The Artless Industry

Corporate squeamishness in the face of “real news” from Lowell Bergman, or directives to follow the ratings, though, don’t just abound in narratives about news. Rather, if one message resounded across every film we watched about television, it is that television is first, foremost, and often only a business, and an utterly artless one at that.

We see this first in the starring role that “the ratings” and other metrics play in most films about television. Repeatedly, the ratings work as a primary plot motor. EdTV’s various plot turns, for instance, are mostly set into motion by dipping or soaring ratings, leading up to Ed’s criticism near the end that “ratings are most important.” Morning Glory moves as its ratings (or as YouTube viewer numbers) move. “Whatever it takes,” an executive offers as something of a motto, “just get the ratings up.” Death to Smoochy’s characters lurch where the ratings go, and Showtime’s premise—a buddy cop reality show—also relies on a plan to raise the network’s ratings. Nightcrawler’s protagonist tries to blackmail a woman into dating him because, he claims, he’s raised her show’s ratings. The TV Set’s network exec Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) describes a harrowing near-death experience that led her to believe she had to live life to the fullest ... by fighting to win the ratings war on Thursday nights. Be-witched’s romantic comedy, meanwhile, hits its crisis point when Will Ferrell’s Jack Wyatt discovers not only that his test scores are horrible but that those for Nicole Kidman’s Isabel are sublime. The scene in which Jack explodes in rage and jealousy is notable, too, for echoing a similar jealous explosion from Will Ferrell in the previous year’s Anchorman. Veronica’s (Christina Applegate) first show as anchor brings in a two-point ratings boost, she is made permanent co-anchor, and Ferrell’s Ron—like his fellow narcissist Jack—cannot take the humiliation. Once again, then, a lower rating is seen as a challenge to a narcissist’s pathetic sense of manhood, and once again it becomes the crisis point in a romance. Then Anchorman 2 includes bets over ratings success, character hirings and firings due to ratings, and ultimately Ron and Veronica’s triumphant ending is marked by them receiving the channel’s highest ever ratings. Or in Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, ratings are invoked to signal both a moment of unravelling for its titular character, and his triumphant “comeback.” In a dream sequence, Dickie tells some children a “horror story” of what he calls “The Day the Sitcom Got Cancelled,” noting that since “the ratings [were] at a six-year low,” his show was canceled, and his life was turned upside down. At the film’s conclusion, though, Dickie’s new sitcom gets amazing ratings, signaling his return and recovery. Across the films we saw, many other premises, crises, plot turns, and triumphs follow ratings.

Yet the ratings are never the only vestiges of an industry. Pitch meetings are also common, especially since several of these films revolve around the bizarre premise of their diegetic shows, and thus especially since the pitch meeting serves as a convenient plot device to explain that premise to audiences. Whether it’s Welcome to Me’s autobiographical talk show, Showtime’s reality buddy cop drama, EdTV’s reality show following one man, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’s interest in The Dating Game (1965-1973), Cinema Verite’s fictionalized account of An American Family (1973), Bewitched’s reboot of Bewitched (1964-1972) with Darren at the center, Little Black Book’s talk show focus on all of a character’s exes, or The Show’s reality show about people committing suicide, pitches feature prominently. The TV Set adds primers on multiple other aspects of the television industry, including testing, the upfronts and ad buying, and it even opens with an animated sequence that explains pilot season.

More generally, many of these films exist precisely to mock the industry. Broadcast News and Network most famously lampoon the excesses of television news, and while neither The Insider nor Anchorman or Anchorman 2 is satire (the former a gritty drama, the latter two silly comedies), all three take aim at the television news industry at regular points, as does Morning Glory as light satire and as do 15 Minutes’ and Nightcrawler’s attacks on tabloid news. Little Black Book and Welcome to Me both charge talk shows with being exploitative genres that profit off their participants’ (or, in the case of the latter, host’s) misery. Game shows are criticized in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Quiz Show, Slumdog Millionaire, The Running Man (1987), and Deathrow Gameshow (1987). Bewitched and The TV Set mock the process of sitcom production. And reality television in its various forms is subject to heavy attack—as will be discussed more later— by EdTV, The Truman Show, The Show, and Showtime. Central to the attack or critique of all the above-listed films is that the shows allow business “needs” and desires to trump ethics, humanity, or a sense of caring about people. Even if some of these films have “good people” in them, who fight for a better way and see the ills of the business, the system itself is clearly one of cold, profitcentered, dehumanizing apathy.

Take The Truman Show, for example. Truman (Jim Carrey), we learn, was quite literally born into a reality show, his birth broadcast and a manufactured environment set up around him thereafter. Everyone around him is an actor; everything is part of a set. He lives in a dome, where the sun can be switched on or off, storms started at the flip of a switch. None of his relationships are real, inasmuch as everyone is hired, scripted, and can be removed at speed if need be. The movie follows his burgeoning realization that the life around him is fake, and his attempt to escape, but the force he must fight is the business interest of The Truman Channel in keeping him. Or, The Show offers another dystopian vision of the television industry eschewing ethics and decency simply to get viewers and make money. A dating reality show turns especially dark when, on camera, one contestant shoots the man who rejected her, then tries to kill the woman he chose, only for the host (Josh Duhamel) to jump in the way of the bullet and for her to take her own life. Excited, not appalled, by the buzz created by this event, the producers hire the now-hero host to lead a new show in which people commit suicide on live television. Although the host agrees to the job with visions of handling the suicides respectfully, he soon loses his way, at one point encouraging someone who was reconsidering their decision to indeed go ahead with it. Or, losing any subtlety is The Running Man, with its vision of a futuristic game show in which characters race through a variety of challenges, killing each other along the way, a premise off which The Hunger Games later more famously riffed.

And yet if the pursuit of ratings at any ethical cost is one charge laid against television, a persistent hucksterism in filling its shows with ads is another. The Truman Show often depicts Truman’s wife delivering product pitches to the camera, or plays with characters gently moving a conversation so that it can take place in front of an ad. In the similar EdTV, ads instead run along the bottom chyron of the show. Welcome to Me opens with an ad playing on television. The annoying centrality of ads to television produces many acerbic jokes across the other films too. Harrison Ford’s journalist Mike Pomeroy, for instance, complains to executives in Morning Glory that “You want me to pander so you can sell erectile dysfunction medication.” On Little Black Book, where workers at the Kippie Kann Show brand many things with alliterative k’s, they jokingly note a need to be aware of “kommercial koncerns.” And a character on Death to Smoochy offers the instruction that “This is network television, not a sprout farm. You’re here to sell sugar and plastic,” as the show is framed as existing solely to sell its own merchandise.

Other costs and budgetary restrictions are featured across the films too. Cinema Write’s executives are shown to be remarkably concerned about “burning through film” by filming a family’s everyday lives. Welcome to Me sees Alice complain about the low quality of her show, leading to a brief lesson on how expensive television is to produce, and thus a call for her to kick in even more to her self-funded show. In EdTIf in response to a character’s question whether the station did any research on Ed prior to placing him on television, another responds, “Research? We don’t have money for coffee filters.” Or The Insider, as noted above, centers on the real-life case of 60 Minutes’ reporting on tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. The item is cut because CBS fears legal reprisal from tobacco giant Brown and Williamson, at a point in time when Westinghouse is about to purchase CBS, and hence when an expensive lawsuit could jeopardize the sale. And for all its comedy and espionage, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’s tale of game show host Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) working for the CIA similarly seeds a lot of information and commentary about the business and finances of television production. One can, indeed, learn quite a lot about the television industry as an industry, and about its various pressures, from watching these films.

Admittedly, these films are not alone, as television regularly echoes the same criticisms. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, 30 Rock, UnREAL, and a slate of other shows about television have satirized television’s financial imperatives. What we see as salient, though, is not so much that these films attack along these lines, but rather that they only attack. Missing from almost all of these films is anyone who considers their job an art. A rare exception, The Truman Show's diegetic creator Christof (Ed Harris) may be dressed in all black, wearing a beret, and affecting a stereotypical artist style, with the name to boot, but the joke is that his “art” is someone’s life. Wide-eyed optimism and belief in a better way are allowed in films about journalism, but those films focusing on entertainment staunchly refuse to see that entertainment as art—it is simply a business of giving audiences what they want, keeping advertisers happy, staying within budget.

Another exception is to be found in The TV Set’s protagonist Mike Klein (David Duchovny), yet his journey is one of capitulation to the industry’s artless and crass desires. Klein is writing a more soulful sitcom about a character whose brother committed suicide. Network exec Lenny worries constantly that this will be too depressing for audiences, and she and others force him to make compromise after compromise. Lenny spits out scornfully that Mike’s show is “just so fucking artsy and smart” and announces “original scares me a little. You don’t wanna be too original.” Mike’s legitimacy as artist, by contrast, is signaled by and tied to his love of film, as a key point of contention in the plot is that his manager hasn’t seen Taxi Driver (or “The Taxi Driver” as she calls it). Despite his desire not to “pump shit into people’s living rooms,” since his family needs the money he nevertheless allows his show to be transformed, even becoming the agent of transformation at one point by challenging his director’s choice to focus the camera on a homeless man passing by during one scene of dialogue—a choice that is described as filmic and artistic, and hence one that has no room on television, Mike intuits. By the film’s end, Mike rationalizes that the history of television (not, we note, of Hollywood more broadly) is full of “thousands” of examples of others similarly sacrificing their visions in order to produce a successful show. His cerebral dramatic sitcom Wexler Chronicles thus ends up the broad comedy Call Me Crazy!

Especially notable across the 34 films in our sample is that none focus on scripted drama production or producers—instead we see news programs, reality shows, game shows, talk shows, kids shows, morning shows, and the rare sitcom. The TV Set comes closest with a dramatic sitcom, but even that is killed at speed. We share others’ critique of a vision of television that sees art only in “quality drama” (see, for instance, Newman and Levine 2011). But given how widely quality drama is talked of as the most artistic genre in television, and given that most insistences of how “TV is now better than film” reel off a long list of dramas or high-concept sitcoms, we find it telling that the drama, its writers, and its producers are wholly absent from the cinematic portrayal of television. Perhaps the increasing traffic of writers moving between film and scripted drama television left these individuals less keen to satirize their own field, to bite a hand that feeds them, but this increasing traffic should also allow such writers plenty of material and familiarity.

Here, we must then contrast films about television to films about film. Numerous films about film, admittedly, have been eager to satirize the movie industry, meaning there is no contrasting lack of focus on film as also being beholden to metrics, presumed-to-be base desires from audiences, witless producers and “suits” who get in the way, and other trappings of an industry. However, alongside these films are many that focus either completely on film as an art, or that seed these stories about The Industry with artists seeking a better way. Film is full of love letters to film, in short. Movies about movies specialize in offering us struggling, presumed-to-be brilliant artists, and often celebrate the act of picking up a camera. Witness, for instance, Super 8’s romantic embrace of filmmaking. Even genres of film that are regularly derided, that could lay themselves open to brutal satire, are often depicted with a great deal of love, as in Boonie Nights’ depiction of the 1970s porn industry, Be Kind Rewind’s, focus on fan film, or Hide’s depiction of the making of a low-budget science fiction film designed simply to allow spies access to Iran. We also see no shortage of biopics about filmmakers and actors—see for example The Aviator, Hitchcock, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, My Week with Marilyn, Saving Mr. Banks, or Walt Before Mickey. And even two of the more prominent satires of filmmaking, The Player and Hollywood Ending, are so filled with stars, nudges, and winks that they are as much celebrations and loving embraces of filmmaking as they are criticisms of it.

Granted, we should expect to see filmmakers write valentines to their craft, so the plethora of such films does not surprise us. However, we first note the contrast that whereas television scripts regularly see “the craft” or “the industry” as a merged Hollywood containing film and television, film valentines are to filmmaking alone. Second, we note a stark contrast between film’s apparent inability to show respect or love for television (outside its journalists) and television’s own willingness to shower film with love. To draw but two of many examples, both Watchmen (2019) and Stranger Things 3 (2019) open with characters excited to go to and to be in a cinema, the latter incorporating the experience of attending a cinema with one’s adolescent friends into its general nostalgic embrace of 1980s media culture. Both scenes sour as threats interrupt the respective films, but in doing so they rely on and recirculate a notion that a movie theater should be a safe space, a glorious escape from the harsh realities of the world outside. To boot, the titles that identify Stranger Things 3 as such (rather than Stranger Things, Season 3) exude a nostalgia for the excesses of film sequelization. Instead of a critique of the film industry’s willingness to squeeze good ideas dry, the film sequel is invoked as something beloved to be emulated by television. Third, regardless of whether it is fair or not to ask for film to depict television as an art, we are left with an abundance of valentines to film across both media, yet a dearth of respect for television artistry on film, producing a lop-sided discursive record.

Television on film is only an industry. All the artists, we are led to believe, are on sound stages elsewhere in Hollywood working on films, or sitting on a friend’s futon writing the next great film. Television has a few noble journalists, but no artists. The lone biopic in our sample is a fictionalized account of Chuck Barris, who is framed as an oddity (creator of The Dating Game and rumored to be a spy) rather than as a master of the form. Television’s fiction, moreover, is largely seen to exist in manipulation—on quiz shows that are staged (such as Quiz Show), or on reality shows that don’t show us all the reality (such as The Show)—rather than in scripted dramas. Even scripted sitcoms hardly exist in this filmic world, limited to Bewitched, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, The TV Set, and Pleasantville (none of which see much artistry in the genre, no less). Television documentary is also entirely missing, as are made-for-TV movies. Film’s version of television allows for journalism, reality shows, game shows, talk shows, kids shows, and morning shows, but is conspicuously selective in a way that opens the door wide for industrial and ethical critique, while shutting the door to the possibility of art, creativity, and beauty. When television is “good,” therefore, it is journalism, since nothing like Watchmen, When They See Us (2019), Pose (2018-), Unbelievable (2019), or other narratives that ask audiences to engage thoughtfully with social injustice are anywhere to be seen in the celluloid version of television.

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