TV NY, 1 November

American TV is acknowledged by anybody with half a brain to be the best in the world - but it is the adverts that are most striking for a visitor.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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American TV is acknowledged by anybody with half a brain to be the best in the world. Spending the past week in New York, I had to force myself not to watch the new season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the expectation that our friends at Sky in the UK will deliver soon.

And with a new season of NYPD Blue about to start along with 24, a brand new drama covering 24 hours in the life of a CIA agent, I am in no rush to get back to Blighty just to watch last season’s West Wing.

On the bright side, there is also some dross on over here. American TV news is notoriously inward-looking. Six weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Centre, and with mayoral elections impending, it was never likely that New York 1 was going to shatter this impression. It hasn’t. The news has focused pretty heavily on the aftermath of the attack, the ongoing anthrax scares and the battle for mayor between Mark Green and Mike Bloomberg. Even Family Feud (the US version of Family Fortunes) has been turned over to Firefighters v Crimefighters.

One amusing news story concerned a couple of guys who had been ordered by a judge to walk down their local shopping street in drag, as punishment for sexual harassment. As the newscaster put it, ‘it may not be cruel, but it’s certainly unusual’. So much for American sexual politics.

The Man Show (on Comedy Central) reminded me of The Girlie Show, that dreadful Channel 4 programme of the mid-1990s. Perhaps it is a reflection of the feminisation of society that The Man Show is less an assertion of masculinity than a girlish expression of naughtiness. Two guys stand cracking no-liners at an audience that is supplied with beer by scantily clad women. Tee-hee. A highlight of the show I saw was a film of one of the guys out on the streets trying to pay women to French kiss one another for the camera, because ‘Men love lesbians!’.

Basically the show looks like a subcultural refuge for hen-pecked husbands and boyfriends (1). It made me think of ‘The Worm That Turned’, the Two Ronnies sketch about a society dominated by women, in which men are forced to wear dresses and have to meet in secret to drink beer. The fact that the authorities tolerate The Man Show only shows how tight their grip is.

Actually, the best scene in The Man Show was a spoof advert for a penis-shaped product for removing ‘protein stains’ from teenage boys’ sheets and clothes. It’s not so much that the idea is funny, as that the ad is so well-observed.

But given that most American TV makes it to the UK and beyond sooner or later, it is the adverts that are most striking for a visitor. Conventional wisdom has it that Americans have no sense of irony. This is patently untrue, and there are plenty of sophisticated adverts. Still, the most commercialised society in the world cannot help but produce a few howlers.

Funniest of all are the drug ads. An ad for cough mixture spends half its airtime warning you that it can cause headaches, diarrhoea, nausea, rashes…and coughing. My favourite is an ad for a heartburn relief product, which boasts that in clinical trials, of all the potential side effects, only dysentery and diarrhoea occurred more often with the product than with a placebo. Presumably, this unwelcome honesty is the result of Americans’ notorious litigiousness, but it surely casts doubts on the very idea of advertising.

The other standard complaint about American TV is the negative political advertising, and there has been plenty of that. I attended a lecture on Monday at which leading Democrats complained that politicians are terrified of TV ads that can undermine months of work in 30 seconds. Right now, Republican mayoral candidate Mike Bloomberg is shamelessly exploiting New Yorkers’ goodwill towards current mayor Rudy Giuliani by pointing out that Democratic candidate Mark Green has often attacked the Great Man’s administration.

In fact, this kind of niggly politics is testament to the lack of substantial difference between the candidates, a perennial feature of American politics. The spirit of unity is clearest of all in the ‘I love New York – now more than ever’ adverts, which feature politicians, sports stars and regular New Yorkers declaring their love of the city. The sentiment may be banal, but the message is irrefutable.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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spiked-issue: TV

(1) Hear The Man Show’s theme song

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Topics Politics


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