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For this critic, a new job minus the remote

ERIC DEGGANS
Published August 30, 2004

Judging by the reaction of some friends, it's a move many people swear warrants immediate commitment to a secure psychiatric facility, indefinitely.

Leaving a job where they pay you to watch TV.

But that's exactly what I'm doing today as I trade in my remote control and piles of review tapes for a seat on the St. Petersburg Times' editorial board.

Even after seven years of covering the vast wasteland that comes pouring out of our TV sets, this was a tough decision. TV's wide reach has given me latitude to write on just about anything, from Jayson Blair-related firings at the New York Times to the impact of patriotism on coverage of the Iraq war.

Black gay men on the "down low" pretending to be straight. The death of Princess Diana. The way artists from Carl Hiaasen to 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell use Florida to fuel their work.

These days, if it doesn't happen somewhere in media, it didn't happen at all.

Those on the business end of sharp columns may not believe it, but I've always felt my greatest mission and deepest privileges as a critic came from my role as the reader's surrogate.

Sometimes, that meant taking one for the team (I like to tell people I watch bad TV so they don't have to). But more often, it meant personally witnessing something special that I could relay to readers: from a discussion between Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Nightline anchor Ted Koppel in a St. Petersburg temple, to Oprah Winfrey subtly correcting a reporter who was inadvertently ruining Entertainment Tonight's shot of her.

And there were the audiences with celebrities, including Tom Brokaw, Andy Garcia, David Caruso, Peter Jennings, Queen Latifah, George Lopez, Jay Leno and many more.

Like any good journalist, I judge my success by the quality of my enemies. So it's a point of pride that I've joined the esteemed list of media writers that Fox News Channel officials often won't speak to (being called a "pinhead" by FNC gasbag Bill O'Reilly on air remains a personal best).

My stories about the Clear Channel Radio show The Monsters and its on-air racial slurs drew an avalanche of protests from the show's fans, who accused me of political correctness and worse.

But I was certain this talented Orlando-based morning crew could make listeners laugh without regurgitating horrible stereotypes in words such as "jigaboo" and "nigra." After a week off-air in sensitivity training and some tentative slur-free shows, they've started to prove me right.

It's particularly poignant for me that I'll be moving to the editorial board so soon after the Aug. 19 death of the Times' most influential journalist of color, columnist and editorial board member Peggy Peterman.

Moving from the features department to help write the newspaper's unsigned editorials, I feel as if I'm following in her footsteps, as she made the same move in 1994.

The woman who persuaded the newspaper to stop segregating stories about black people into a "Negro news" section (a friend once called her the "Rosa Parks of Tampa Bay area journalism") knew that I and every other black journalist lucky enough to work here were her children, striding through doors she helped push open with her will and talent.

And in that spirit of speaking truth to power, let me close my last column as a TV critic with the Five Things I Learned From Television.

No. 5: People will do anything to get on TV.

More than any other reason, failing to grasp this dynamic is what led me and many other critics to underestimate the staying power of reality television.

Since the modern form of reality TV emerged a few years ago, we've seen a woman marry a virtual stranger; contestants eat the worst parts of the worst animals; mothers leave their families; people live with strangers for three months and moms face TV cameras to learn who really fathered their babies.

This season, expect more family swapping moms and dads, sycophants kowtowing to tycoon celebrities Richard Branson and Mark Cuban, families exposing their most dysfunctional secrets and two shows centered on the sleaziest business in North America, the boxing industry.

Paddy Chayefsky's landmark film Network looks more like a documentary every day.

No. 4: More TV often doesn't equal better TV.

Perhaps the biggest change in modern media over the years has been its size.

Combined with an increased blurring between news and entertainment, the expansion of TV channels through digital cable and digital television has built a vast media echo chamber that often fails to illuminate issues as much as amplify them.

Networks are more likely to pre-empt programming for news coverage because of competition with cable newschannels. Cable news outlets feature increasingly shrill shows just to grab channel surfers. Photogenic victims and criminals get a level of attention far greater than they should.

And because everyone is owned by the same handful of corporations, standards sink lower and lower as synergy increases. (Did Dateline NBC really need to devote entire programs to Friends, Frasier and The Apprentice last season?)

It's true that the competition has also pushed cable channels to grow more savvy about developing signature shows, from HBO's The Sopranos and Sex and the City, to FX's Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck, USA's The Grid and Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Still, particularly when it comes to news coverage, the expansion of channels has just upped the opportunity for mediocrity.

No. 3: On TV, image trumps reality almost all the time.

Just ask Al Gore.

It didn't matter that the former vice president never actually said he invented the Internet, back before his presidential run in 2000. Let enough late-night comedians and cable TV blowhards repeat the charge often enough and it becomes a reality in people's minds that's tough to overcome.

That's why you see so many commercials on local TV touting hurricane weather coverage or investigative stories. Many more people will probably see the back-patting advertisements for weather coverage during the latest CSI or Law & Order rerun than actually watched the coverage.

Before long, viewers remember what they were told about the coverage rather than what they saw.

No. 2: What people say they want on TV and what they watch are two different things.

People say they want fair, objective news reporting. But the success of right-leaning Fox News Channel suggests that many viewers actually want news coverage that reflects their own biases, presented as objective reporting.

People say they want TV shows that don't exploit viewers or participants. Then they line up to see The Littlest Groom who is Trading Spouses with the Big Brother Who Wants to Marry My Dad as an American Idol in The Real World.

Truth is, people want TV that entertains, titillates, excites, provokes and astonishes. And when they sit in front of the box in the privacy of their home, they indulge those desires in ways they'll deny later.

No. 1: Ratings mean everything and nothing at the same time.

Because TV outlets base their advertising prices on ratings, they mean everything in the business.

Nightline may be a quality exercise in TV journalism, but because ratings among younger viewers would bring more revenue, ABC constantly seems on the verge of canceling it for a mindless late-night comedy show.

But it is also amazing how much of a billion-dollar business is built on smoke and mirrors. Nielsen Media Research samples about 13,000 people in 5,000 households for its national ratings, calculating the viewership of some 108-million TV households. And those ratings don't include people who watch at work or in public places such as a gym or a bar.

Nielsen and others have a boatload of information to argue that their methods work. But given how tough it is to get sample participants - especially among poor people, young people and people of color, among other problems - I've come to believe that such figures are ballpark estimates at best.

Which means that much of what happens in the TV industry - which shows survive, who gets the multimillion-dollar deals, which company can post billions in ad revenue - is built on an ephemeral bunch of statistics.

No wonder TV has been so much fun to cover for so long.

There may be no other institution that so completely embodies America's obsessions, advantages, achievements and drawbacks; a mirror of society that I've felt privileged to explore on your behalf.

- Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521, deggans@sptimes.com or through the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com

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