Thursday, March 01, 2007
Idiot vs. Predator
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more malignant hive of ineffectual, Pavlovian dolts than the programming department of any television network in America. It's the kind of place where words like "imagination" and "innovation" are never more than a mission statement away, but the adventurous spirit behind them -- not to mention the risk that such a spirit invariably requires -- is happily disregarded at a moment's notice in favor of a safe bet or proven formula.
The clearest possible example of this lies in all those instances in which a show was canceled after literally one or two episodes. The flip side of the coin is that when a show does unexpectedly become a hit right out of the box, it's all but assured that network executives will immediately begin A) oversaturating their prime-time lineup with the thing until it becomes the mass-media equivalent of the Ludovico treatment from A Clockwork Orange, and B) desperately clamoring to get their hands on as many shows as possible which follow the same basic format. The folly of the former tactic becomes clear when you realize that Who Wants to be a Millionaire, once a breakout hit, is no longer on the air; the folly of the latter, when you think back to how many shows at the beginning of last season bore a striking resemblance to Lost and have now also been permanently banished to TV's Phantom Zone.
But no single hour of television has proven, at one time or another, every unprincipled, anathematic trait inherent in modern network programming than, surprisingly, Dateline NBC. This is not to say that NBC's long-running TV news magazine hasn't been a showcase for some excellent journalism; it most certainly has. It's simply that the true reason for its very existence -- to say nothing of its prime-time ubiquity -- seems to have never actually been about journalistic excellence.
Back in the late-90s, during the final glory days of NBC's prime-time hegemony, it was almost impossible to turn on the TV and not be granted an audience with the chiseled visage and soothing baritone of Stone Phillips; the show was literally on four-nights-a-week at one point. While this kind of prevalence might have suggested an unwavering faith in the content of the show at the highest levels of NBC, the reality was nothing quite so noble.
It was mostly a matter of saving a few dollars.
For those who don't understand how the television business works (or in many cases used to work, before huge entertainment conglomerates solved all the networks' programming problems by simply buying them), just because a show is on NBC, ABC, CBS or FOX doesn't mean any of those networks actually owns that show. A network has to buy it, typically at a hefty price. A show like ER used to cost NBC a small fortune -- an expense which was offset by the fact that the show was insanely popular and therefore raked in a very big fortune in ad revenue. (Incidentally, I have no idea what NBC is paying for ER these days but whatever it is, it's too much; the show is painfully average -- and the network knows it. A good rule of thumb: you can tell that a former hit is on its last legs when the promos for it feel the need to constantly remind you that it's "as good as it's ever been." If you're an actor on a show that's described in this way, you know it's probably time to call your agent, put off buying that new Aston Martin Vanquish and work something out with your coke dealer.)
But NBC owns Dateline outright; it's technically a product of the network's news department (why I feel the need to qualify that statement will become evident in just a second). What that means is that above all, the show represents one monumentally important thing to the network -- arguably the most important thing: it's cheap programming. During that period in the late 90s, Dateline NBC was no ratings bonanza, but it wasn't costing much either; it was less expensive to pack the schedule with Stone Phillips than it would have been to pay a production company for a show that might not have broken even.
The "innovation" and "imagination" of the programming executives were willingly ceded to the desire to "please" the "stockholders" and consequently "keep" their "jobs."
But then, not long ago, something unexpected happened: a few more people started watching Dateline.
What led them into the tent damn sure wasn't any of that boring "excellent journalism" stuff; it was the attraction that's been guaranteed to lure curious crowds across America for generations: a good, old-fashioned freakshow.
So began the ascendency of Dateline's popular, profitable, panic-inducing and thoroughly pointless series, To Catch a Predator. By now you probably know the drill -- in fact, if you believe the hyperbolic promotion, you or someone you know has already been outed as a child-molesting degenerate on national television by the dashing and intrepid Chris Hansen and his Turtleneck of Justice. For the uninitiated, it works like this: Hansen and crew team-up with police and a group which cleverly calls itself "Perverted Justice" to nab internet predators in the act. They pose as teenagers on-line, luring unsuspecting men -- and they are always men -- to a predetermined location somewhere in Suburbia, USA. Driven by the diving rod in his pants and the promise of an opportunity to use it on some teenage or pre-teen boy or girl, each hapless deviant leaves the comfort of Mom's basement and descends upon a typically modest home -- borrowed from a volunteer -- which in reality has been transformed from Rockwellian to Orwellian with the addition of enough hidden cameras to keep Room 101 busy for months. Once inside the spider's lair, the pervert in question usually meets an actor whom he believes to be the object of his on-line affection, but before any deal can be sealed -- SURPRISE! Out pops Hansen with what can only be described as the ultimate cock-block.
It's occasionally entertaining -- and occasionally painful -- to watch the erstwhile Romeos squirm like pigs stuck in a chute. They sweat; they twitch; their eyes dart around the room futilely trying to locate that hole in time -- the one that might whisk them away and back to the moment just before they made the worst decision of their lives.
For his part, Hansen casts himself as the avatar for every parent living in fear of the lecherous wolf constantly banging away at the other side of his or her child's computer screen. He furrows his brow with concern and reminds the unlucky deviants what they were ostensibly expecting to find when they walked through the door. (Just once, I'd love for one of them to be quick-thinking enough to jump up and say, "Actually, I'm here for you Chris Hansen, because I'm from ABC's new show, To Catch a Hack Journalist!") After listening to the inevitable litany of outlandish excuses, Hansen then figuratively throws off the comfortable blazer and puts on the inquisitor's robes, really going for the throat: he opens his manila file folder and begins reading the filthy words of each fiend back to him. Needless to say, it's comedy gold.
This is all followed by the unfortunate sap being taken into police custody.
Thanks to the Hansen Traveling Circus, Dateline NBC -- a show that once populated prime-time for practical reasons more than anything else -- has become a minor breakout hit. The programming executives at NBC now have the best of all possible worlds: an inexpensive show that can bring in a few advertising dollars and be peddled as nothing less than a service to the community. Paddy Chayefsky can rest peacefully in the knowledge that every single thing he predicted about the future of network television back in 1976 has come to putrid fruition.
In spite of its moderate popularity though, To Catch a Predator has had its very vocal detractors, for some reasons which should be obvious -- and a few others that aren't.
It seems impossible to defend someone who traveled a hundred or more miles in the hope of being rewarded with sex from a fourteen-year-old, and I certainly don't mean to do that. Still, on-line sting operations have always made me slightly nervous simply because of the questionable tactics employed by police and the somewhat nebulous nature of the charges typically filed against the accused: "attempting to solicit sex from a minor."
Early in my career, I worked with a meteorologist named Bill Kamal. He and I were little more than acquaintances, but for the most part he seemed like a decent enough guy -- despite his affinity for wearing large hoop earrings and pirate shirts when not on-air. Kamal was obviously a great fit with Miami and continued to work there long after I'd left -- pretty much right up until October 24th, 2004; that's the day he was arrested for driving his Corvette all the way up to Ft. Pierce to meet a young boy he had met in an on-line chatroom called "Boyzformen". The boy had said his name was Billy, and had claimed to be fourteen-years-old. The boy also claimed to have already had sex with an older man. The boy, of course, wasn't a boy at all; he was a St. Lucie County detective -- and he arrested Kamal on the spot. Inside Kamal's car, police found condoms and a water gun.
Like the guys on Dateline, Kamal rattled off a list of ridiculous excuses as to why he had toys in his car, not to mention child-porn on his computer at home. Eventually though, he was convicted in court and is now sitting in a federal prison, no doubt dazzling his fellow convicts with his impressive knowledge of cloud formations and the resilience of his sphincter.
Now make no mistake, Bill Kamal didn't drive 160 miles to chat about baseball and that new Green Day album -- not with the price of gas these days; Kamal was there to have sex with a teenager. The problem of course is that he didn't. In fact, not only did he not have sex with a fourteen-year-old-boy, there never was a fourteen-year-old-boy. He was always chatting with a grown man, regardless of what he may have thought. And that may be the problem: charging someone with soliciting sex from a minor when there wasn't a minor anywhere in the picture to begin with seems slightly underhanded; it relies fully on what Kamal thought was happening and what he intended to do about it.
I realize that this argument can essentially be applied to any kind of police sting operation, but such is the fine line between intention and execution.
Why couldn't Bill Kamal have simply said, "I knew it was a grown man all along -- that's just my fantasy?" In Kamal's case, the reason was probably because he had a trunk full of toys and a glove-compartment full of condoms (although even that could ostensibly be explained -- which Kamal of course attempted to do). Still, there's no law against possession of a concealed water gun. Once again, it relies on an intransigent knowledge of what was going to happen. At this stage of human evolution, Philip K. Dick's "Pre-cogs" are still only the stuff of imagination.
Chris Hansen and the investigators involved with To Catch a Predator have of course found a way to get around the "Hypothetical Victim" quandary; that's where the actors-pretending-to-be-teenagers come in. At the very least, it can be argued that they provide the dirtbags with one last chance to do the smart thing and back out. Yet again though, what's to stop someone from saying, "I figured it might be you Chris, but I came anyway because I wanted to be on TV. I'm sort of insane and act irrationally a lot of the time -- did you know I can also make myself invisible?"
This debate is entirely academic, particularly when Hansen and company actually have at times put more kids in harm's way than they've probably protected.
Just ask the town of Murphy, Texas.
NBC is still receiving letters and e-mails, not only from angry residents but from even angrier city councilmen. Their outrage stems from an "occupational hazard" involved in the production of To Catch a Predator -- one that's easy to overlook yet becomes glaringly obvious and gravely serious once recognized:
The show is drawing potential child-molesters into quiet neighborhoods.
You're probably aware of the phrase "Not In My Backyard" -- well, neighbors in Murphy, Texas weren't pleased when Dateline decided to lure alleged rapists to their backyard. They were even less pleased when police were forced to chase some of these guys through their backyard; when bags of drugs were found in their backyard; when the push to make exciting television was putting their backyard in danger.
A letter to NBC from a Murphy city councilman says it all:
"It was (the residents') streets, not yours, not Dateline's... You held a sting at a house within sight of an elementary school. An elementary school that had an early release on the day of your sting. A house right in front of a bus stop for our school children."
The councilman goes on to figuratively grab NBC executives by the throat -- stating a rather interesting fact which challenges the supposedly benevolent and judicatory intentions of To Catch a Predator: not one case for sexual solicitation was filed as a result of the sting in Murphy, Texas. While this denouement does admittedly come as a bit of a shock, the goal of the entire effort should never have been in question and should surprise no one. It was never about justice; it was always about money.
The formula for deducing any objective has always been simple: consider the source.
80% of NBC/Universal is owned by GE; the other 20% belongs to Vivendi. Both are publicly traded companies, which means that nothing at NBC is done without the stockholders in mind. When money is the goal, truth becomes nothing more than another commodity. Occasionally it's an advantage; occasionally it's an impediment.
Bottom line though: if you're looking for altruism, you're barking up the wrong peacock.
Of course, none of this has stopped NBC from pretending that the aim of To Catch a Predator is to actually catch predators -- and in some ways, that's the most egregious disgrace of all. Although a debatable amount of Schadenfreude is ripe for the picking every time a Hansen Home opens for business, that's not the kind of thing NBC can promote -- remember, Dateline is, nominally, a news show. Instead, the network uses the most sure-fire and time-honored tool in any modern news department's promotional vault -- the one that brings 'em in every time: fear.
Put simply, To Catch a Predator preys on your fears.
It preys on your belief that the violation and infestation of your home and family is never more than a mouse click away.
And guess who put that belief there in the first place?
Predator, and shows like it, likely couldn't exist were it not for the months and years of promotional carpet-bombing that came before them. Nothing gets the attention of the masses like a potential threat, and those whose job it is to sell you the news -- an item which ironically didn't need to be sold in years past -- know that full well. This is why there aren't simply meth users -- there's a full-blown meth "epidemic." This is why it is imperative that you and your family tune in tonight to get the latest important information on the Bird Flu. This is why each time there's a tragedy somewhere else in the country, your breathless local news anchor will -- without a doubt -- ask, "Could it happen here?" This is why you're probably scared to walk out your front door. But that's no use; the vermin have now found a way through your defenses and they're coming for the thing you hold most dear: your children.
Thank God, Chris Hansen is there to stop them!
If money is the goal, and truth is a commodity, then fear is the ultimate weapon.
This is not to say that there aren't dangerous people trolling the internet, looking to have sex with kids; there are. But never in the history of malfeasance -- in the history of anti-social behavior -- has there been an infringement that's easier to prevent. Contrary to what many opportunistic fear-mongers would have you believe, the boogeyman isn't actually living inside your child's MacBook; he's more than likely two time-zones away sitting in a dank one-bedroom apartment wondering why his mail-order bride is divorcing him and taking his kids -- or possibly why his new NAMBLA card hasn't arrived yet. That doesn't exactly rise to the level of clear and present danger. All you have to do to get rid of him is turn off your damn computer. All you have to do to ensure that his screen name never sullies any monitor in your home to begin with is talk to your children. If your twelve-year-old is spending a lot of time in chat rooms called "Boyzformen," it's safe to say that he's asking for far more trouble than the pathetic jerk on the other end of the line; that guy's just buying into what's advertised. Is he potentially dangerous to the world outside the Matrix as well? Possibly -- but once again, when it comes to keeping them safe, educating your children is far more than half the battle.
For God's sake, don't leave it up to Chris Hansen, NBC or the network programming executives.
They're just in it for the money.