why and wherefore of what’s available is just more work -- a hassle! -- and pointless in any practical sense. Which is why the big, the huge, the epochal news that -- subject to the now-usual FCC rubber-stamping and a couple of other low hurdles -- CBS and Viacom will become one sprawling entity in what Viacom accurately calls the “largest media transaction ever” won‘t have given most of us more than a moment’s pause; few will have paused at all.

Should you care? Should you quail? If all you want is your MTV, don‘t worry, baby. There will still be “entertainment,” still be television, even on that day when every network, every channel, every publisher and Web site, whatever its superficial coloration, is in corporate terms identical -- a day not so very far off, perhaps, given the rage for deregulation up on the Palatine (a rage often described as an “atmosphere,” as if, like the weather, there were nothing possible to do about it). “Our union will be king,” declared Viacom’s sprightly 76-year-old chairman and CEO Sumner Redstone, who, speaking of kings, will personally hold two-thirds of the new entity‘s voting stock, and who plans to “control the company forever.” “My objective is that every American will be touched in some way by a Viacom product every day of their lives,” he said on another occasion, and with a megacorp that includes Paramount Pictures, Paramount Television, CBS, UPN, the MTV Networks (including Nickelodeon and TVLand), Showtime, Blockbuster Video, Simon & Schuster, SonicNet.com, Famous Music Publishing (with copyrights ranging from “Thanks for the Memory” to “Army of Me”), 34 television and five times as many radio stations, five theme parks and all the Richard Scarry merchandise you could possibly imagine, to hardly render a full accounting, this is not impossible. Empire is not too strong a word. Alexander the Great was no stranger to vertical integration.

There are things to be said for a well-run empire -- better roads, fewer brigands, something else probably. But the most benevolent, least visible dictatorship is still basically coercive, and I find it interesting, though not surprising -- notwithstanding Viacom’s whimsical aside that “the merger should also serve the public interest by helping to sustain the continued vitality of free and universal broadcasting” -- that the happy talk from the prospective partners revolves not around what good effect this merger may have on the quality or diversity of their product, but rather on the number of commercials they can attach to it, and the number of people they can sell it to. What Redstone and Mel Karmazin, his little friend at CBS, are building for their stockholders and themselves is a Giant Advertising Machine, designed not only to sell the soap and automobiles and beer of other giant machines, but, with cross-promotions and collaborations and come-ons disguised as content, to continually magnify itself, until, ideally, it occupies your entire field of vision. (The bigger they are, the bigger they get.) Granted, the newspaper whose ink is this minute staining your fingers is another such machine, albeit a small and simple one; it exists at least as much to sell you irrigated colons, movie tickets and phone sex as it does to critique the culture and influence your vote. But the pot‘s no less black for having that pointed out by the kettle. You are a target; you have been colonized. Soylent Green is people, the Matrix is now. Well may you ask: Who is the consumer and who the consumed?

Allen Funt died. The man who, with Candid Camera, made voyeurism acceptable and taught the world that “It’s fun to laugh at yourself It‘s a tonic tried and true It’s fun to look at yourself As other people do,” Funt was the spiritual father not only of America‘s Funniest Home Videos (CC without the middleman) but of 2020 hidden-camera sting ops, the Rodney King tape and everything else on television that shows or purports to show “real people” in extraordinary circumstances. Like Ralph Edwards and Art Linkletter, he was an impresario of the hoi polloi, of the might-be-anyone, life-size individual; and indeed, TV, for all that it is overwhelmingly the private reserve of men like Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner, is at the same time more than any other medium the People’s. The people are all over it, all day -- on its quiz programs, its dating games, its “courtroom” and complaint shows, on Cops and Jerry Springer and The Real World. Not that the people necessarily profit by it: If Candid Camera laughed with its victims, the current run of tabloid and talk shows implies a nation of nutjobs, while series TV, to the extent it bothers with them at all, largely reduces those who live between the coasts, outside the cities and below the middle class to Hazzard Dukes, Deputy Fifes and Waitress Flos.

It is left to documentarians to amplify the less strident small voices. PBS, HBO and its cousin Cinemax are the most welcoming venues for such films as Stephen Ives and Michael Kantor‘s charming Cornerstone (airing on the splinter channel HBO Signature), in which a few dozen ordinary citizens, solid and soiled, recruited from a dozen American very small small towns become actors and crew in the Cornerstone Theater Company’s 10,000-mile pro-am tour of a multicultural Americanized musical version of Shakespeare‘s The Winter’s Tale. The film is a kind of kindlier, real-life Waiting for Guffman that recalls also Jonathan Demme‘s community-theater comedy Who Am I This Time? and any movie in which a show is put on in a barn; but it also touches upon -- one might say eavesdrops upon -- matters of race, class, sex, love, age, faith, family, ambition and responsibility: the world in a chartered bus. The film focuses on three players: a 42-year-old West Virginia waitress and mother; a young ex-con from Mississippi; and a North Dakota laborer with a drinking problem. These descriptions will have perhaps started (even finished) a picture in your mind. But none of them are that simple; they are, like anyone, deep, slippery and surprising.

“I guess I just want people to know me,” says Wanda Daniels, the West Virginian, “that I have something to stand up and be proud for . . . to let people see that I’m not just a dumb waitress or a dizzy blonde . . . and I guess to prove something to myself. I don‘t know what.” Whether or not you buy the Cornerstone company’s central tenet that Everyone Is an Artist -- although, even here, not everyone is a star -- the film makes a good case for art as a fulcrum of social empowerment, cross-cultural understanding and, especially, as personal opportunity: a lens to see the world, a mirror to see oneself in it, a light by which to be seen.

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