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The Nation : New Media Merger (Yawn), But Does Anything Change?

July 10, 1994|Todd Gitlin | Todd Gitlin, a professor at sociology at UC Berkeley, is the author of "Inside Prime Time" (Pantheon). His most recent book is "The Murder of Albert Einstein (Bantam)

BERKELEY — Not a month goes by without a big corporate move in the powerhouses of media--whereupon the news media dutifully ogle the moguls and declare that great changes are afoot. Last week, the splashy story was the CBS-QVC merger. A few weeks ago, the big story was the Fox network, through an intermediary, luring 12 affiliate TV stations away from the majors. A while back, it was the heavy bidding for Paramount; before that, the so-called Japanese invasion of Hollywood. Next week, the headlines will belong to a new studio chief, or a cable-network merger, or perhaps a phone company buying a sports league--or the other way around.

Each time, journalists' word processors shift automatically to pre-programmed phrases: "telecommunications revolution," "corporate vision," "synergy," "the best programmer in the business." In hushed tones, journalists at prestigious magazines go behind the scenes for painstaking play-by-play chronicles. (Now it can be told: Why Barry Diller was spotted at Black Rock all the while he was hotly pursuing Paramount.)

With each news cycle, watchers and listeners are led to believe that matters of great consequence are in progress--big enough for front pages and lots of knowing forecasts from financial analysts, the soothsayers of our time--whose prognostications nobody goes back to check a year down the road.

The moguls are our royals. Media cover media moves as if they were something between dynastic wars and succession squabbles. Behold, the Windsors and the Hapsburgs arrange an intermarriage! America's inside dopesters apparently never weary of rumors that the latest shuffle suggests big changes. Thus, did Spaniards pay close attention to insider gossip during the Franco years. Thus, did the Central Intelligence Agency and the Russian public worry the question of who stood next to the boss at the May Day Parade during the communist years.

True enough, the typical corporate merger is more fun than most action movies. The CBS-QVC story does provide welcome relief from the O.J. Simpson saga. The mood is more upbeat than in the backstage reports on the vicissitudes of health care, or Bosnia. But in the case of CBS-QVC, beneath the jokes about tie-in deals linking news shows and fashion sales, there's far less going on than meet's the eye. The game is an insider's game. The players are recycled from the same dynasties. QVC's Diller comes to CBS via a career at ABC, Paramount and Fox. At ABC in the '70s, his main contribution to culture was a rush of movies of the week.

The big story is what doesn't change. Under no management is corporate television a place where heroic CEO's, like the Medici of yore, hire the best artists and give them a wall to work on. Consider two of the most distinguished television practitioners in the English language, both of whom recently died. Neither America's Marlon T. Riggs nor Britain's Dennis Potter would have been of the slightest interest to any of the proprietors of America's cultural temples.

Riggs, who died April 5, aged 37, of AIDS, gained most of his renown courtesy of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) & Co., who took censorious issue with his rhapsodic public television hour, "Tongues Untied." Many a local station refused to air this lyric of Riggs' gay African American life.

Helms, of course, missed the point about the show. That it treated a gay African American as something other than a freak or a menace was not the most notable thing about it. "Tongues Untied" was a wild and desperate, personal and poetic essay on film. It devised a film form. With a serious network backing him, Riggs might have attempted all manner of unorthodox projects, none of which would have been mistaken for anyone else's. He never got the chance.

Dennis Potter, who died June 7, aged 59, of pancreatic cancer, did make a most impressive career writing television plays--in Britain. Potter was best known for "Pennies from Heaven" and "The Singing Detective." The latter, for my money, is the most brilliant work ever written for television: part detective story, part musical, part psychoanalysis, part rumination on writing and suffering.

But Potter didn't start off writing these stellar multihour, multiform plays. He evolved into them. He was able to work up his craft to the point where he could take chances with genre-splicing because the BBC took him on when he was just out of Oxford and kept him on, writing plays of greater and lesser distinction, for more than 30 years. Potter set out to make a career in television, rather than movies or books, because he believed in the popular audience. Lucky him (and us): He found a patron that allowed him to do that.

No one gets to make such a career in U.S. public broadcasting. Almost no one in America gets to make a writerly career on commercial TV, either. Rare is the writer who succeeds in being patronized for long in any sense. In the land of the free, you're up or you're out, period.

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