How We Arrived At The Current State Of Our Politics

┬áThis post will take you all the way from the invention of the Tonight and Today shows through the dysfunction of modern politics. It’s a bumpy ride, so please stow your tray table.

There used to be a thing called “mass media.” First magazines and newspapers, then radio, then television — they all attempted to do the same thing: aggregate as large as possible an audience, and then sell it to advertisers. The larger the audience, the more advertisers would pay. It was a simple business: inform or entertain in bulk.

One of the early chief executives of network television was Sylvester (Pat) Weaver. At a time when no one really knew what the then-new medium could do, he thought up little things like The Today Show and The Tonight Show. Other little things he thought up, like a travel show called Wide Wide World and a monthly series of splashy entertainment events called “spectaculars,” didn’t fare so well in the mass network environment.

Soon, Weaver was gone from NBC. He resurfaced a decade later in California with a new thing called “subscription television,” or STV. It charged you a monthly fee and you saw what couldn’t be seen on mass commercial television. Having started as an ad man, Weaver wasn’t an anti-advertising radical; he just understood that there was a panoply of programming that would never fit the mass-audience aim of network “clients,” and an audience, smaller but probably wealthier, that would pay to see it. To him, those offerings included full opera and concert performances, full-length plays, baseball games, children’s programming, and current feature films. The latter part of the slate got him in trouble. The movie theater industry, fearing the competition, got a measure on the California ballot to outlaw STV. And, because markets, it passed.

I retell this history to make a point: Weaver’s idea of pay TV was radically different from what we pay for now on cable, and that difference is crucial to the current state of our politics.

In search of efficiency, most advertisers increasingly became less enamored of the mass audience. They wanted to talk only to whoever they thought was the most likely group of people to buy what they were selling. With the help of surveys, then focus groups, then barcodes, and soon cornea tracking, they were able to zoom in closer and closer on their chosen targets. And television, particularly ad-supported cable, started programming to fit that agenda. Advertisers wanted to reach men 18-34? Women 24-47? Tweeners? Here came networks specialized in aiming at those audiences. Aside from the Super Bowl and the Oscars, the old mass audience — assembled to satisfy advertisers with the least specifically-targeted products, your Chevys, your toothpaste, your refrigerators — rarely meets any more.

But targeting your audience is just the beginning. Now you must tailor your messages for that audience. More focus groups, more surveys, more corneas.

And, inexorably, as was predicted as early as Vance Packard’s shrill but prescient “The Hidden Persauders,” advertising techniques migrated into the world of political communication. Politicians were convinced, by their consultants and “strategists” — what consultants called themselves after “consultant” became a pejorative — that they were wasting money communicating with voters unlikely to turn out or to vote for them. Targeting became more precise, and precision messaging followed. (And, then, the need for increasing amounts of money to run political campaigns — because, among other reasons, those strategists tend to get paid the same way ad agencies do, by commissioning the ad buys. As in, the more advertising a campaign buys, the more the strategist gets paid. Pretty strategic, really.)

We’ve now arrived at the era of “feeding the base,” telling the most likely voters what they’ve told consultants they most want to hear — the clanging echo chamber that passes for modern American political discourse. Just as advertisers’ wishes merged with (if not drove) technological change in the media universe, so in politics: speaking to the larger mass audience is a rare event, limited to special ceremonial occasions like inaugurations. The rest of the messaging is targeted, if not dog-whistled, to specific tranches of the desired constituency, sliced as finely as the mortgages (pre-2008) or the auto loans in modern financial “securities.”

And, of course, we the people have been recruited as accomplices in the degradation of our political system. Every survey we complete, every exit pollster we talk to, feeds the data into the system that enables it to target us and craft messages to us ever more precisely. Our purported leaders, the sad bunch of pretty boys and girls (the old cliche, “politics is show business for ugly people” has now dropped its last three words), follow their advisers’ advice as obediently as the would-have-been dramatists who now think up “reality” shows for TLC.

Those initials stand for (and stand in mocking tribute to) that cable network’s original name: The Learning Channel. Somewhere, Pat Weaver must be laughing, sadly.