Debates, dragons, and CNN’s race to the bottom

Chuck Todd

Not being big on Twitter — does any 21st-century American really need more time in front of a glowing screen? — my deep thoughts on events in the media must wait and be formalized in a column, like this: 

NBC’s Chuck Todd appears at a forum in Seattle and blames the likes of his own employer for the silliness of this year’s presidential debates. “If you have media organizations pitted against each other, competing for it, and – I say this perhaps to the detriment of NBC – but I can tell you this: I think the quality of the debates this cycle has stunk,” said Todd. “Let’s not pretend a lot of it was a lot of candidates, but part of it had too many news executives motivated by the eyeballs and whatever it took to get the candidates on stage. You cut the deal with whatever organization. Questionable partnerships, ethically, that back in the day never would have passed standards at a news organization.”

Todd of course had to “leave it there” before it got too specific. But did the deals cut include promising GOP candidates they’d get multiple, redundant questions on how tough they’d be on terrorists? I believe the Flint water crisis got exactly one question and one brief response at the Fox News debate … in Detroit.


Minnesota Public Radio wins the Edward R. Murrow Award (again): “Minnesota Public Radio News won the Murrow Award for Overall Excellence among large market radio stations, honoring its body of live and investigative work throughout 2015,” says Inside Radio.

The station’s superb work on “Betrayed by Silence,” its series on sex abuse and coverup in the Catholic Church continued to impress Murrow judges. What’s sad, by contrast, is the fact that commercial radio in Minnesota has all but completely abandoned enterprise reporting. Bad for shareholder value, y’know. 


HBO cancels “Vinyl” after saying it was coming back for another season. “ ‘Vinyl’ had difficulty finding traction,” says the New York Times. “Its two­-hour debut episode drew a lackluster 1.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen data measuring live viewing and three days of delayed viewing. For the week, that viewership total put it in the neighborhood of Bravo’s ‘Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce’ and TV Land’s ‘Younger.’ In the weeks after, the audience for ‘Vinyl’ fell further. The show performed only marginally better than the network’s much cheaper comedy ‘Girls.’ ”

Just about everything about the show seemed fake and obligatory. Music fans, especially from the era of the late ’70s-early ’80s expected something smarter, and more knowing about the star making machinery than lots of cocaine, nudity and name­dropping. Worse, though, was the standard script-filling device of moving the lead characters’ clichéd domestic drama to the foreground of the action. Compared to everything the writers didn’t get into, we just didn’t care that much.


CNN hires fired Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and employees “revolt.” Says Eric Wemple for the Washington Post: “Upon whom did the New York Post rely to ascertain this revolt? ‘Sources,’ of course. … There are nearly 4,000 news professionals at CNN. … if there’s really a revolt in the works, with large numbers of people ready to ‘publicly’ demand the firing of a network commentator — then it shouldn’t be too hard to find a single person willing to go on the record.”

OK, so The New York Post isn’t exactly a critical thinker’s go-­to venue for accuracy. But scooping up a character like Lewandowski, a heretofore unknown, unremarkable and none-too-successful operator from New Hampshire, is classic Jeff Zucker. Zucker is CNN’s boss; no one person of the era has done more to commodify the news than Zucker. From going 24/7 on broken down cruise ships and plane crashes to, well, what Chuck Todd was hinting at, Zucker is Exhibit “A” for cheesy and exploitative. But shareholders love him.


Viewers may have shrugged and bailed on “Vinyl,” but dang are they loving “Game of Thrones” as Season Six wraps up with queens, fleets and dragons on the move. “Six seasons in, the HBO drama notched another series high with its recent finale,” says The Hollywood Reporter. “The original telecast of ‘The Winds of Winter’ pulled 8.9 million viewers to HBO during the premiere telecast, outpacing last summer’s finale by nearly 800,000 for a new record. ‘Game of Thrones’ overall audience is even more impressive. According to HBO … the show’s sixth season has been grossing 23.3 million weekly viewers. … And while that’s a far cry from AMC’s The Walking Dead, still TV’s biggest show, it’s the second­biggest player on cable this year.”

There has never been a series as lavishly or as well produced as “Game of Thrones.” With the exception of that weird green wildfire explosion last Sunday, the CGI work on the show is the equal of most feature films and far better integrated into the story than the frenzied, explosive junk in your average “Independence Day” sequel. But in terms of narrative, for a series that seems to delight in doing a 180 on standard audience expectations, what’s the betting line that none of the women — Sansa, Arya, Cersei or Daenerys — controls The Seven Kingdoms two seasons from now?

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