Attacking Television’s Ideology

Published August 23, 2011

Review of Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV, by Ben Shapiro, Broadside Books, 412 pages, 2011 $26.99.

Perhaps the only thing more annoying than progressives complaining about conservative talk radio is conservatives whining about liberals controlling the lion’s share of broadcast entertainment. The latter has always been the case, but conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro apparently never received the memo.

Shapiro’s latest book, Primetime Propaganda, is a thin-skinned trek through television history in which the Snidely Whiplash of all things antithetical to the author’s brand of conservatism is scrutinized with a dull knife and scratched lenses:

“The overwhelming leftism of American television was too universal to be merely coincidence. It had to be the product of a concerted effort, a system designed to function as an ideological strainer through which conservatism simply could not pass. And the more I investigated, the more I saw that Hollywood was just that: a carefully constructed mechanism designed by television’s honchos to blow a hole in the dike of American culture. Television’s best and brightest wanted to set America down the slippery slope away from its Judeo-Christian heritage and toward a more cultivated, refined, Europeanized sensibility.”

Much of the remainder of the book continues in this vein, with familiar boogiemen name-checked and summarily upbraided, such as 1970s’ uber-producer Norman Lear and network chief Fred Silverman. Yeah, that Norman Lear and that Fred Silverman; you know, those guys respectively responsible for Archie Bunker and Soap.

Call Me Kingfish
Civilization somehow escaped oblivion after the onslaught of subversive half-hour comedies, albeit emerging as a culture a wee bit more tolerant of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities. If that indicates anything contrary to the Judeo-Christian heritage that Europe apparently abandoned, well, put me in blackface and call me Kingfish.

The only conspiracy of which the television industry is guilty isn’t liberalism per se but rather the hiring of creative talent, the vast majority of which happens to be liberal. Yes, exceptions abound, but most such artists tend to perceive life from a creatively rebellious, utopian, and sometimes squishy perspective, whether in television, theater, fiction, or rock ‘n’ roll.

Fortunately, we don’t live in Plato’s Republic, where those damnable lying poets are banned. One of the prices of freedom is the need to change the channel once in a while.

Wrong on Retransmission
In addition to the ideological skirmishes fanned by Shapiro, Primetime Propaganda veers into strange waters in his chapter “The Government-Hollywood Complex: How Hollywood Became the Federal Government’s PR Firm.” Shapiro cites MTV’s championing of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, along with V-chips and industry tax credits for television research and development. The first item warrants not much more than a simple “meh,” while the latter two certainly raised civil libertarian and free-market concerns then as they do now.

Shapiro gets it especially wrong when he addresses deregulation of the television industry during Clinton’s administration. “The 1996 Telecommunications Act eliminated restrictions on cable pricing without doing anything about local government-controlled monopolies, leading to skyrocketing cable prices and profits,” writes Shapiro. That’s right. Federal restrictions were removed, and Congress properly left local governments to make their own choices. That’s federalism, a good thing.

Shapiro complains at length about “The Cable Oligarchy,” which he identifies as “the total dominance of the corporate Six Pack (GE, Time Warner, Disney, NewsCorp, CBS, and Viacom)” and further identifies as a “cash cow” for the television industry. He argues vertical integration between Comcast and NBC Universal will reduce programming variety, but that just won’t happen in today’s multiplatform media.

Retransmission Bias
Shapiro further attacks cable by siding with the TV networks over recent blackouts of television programming such as the opening minutes of the 2010 Academy Awards telecast and several games of the 2010 Major League Baseball World Series. Shapiro attributes these blackouts to greedy cable operators seeking to extort more money from customers, when in fact the cable companies were only seeking to cover the additional costs imposed upon them by the networks who supplied the programming, such as when Fox TV tried to charge Time Warner Cable more than $1 per subscriber for the retransmission rights to top-rated series.

Had Shapiro done his homework, he would’ve discovered that the blackouts resulted from brinksmanship between networks and cable providers as a result of ill-advised provisions in the 1992 Cable Act, which granted networks the option of either providing their content for free or charging cable operators to “retransmit” their content.

The Cable Act was drafted well after most ink-stained wretches had adopted digital technologies, and only slightly before a plethora of competitive technologies challenged cable’s primacy. Yet, Shapiro bafflingly claims the falsely described cable “monopolies” are somehow enabling a “liberal desire to ensure that private interests not restrict, through physical control of a critical pathway of communication, the free flow of information and ideas,” but how he arrives at this conclusion is anybody’s guess.

How the current retransmission consent rules and vertical integration between cable providers and networks cause entertainment options to be liberal instead of conservative is unclear at best on the basis of what Shapiro writes, and in any case it’s a red herring. The real issue at stake is whether consumers will have real choices over what programs they wish to view. That is a concern for people of all political persuasions.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News