Why the show must go

RIP, `PI':

October 18, 2001|By Tom Siebert

POLITICALLY INCORRECT needs to go to the television graveyard. Not because it's politically incorrect, but because it's politically irrelevant.

ABC's late-night talk forum and its embattled host, Bill Maher, have been savaged for his comments on the program six days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Mr. Maher said he disagreed with people who called the terrorists "cowards."

"Not true," he said. "We're the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away, that's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building -- say what you want about it, that's not cowardly."

The next day, Mr. Maher's crucifixion in the media and the marketplace began.

Radio talk-show hosts called him all sorts of terrible names, and the sponsors started bailing. Now all his national advertisers are gone and more than a dozen affiliates have pulled the plug on the program.

Ironically, the right-wing radio ranters who vilified Mr. Maher completely misunderstood his message -- which was partially his fault for being so flippant -- assuming he was referring to the American military.

Actually, Mr. Maher was referring to the Clinton administration, as he repeatedly pointed out in a series of agonizing apologies, each one more pathetic than the last, in the subsequent episodes.

The show is on life support. But a backlash has begun, with a few vocal supporters rallying behind Mr. Maher and saying that if his program is canceled, it will be censorship, a blow against freedom of speech, a sign that our First Amendment rights are being sacrificed in the war against terrorism.

Nonsense. Nobody has a right to have a television program. Mr. Maher can say whatever he wants. He just won't have a venue on national television. TV's hard truism is that sooner or later every show is going to get canceled. There's a long history of programs that tapped the zeitgeist for a period, went downhill, then got the ax. That's all this is.

When Politically Incorrect began running on the cable network Comedy Central in 1994, it was a refreshing joke, a put-on of political pundit roundtable programs like the McLaughlin Group. It tossed a couple second- and third-tier celebrities together with minor-league intellectuals and politicians as Mr. Maher played ringleader and devil's advocate, bashing conservatives and liberals alike while subtly skewering the inherent stupidity of celebrity politics.

Politically Incorrect perfectly realized and reflected the blurring between entertainment and politics, a period personified by the blow-dried charm of Bill Clinton and further reinforced by the launch of JFK Jr.'s glossy political magazine George. Though genuine issues were aired, that it was on Comedy Central immediately clued in viewers that it was all to be taken with a cynical wink.

In 1998, the program moved to ABC and was scheduled after Ted Koppel's hard-news Nightline program, which couldn't help but change its dynamics.

The broadcast network pedigree upped the ante, because Mr. Maher's appearance after a serious news program sent exactly the opposite message from when he aired on Comedy Central.

Fortunately, with the then-president's sexual peccadilloes constantly in the news, celebrities were the perfect sounding board. TV news had become tabloid, and who knew the tabloids better than celebs?

But all that's over. Even the tabloids have featured the terrible events of Sept. 11 on their covers. That date, like a few rare others before it, has already become one where everybody realizes there is an innate sense of "before" and "after" in our consciousness.

And that's why Politically Incorrect needs to go. Like Leave It to Beaver, All in the Family, thirtysomething and countless other shows that defined their times, Politically Incorrect had its moment. That moment has passed.

This is no longer a frivolous age, and we should not be interested in the opinions of frivolous people.

There is nothing funny about terrorism or the challenges to our freedoms and civil rights. The opinions of celebrities are no more meaningful than anybody's, and to highlight them in a television program isn't only meaningless, it borders on irresponsible use of a major network's time.

Tom Siebert, a former film critic, is communications director for a Baltimore advertising agency.

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