Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Shall We Dance A "Fox" Trot?

Most of you, I assume, are aware of a phenomenon in television called "sweeps": four times a year, television networks compile information from around the country in order to set advertising rates, which is based on viewership. Obviously, the higher the rating the more you can charge advertisers, generally. The traditional national sweeps months are located in February, May, August, and November, althouhg they are not based on the entire month, but rather four consecutive weeks, usually starting just a few days prior to the first of the month.

This year, for example, the November sweeps began on November 2, which is why the World Series is scheduled so bloody late in the year now, in order to take advantage of potential late-game heroics late in a series. Likewise, the Super Bowl is now timed to coincide with the February sweeps period, and why March Madness (NCAA basketball) actually begins in February. And those May "season ending shows"? You'll find one or two sprinkled in late April.

In other words, if you want to see a blockbuster on national television, you can pretty much count on it occuring in one of those four months, usually November, ahead of the holidays. It's also around the time your local news starts running sensational stories of pedophiliac cheerleader coaches and the girls they get in trouble, that sort of thing. Cynical, in other words. Pandering.

This year saw what had to be the single biggest pander for ratings in recent memory:
LOS ANGELES - Fox plans to broadcast an interview with O.J. Simpson in which the former football star discusses "how he would have committed" the slayings of his ex-wife and her friend, for which he was acquitted, the network said.

The two-part interview, titled "O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, Here's How It Happened," will air Nov. 27 and Nov. 29, the TV network said.

Simpson has agreed to an "unrestricted" interview with book publisher Judith Regan, Fox said.
In other words, an interview about a book in which the former NFL star "confesses" to the murders he was acquitted of.

On Fox. During November sweeps.

But that's not the cynical pandering part. This interview was never going to air and the book was never going to be released, for a few reasons.

First, any money OJ made off this interview and the book would immediately go to the Brown and Goldman families. That's part of the civil suit judgement against OJ, and there's nothing that can be done to get around that. Second, look carefully at that scheduling. November 29 is the last day of sweeps this November. The book was "scheduled" to be published on November 30th...just in time for Christmas?

So let's take a closer look at this little kerfuffle, shall we?

OJ's publisher was ReganBooks, run by Judith Regan...and owned by News Corp., the parent company of Fox Networks. Judith Regan herself was a Fox News (also under the News Corp umbrella) host and frequent guest (she's also the chippy who was banging Bernard Kerik in his city-paid-for apartment, the one that got him in trouble with the law, and ruined his chances of being the DHS Secretary under Bush), and is described as "the angriest woman in the media."

So Fox scored an interview from one of its News Corp affiliates, run by a Fox News floozy. But wait, there's more!

In the wake of the Democratic sweep of the midterm elections, just one week before the announcement of both the book and the special (gee...funny...you'd think if OJ was writing a book, someone along the way would have mentioned something...), there was a yawing gap in news for Fox News to cover: no grand victories in Iraq, only the shame and humiliation of the Bush failures, and the piling on by critics on both sides of the aisle.

For a network that had stitched itself to the administration like it was trying to be its Siamese twin, one would think this was a rather uncomfortable position to be in. It was too early for the War On Christmas, assuming that trope had been laughed off the face of the planet this year. What could possibly work to stir up dynamite ratings in the face of a maw leading to the abyss of advertising rates.

Piped up controversies have always worked in the past for Fox. Cable news networks thrive on a story that involves sex and violence and that can be parsed endlessly by pundits and talking heads who merely have to say "No, you're wrong!" to someone else on camera to attract the mindless nitwits who bother watching the cable news networks ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Well, Terry Schiavo's dead, Natalee Holloway's body hasn't been found, Lacy Peterson isn't coming back from the grave and her husband is still in prison....what could possibly generate ratings for Fox News?

I can almost hear the phone call from Roger Ailes to Judith Regan, with Rupert Murdoch on the conference. It's a double bonus. It gets Fox News something to turn its well-oiled rage machine against, it gets other networks talking about Fox (and presumably gets them looking at the Fox schedule and oh by the way, look at all the other stuff Fox will have on this weekend), and it bring HarperCollins, News Corp's publishing arm, into the limelight, just ahead of Christmas.

How many people do you think went to the HarperCollins website to look at this fiasco and realized there was a pretty decent cheap present for Uncle Ernie?

I imagine, sadly, quite a few.

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