Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sweeps, God and Governance

By Daniel Gale-Grogen

The suits at KFOR, Oklahoma City's NBC affiliate, could be a little more subtle about their deeply entrenched devotion to consultants. While it cannot be proved without the compliance of a mole in either the station's promotions or news departments, a consultant clearly informed the station that its road to dominance in Nielsen "sweeps" periods was a, shall we say, divine path.

But this pandering to viewers' soft spots finds its equal in those who are planning legislation, referenda and talking points for the run-up to the November mid-term elections. The mobilization of National Guard troops along the Mexican border? It's really no different from having Madonna walk on for some slap-happy hijinks on "Will & Grace."

For those without a passing knowledge of sweeps, it is the period when the television industry and A.C. Nielsen measure viewership and thereby determine advertising rates for individual programs. What has evolved from this focus on February, May, July and November is an unhealthy reliance on stunts, which means wacky guest-stars on sit-coms, awkward made-for-television movies about the bird flu, and local television news ratcheting up its shrillness.

This often takes the form of "fill-in-the-blank can kill you" stories on everyday consumer goods like lipstick or bottled water, or involves dropping a car into a lake, a ravine, a vat of meat by-products or straight into the ground to illustrate what happens "when seconds count." It can involve the dating habits of local radio personalities or the terror that awaits your children outside your heavily fortified front door. But this month at KFOR, the abiding concern has been with all things God.

When one subject becomes polyglot, it becomes obvious that a consultant is turning the knobs. "You know what people in Oklahoma City love? No, not Tex-Mex food and gated communities -- they love God and God accessories. You get on the right side of God, and the ratings shall be bountiful, verily I say unto you!"

But instead of serious stories on religion, KFOR indulged in Godsploitation during the nearly-completed sweeps. The 10 p.m. Monday edition concentrated on "Holy Spirits" -- sightings of heavenly orbs or Casper or Slimer or some such nonsense in some photos taken in a Texas church. But that was only one in a series of super-special God stories. The station ran stories on "Religiously Transmitted Diseases" (the subject of a local pastor's book on misconceptions among the faithful), "Dying for God" (a package on a Cushing, Oklahoma, congregation that does not believe in basic medication, and that God heals everything), "House of God" (church services taking place in private homes), the self-explanatory "Angels on Tape," and "Rebels With a Cross," a story about skate-punks for Jesus.

This has been an ongoing theme during KFOR sweeps for some time, but never has it reached the intensity and frequency that the May "Jesus Sweeps" achieved. Then, as soon as the ratings period ends, so does the Godsploitation. KFOR gets what it wants from the Christians, and then it's back to house fires and the 4-Warn Storm Tracker.

The bizarre part comes when government begins acting like a local news team stunting for ratings. In the coming months, we'll see congressional votes, ballot initiatives or just a rhetoric free-for-all on a gay marriage ban amendment, tax cuts, flag burning and limits on stem-cell research, along with the current bugaboo on everyone's minds, immigration.

But while television ratings stunts amount mainly to cheap thrills, election sweeps stunts tend to fray our political fabric. Cynical political gamesmanship turns real-life problems and issues into talking points, and the discourse invariably gets dumbed down into the kind of parlor game, in which the powers that be try to confuse the electorate sufficiently that they'll just throw up their hands and vote for the incumbent, or the latest "American Idol" winner or something. As Iggy Pop once sang, "Well that's like hypnotizing chickens."

Reuters quotes White House spokesperson Maria Tamburri as saying that President George W. Bush assured Mexico President Vicente Fox that "the United States considers Mexico a friend and that what is being considered is not militarization of the border, but support of border patrol capabilities on a temporary basis by National Guard personnel."

Temporary? You bet. Just like a full month of "Desperate Housewives" without reruns or KFOR's love of "Jesus On a Tortilla" stories, once the election/sweeps period is over, it's back to business as usual. But as long as it guarantees high ratings/turnout of the political base, well then, "mission accomplished."


At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Brett said...

Excellent. Spot-on, and giving food for thought about how modern "news" media may actually depend on these political versions of sweeps weeks to give them something to natter about.

At 9:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

and what was their most hyped GOd story of the sweeps? Days and days of urging viewers to pray for one of their reporters to recover. He didn't.


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