Of the Viewer, By the Viewer, For the Viewer


November 06, 1990|By Steve Palay

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN — TELEVISION DAY is upon us. You may know this day as Election Day, but let's face facts. There is almost nothing left to modern politics but television, so we should call the day what it really is -- Television Day.

Of course, there is also almost nothing but television left to sports as well, or to entertainment, or to the American family, but this is only more reason to give television its day in the sun.

It's not that people watch more TV on this day: In fact, with all the interruptions for voting results, people may actually watch less. But it is the day when we finally get to vote for our favorite attack ads, and to thank the PACs that made them possible.

Political attack ads are a special breed. Coke and Pepsi may attack each other, but none of their blindfold tests compares with the blind ambition of a political attack ad. Less Filling and Tastes Great may be at each other's throats, but at least they admit they are two sides of the same coin.

Political attacks, on the other hand, seem to come out of nowhere. Many of them are sponsored not by the campaigns themselves, but by ambiguous Councils, anonymous Committees, and never-to-be-seen-again Concerned Citizens. You have to look fast to find the disclaimer at the end of the ad saying that this attack was sponsored by the Council of Concerned Citizens to Give Senator Baldspot a Noogie.

Some reformers want the TV stations to run a longer disclaimer at the front of the ad saying that the Noogie ad is really sponsored by Senator Baldspot's opponent, Congressman Footsore. The TV stations say they are not in the business of making political judgments.

What TV stations are in the business of is making money, and they make a bundle off campaigns. If all politics is local, and money is the mother's milk of politics, it's also true that political money is the mother's milk of local TV stations. They charge top dollar for their time, and politicians hand over the cash as if they can't get rid of the lousy stuff fast enough.

''Time is money,'' went the old saying. Now it's ''Money is television time.'' Even the Keating Five, the senators alleged to have peddled their influence, didn't do it for personal gain. They bought no condos in the Bahamas, no lift tickets for Aspen. No, the cash was there so they'd have something to hand over to the TV stations. This is graft? Old-time bosses must be rolling in their graves. Corruption itself has been corrupted by television.

But then, even television has been corrupted by television. Due to cable and VCRs, the networks are getting fewer viewers. Strangely, this is happening at the same rate that the major parties are getting fewer voters. This means, unless we act now, that more and more people will be watching these cable and movie channels that have no political ads whatsoever. Our whole system of government -- of the viewer, by the viewer and for the viewer -- is at risk.

So please, take this day seriously. Or else you may end up hopelessly explaining to your grandchildren, ''Oh yes, I remember back when Television Day really meant something.''

Mr. Palay is a free lance.

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