Criticizing Oprah and Asking the Question: Is ReacTV for Real?
It's the curse of the critic to be a perpetual cynic.
Where others see stardust, we must see ego and opportunity. Where others see altruism, we must look for the self-interest and hypocrisy. It's the gig, people.
Nowhere has this cynicism loomed larger for me than in considering the Queen of All Media, Oprah Winfrey.
Much as I've admired her altruism and principled stands, I find myself quite ambivalent about O's overall impact as a media figure. When she brought her big-ticket Live Your Best Life tour to Tampa a few years ago, I wrote about how fan worship of her work seemed almost religious; and among all the journalists who covered her that day, I was the only one so cynical that my photographer, Jaime Francis, snapped a pic of my scowling at the Queen and taped it to my office door.
So, when I heard about O's comments regarding America's educational system, I was, to say the least, intrigued.
Here's what she said, according to Newsweek magazine: ""I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools [in America] that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there," she said. "If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."
This, of course, caused quite a ripple through the punditocracy, wininng kudos from folks as far apart as conservative blowhard Rush Limbaugh and Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page. And why not? the materialism of American kids -- even those who are dirt poor -- has been well-documented. Frustration over the country's growing education problems makes it easy to wish these kids would just get wise, already, and start cracking the books.
But then the critic in me rears it's ugly head, and I have to point out a truth that is both incovenient and troubling.
Winfrey is part of the very problem she criticizes.
When you consider why American kids might react so differently from their South African counterparts, the pervasiveness of media -- and the very specific media of American pop culture -- must be a factor. And I don't just mean the rap videos clogging BET and elsewhere.
Who is celebrated the most in our culture? Is it the intellectuals and thinkers -- scientists and doctors and great writers? Or is it celebrities like Britney and Paris and Brad and Jennifer and, oh yeah, Oprah?
When a recent episode on Winfrey's own show centered on the homeless, she didn't get a report on the issue from the great journalists at the Chicago Reporter who have written well about this plight in her own backyard, or from somebody else with a long track record of exploring these issues. She asked Anderson Cooper, who fit the report in-between his work for 60 Minutes and his day job on CNN. When she needs emotive reporting on issues overseas, she doesn't tap folks who have been in trenches for decades and know the issues intimately, she gives precious airtime to former View co-host Lisa Ling.
What does that teach those same young students? That celebrity -- and an image which resonaates with Winfrey's audience demographic -- matters nearly as much as expertise.
We have huge industries which generate massive profits by selling products as a lifestyle. These days, you don't just buy an iPod; that purchase is a gateway into a tech-savvy life that is cool, cutting edge and effortlessly stylish. Everything from video games to sneakers and gum is sold this way, using media which follows kids everywhere -- on cellphones, on the Internet, on the backs of their friends' clothing and in the lyrics of the songs they love.
And many of the sponsors Oprah does business with are the prime cultivators of these messages.
So much in our culture tells young people they should lust after the latest product by Apple, Verizon, Jimmy Choo or Martha Stewart. And Oprah, whose fetishizing of celebrity and high-end consumer goods is legend -- has fed that jones as much as anyone in modern media. I have seen the list of her favorite things on Oprah.com and it ranges from a $20 pair of cashmere socks to a $600 Philip Stein teslar watch and beyond.
In Africa, they learn education is the gateway to a better life. In America, kids learn an iPod or Michael Jordan sneakers deliver that pathway -- lessons taught, in part, by the commercials packed into TV shows which they spend more than four hours every day consuming. The heroes they see feted at the Kennedy Center or featured on magazine covers aren't geneticists, college professors, lawyers or accountants; they are the Dolly Partons, the Jessica Simpsons, the P. Diddys and even the K-Feds.
Can we really look at our most underpriviledged young people and fault them for learning the lessons of materialism and celebrity obsession that our media culture feeds them every day?
ReacTV Nearly Here. But Will it Work?
There's probably no one outside a handful of video game enthusiasts and local media watchers who know anything about this. But St. Petersburg entrepreneur Frank Maggio is on the verge of making local media history by establishing a gaming channel on the Internet and cable TV which will eventually pay out $1,000/hour in prizes to participants.
If you drive along I-275 in St. Petersburg, you have seen the billboards for months. If you've surfed past digital Ch. 77 on the Bright House Networks digital cable system, you've seen the ads for his brainchild, dubbed ReacTV.
I wrote about Maggio last year, because his effort to create a channel where advertisers know specifically who is watching their commercials put him in direct opposition to the company which provides all the ratings to TV outlets across the nation, Nielsen Media Research.
Maggio had planned to debut ReacTV in September, but delays in developing the service kept him from pulling it together until now. Starting at 7 p.m. today, users can play trivia games similar to the video trivia in a lot of bars, amassing points during the half hour games to participate in a Beta Rumble maggio has organized for jan. 15 to test his service.
Right now, you can only play the games through the Internet, though you can watch the games on Bright House Ch. 77 (Maggio hopes to introduce a wi fi enabled remote later this year to allow play while watching TV). From Jan. 8 to 14, qualifying games will be held for two hours each day; about 100 finalists will then end up competing in the rumble for two Super Bowl tickets, $777 in spending money and bragging rights.
By the end of January, Maggio hopes to begin offering prizes to users who win each half-hour game show and by March, he hopes to be giving away $1,000/hour (He even expects to give prizes to people who answer questions about the commercials, in a new advertising system called crav).
Through it all, the same question keeps copming up: Can this guy pull it off?
That seems to be an answer only time will provide.
My colleague David Adams has an interesting report on his Fueling station blog about a variety of reality TV projects aimed at educating folks about environmental issues, including HGTV's Living with Ed, starring ex-St. Elsewhere star and longtime environmental activist Ed Begley Jr.
There may be no better sign of the coming apocalypse than the fact that Lifetime wasted precious cash and airtime on Gay, Straight or Taken -- a lame, overly staged "dating competition" in which a single female must play the game Lifetime says they indulge every time they hit the dating scene: judging whether a guy is gay, straight or taken. Debuting at 8 tonight, the show is a litany of bubbleheaded stereotypes -- the sensual Italian guy can't possibly be gay, can he? -- and painfully contrived situations.
UPDATE: Courtesy of NewsBlues site, I must provide this link to a sportscaster loosing the F-word during a broadcast in Wichita. Kansas (frustrated about technical difficulties, he thought the microphones were off when telling off a colleague). When will these guys learn -- doesn't matter how safe you think you are, when you're on the news set, just act as if you're on camera before a hot mike all the time...