Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Weather Reports

A quiet purpose of weather reporting is to remind people what their country looks like, and to provide a sense of community. In this jet age, the concerns are likewise practical: a portion of those viewing will actually encounter weather on the opposite coast later that same day.

An interesting aspect of international travel are weather shows which encompass more of the globe. Sitting there in your waiting lounge, you see what's up in Dubai, Dhaka, Jakarta, as well as Paris, New York, Rio De Janeiro. CNN specializes in these kinds of weather reporting, and has a lot of market share in airports.

What's interesting about USA TV is how immersed one gets just in some meticulously devised parochial consensus reality. There's not much global data. USAers have to go to the movies (e.g. Bourne Supremacy) to see much in the way of major capitals. The isolationism and inward-focus of the USA psyche is extremely evident on the evening news. If you've just flown in from the UK, where the BBC is far more aggressively global in its coverage, the contrast is enlightening, and some would say frightening.

The promise of multi-channel cable and satellite was more exposure to the "big world out there." Ted Turner experimented with this, in the early days. But these experiments seem to have dried up of late, as more channels turn to home shopping, reruns of syndicated sitcoms or cop shows, and sports. And then, of course, there's the weather channel -- and the food channel.

Another venue through which USAers get some whiff of the outside world (beyond camera shots from embedded journalists, looking over the shoulders of US Marines), is so-called 'reality TV.' These are game shows, typically competitions, played out against the background of the world stage. The site scouts do a good job coming up with romantic or engaging backdrops.

A question I have is how long we'll be able to perpetuate the cognitive dissonance that comes from these two forms of 'reality programming': through the lens of the game player, and through the lens of the demolition engineer (aka soldier). The spectacle of USAers playing with fast cars, cavorting in luxurious resorts, doing "fun stuff," goofing off, "surviving" in a completely phony, made-for-TV set of circumstances, contrasts very sharply with the War on Terrorism programming (lots of swoopy graphics, battle maps, retired generals, sanitized death). These seem like two different planets: the inviting one we goof off in, and the one we demolish, because it scares us.

The rest of the world wonders: how do these USAers manage to play in the sun, cavort in phony realities, while at the same time they enjoy bloody rampages through Fallujah. Between these two extremes, they seem to consume very little programming about the rough politics and complex economics that might bring some realism to either genre. Are we looking at two sides of the same coin? Neither reality TV nor the War on Terrorism seem very grounded in rational thought. We see two basic currencies at work: longing for the good life, and fear.

I guess a question for TV executives right now is whether this kind of programming is going to have much of an aftermarket outside the USA. How tolerant of USA-style entertainment will the world be? Do they really care who "survives" in some romantic faux-Thailand, even as Fallujah burns? Perhaps executives in the UK might like to brainstorm a more grounded and intelligent hybrid that mixes heaven and hell using a different alchemy.

I propose more of a futuristic and hope-inspiring approach (I go with longing over fear, any day), wherein high tech industries show off their ability to enhance civilian life, including in difficult circumstances (shall we stage episode one in Southern Africa, near Cape Town perhaps?). This proposal might be something to meet about on my next trip to the UK.

If the USA is hell-bent on remaining parochial, and wants to push its schizoid mix of "fun in the sun" and "bloodbath in the sand," let it. I bet the UK television market could use this poor planning as an opportunity to signal its greater sense of realism -- an important signal to send, given the proximity of other European markets nowadays finding USA TV increasingly alien, bizarre, a horror show from another planet.


Notable improvements in CBS News by mid-December, e.g. check Dec 14, 2004: note the more global perspective; the far healthier groove.