Viewers find hope on TV

critical eye

August 31, 2008|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Television has often been called the Great Hype Machine for its tendency to inflate the importance of events and the quality of products that it covers and sells. But in recent weeks, the medium has also become the Great Hope Machine for a nation mired in a dark summer of uncertain economic times.

In what are supposed to be the dog days of the TV season when viewership is at its lowest, huge audiences have turned out for the Olympics and the Democratic National Convention. On average, an audience of more than 30 million viewers tuned into the Olympics each night, while some 27.5 million Americans came nightly last week to TV to witness the nomination of the first African-American presidential candidate by a major party. (Thursday night's TV audience was a recording-setting 38.3 million.)

The two events and their great resonance with viewers are connected by what media and culture analysts call "narratives of hope" - story lines that make us feel better about ourselves while helping us believe that better days are ahead. In that sense, the viewing experience that many of us have been enjoying in recent weeks is similar to what Americans felt when they listened to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" on the radio during the Great Depression of the 1930s - only we get color pictures in HD with ours.

"I think what we have been seeing on TV is very similar to what took place on radio during the Depression, in that both are about reassurance," says Paul Levinson, professor of popular culture and media studies at Fordham University. "Just as hearing Roosevelt's words reassured Americans that things were going to get better, so does seeing Barack Obama's nomination this week offer reassurance to many of us that the best hopes and aspirations of the 1960s have not been lost. What we have been seeing the past weeks reassures us that America has not been hopelessly diminished."

The feel-good aspect of the Olympics seems easy to understand: It's all about Michael Phelps. He towered over the other athletes at the games the way America once dominated globally after World War II. A nation feeling more vulnerable than it has since the 1930s felt young and mighty again, thanks to him.

While it seems obvious now, only one person seemed to comprehend the great hope that Phelps embodied - and the way it related to the mood of the country - before the games. Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, said on the eve of the Olympics that the stage was perfectly set for record ratings, if the Phelps narrative went as scripted."It isn't exactly a joyful time in America right now: $4 gas, people who can't afford vacations, wild food prices. [Americans] are really looking for something to cheer for," he said.

David Bohrman, the executive in charge of CNN's political coverage, shared the same kind of insight on the eve of the Democratic convention.

While reviewing CNN coverage from 2004 in preparation for mapping this year's strategy, he said it occurred to him "that conventions are all about hope."

The hopeful rhetoric is obvious. Consider the final words of Obama's Thursday night acceptance speech: "Let us keep the promise - that American promise - and in the words of Scripture, hold firmly without wavering to the hope that we confess."

And it is not just this year with the Democrats' history-making nomination.

"There is such ebullience from the audience in those closed arenas that it's contagious - this goes for Republicans and Democrats." says Sandy Socolow, who as executive producer of the CBS Evening News wit h Walter Cronkite covered his first convention in 1956.

As welcome as any media-provided feel-good moments are, analysts warn that, ultimately, what we make of the optimism and energy we find on-screen is up to us. Will we simply use them for pleasurable escape, as audiences did with the glamorous, high-gloss MGM musicals during the 1930s? Or will we act on what we are seeing at the Democratic and Republican conventions and participate fully in this year's election?

TV is offering a season of hope in the dying days of this desperate summer. It's up to us whether or not there will be genuine harvest.

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