We want our Bubba TV
May 12, 2002
He’s baaack! Just when we thought ex-President Bill Clinton had vanished into the back streets of Harlem, he reappeared on the national stage as the potential host of a television talk show.
What did we do to deserve such a fate?
It certainly isn’t surprising that this most self-centered and self-indulgent of our former presidents wants to strut his stuff on national TV. But at least one network executive had reservations about the presidential talk show. “How could he be an interviewer?” he asked. “He only wants to hear himself talk.” That’s easily resolved, however; Clinton could sit in front of a mirror and interview himself on Bubba TV.
Time magazine columnist James Poniewozik commented on the multi-million-dollar project as follows in an open letter to the former president: “Your Middle East peace efforts crumbled. Your health care plan vanished with grunge rock. But now you can build on your most lasting legacy: obliterating the line between politics and entertainment.”
Poniewozik advised Clinton to ignore critics who say that hosting a talk show would be undignified. “Their idea that you would sacrifice your remaining dignity misses the central lesson of your presidency: dignity is overrated,” he wrote. After all, the columnist noted, this is the politician who serenaded us on Arsenio, talked about his underwear on MTV and constantly emoted at televised town meetings during a presidency that seemed like one interminable talk show.
For Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, “There is a delicious symmetry in Bill Clinton’s exploring the idea of a daytime syndicated talk show — the man who brought Oprah-style psychobabble and misty confessions to politics taking the next step and actually transmogrifying into Oprah.”
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Of course all of this was perfectly predictable once we learned that Clinton was accompanied to his meetings with NBC executives by TV producer Harry Thomason, the Hollywood drama coach who taught the ex-president how to project lip-biting “sincerity” in public appearances. Some of you will recall that Thomason’s coaching produced Clinton’s famous “I did not have sex with that woman” speech, one of the TV highlights of his messy presidency.
We knew that the line between news and entertainment had been obliterated when Disney-owned ABC toyed with the idea of replacing Ted Koppel’s venerable “Nightline” program with comedian David Letterman. In network TV, everything now revolves around the bottom line as determined by the bean-counters at Disney, General Electric and Viacom, which own the three major broadcast networks. These myopic executives are already thinking about dropping nightly newscasts when the current “Big Three” anchors — CBS’s Dan Rather, 70; ABC’s Peter Jennings, 64, and NBC’s Tom Brokaw, 62 — finally decide to retire. Chances are they’ll eventually be replaced by Bubba TV.
“When Brokaw, Jennings and Rather retire, it is a perfect time for these corporations to decide their newscasts are no longer worth it,” said Ken Bode, a former NBC correspondent who teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, in an interview with the Washington Post.
“Unless something dramatic happens,” he added, “inevitably, the network newscasts are gone.” So instead of Dan, Peter, Ted and Tom, we’ll be left with Maury, Oprah, Rosie and Bill. Think about it. No wonder so many viewers are turning to cable networks like Fox and CNN for news.
According to Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, “The broadcast networks are increasingly ceding their news franchises to the cable networks, especially during such events as political conventions and presidential debates, when they can make more money carrying sitcoms or baseball.”
Kurtz reported on a study by the Pew Research Center, which found that after Sept. 11, nine of 10 Americans were getting their news primarily from television — 45 percent of them from cable and only 30 percent of them from broadcast networks. Fox News president Roger Ailes told the Post that cable uses a more informal style than the “star-driven” network newscasts, where anchors are paid between $7 million and $10 million per year, and more if you’re cute like Katie Couric.
Former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, 85, once “the most trusted man in America,” believes that shrinking nightly news audiences are the fault of network programmers. “Nobody’s asked me … but I think the networks ought to be doing the headlines … and no features,” he commented to Kurtz. “Drop that ‘Your Pocketbook and Mine,’ ‘Your Beauty and Mine’ (and) ‘Your Garbage Can and Mine.'” To understand what Cronkite is saying, just watch any of our local TV channels, where half the newscast consists of pure fluff ranging from cooking demonstrations to lotteries promoting network sitcoms. The news has become an after-thought.
Which brings us back to Bubba TV. According to the Times’ Ms. Dowd, NBC turned down a $50 million Clinton/Thomason talk show proposal as the former president piously announced that he didn’t want “to sink to the level of the lurid real-life drama cherished by the networks.”
As Ms. Dowd observed, it seems that trashy Saturday Night Bill wants to be high-minded Sunday Morning Bill on talk TV. But, she asked, how is he going to do that now that he’s prowling around the world, dining with celebrities and partying with jet-setting socialites? Her conclusion: “Let Bill be Bill — on cable.”
Who knows? Perhaps our former president will be the next Ozzy Osbourne. I can hardly wait.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.