A few weeks ago GQ magazine published, then unpublished, an accurate depiction of Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav as "the most hated man in Hollywood." Later, we learned that Zaslav's flunkies pressured the magazine—whose corporate overseers also have a share in WBD—to make edits that would present the media emperor in a kinder light. The story's writer, Jason Bailey, objected to the edits; the article was memory-holed. The subsequent flood of coverage ensured it didn't go quietly; far more people went on to read the archived original version than ever would have if Zaslav or his lackeys had merely kept their mouths shut.
I have experience with David Zaslav, sort of. He was the keynote speaker and winner of the Fred Dressler Leadership Award from the Newhouse School at the 2014 Mirror Awards, a ceremony I attended with Jack Dickey—with whom I had been nominated as a finalist for the John M. Higgins Award for Best In-Depth/Enterprise Reporting at that event. (We didn't win; someone named Frank Greve did, for an article published in a print-only journal from Congressional Quarterly. I'm sure he deserved it.)
Zaslav's honor was preceded by a tribute video, in which his immense success was lauded by all manner of celebrities. You can see Ron Howard already up there in the video thumbnail, but wait—there's more!
"The most hated man in Hollywood," it seems, is deeply admired by Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey; then again, he wasn't hated so much ten years ago. The people who hate him today aren't the ones that were singing his praises in the video back then, anyway.
But go back up and watch it, if you can (and can stomach it). For every Hollywood celebrity or reality-show "star" congratulating Zaslav on his award, there's some old white guy spilling out of an ill-fitting suit jacket praising the Discovery boss's business acumen. And that's the real theme of the video; David Zaslav is deserving of a journalism school's highest honor because he managed to put himself at the top of a media empire.
Nothing he did to get himself there has anything to do with journalism, but you know that already.
As we filed out of Cipriani that day, staffers handed us plush shark toys. It was the ultimate lampshade; just months earlier, Zaslav's flagship Discovery Channel had aired its most-viewed program ever—a Shark Week documentary that turned out to be completely made up. Zaslav, after accepting a journalism school's laurels at its fancy New York awards luncheon, wanted to ensure we didn't mistake him for one of us. Not because he was immensely wealthy and we were either poorly paid ink-stained wretches or the (only slightly better paid) teachers of future ones, but because we had dedicated our lives to the pursuit of truth; he had the opposite priority.
A whopping 38 different programs dedicated to UFOs, aliens, the paranormal, and cryptozoology aired on Zaslav's Destination America network alone. A month before Newhouse crowned Zaslav at Cipriani, Discovery premiered Alaskan Bush People, a program that alleged to portray a family that lived off the grid in an Arctic wilderness—something that was quickly debunked. Alaskan Bush People is still on television; it concluded its 14th season a few months ago. And that's just one of literally dozens of "reality" shows overseen by Zaslav that have been proven fake over the past 15 years. Only when things all too real intervene—think Honey Boo Boo & Josh Duggar—do Discovery programs face cancellation.
When I got home, our dog Harper tore the toy shark to bits—which is how we discovered it wasn't stuffed with the normal polyfill but thousands of plastic airsoft pellets.
Shark Week 2023 begins today.
Tear anything successful apart and you're likely to find that it's constructed a bit differently than its peers. Records of humans engaging in artistic production for the entertainment of others stretch back to pre-history, but for most of the span between then and now, no rending was necessary. The text was the text. While the authors of almost everything ever written are now dead—literally, to great comfort of Jacques Derrida, certainly—we, the potential readers, are alive. And we don't need to deconstruct anything to know One Thousand and One Nights has been entertaining people for something like 36,500% as long as the title suggests. The reasonable but less-well-read person nevertheless can come to conclusions about its subjective value merely by the fact that enough people thought it was worth keeping around. You could say the same for Shakespeare's plays, Bach's oratorios, or Rashomon.
More recently, we have objective measures like "best-seller lists," "box-office receipts," and "Nielsen ratings" to help us engage in discourse about works to which we ourselves may not have been yet exposed.
Or do we?
With more than half a billion dollars in domestic receipts, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is almost certainly going to be the most-watched film in 2023 (though my fingers are still crossed for Barbie). Everyone knows Super Mario Bros. Everyone has played Super Mario Bros. The King of England has played Super Mario Bros.
Do you know what the most-played video game on the planet is, right now? It was the most-played video game on the planet last year, too. It's something called Free Fire, and I had never heard of it in my life until I went to go look up those statistics five minutes ago. 200 million people, it is said, play Free Fire every month. That's twice as many people as watch the Super Bowl. And I cannot tell you a single thing about Free Fire.
I can't really tell you anything about Shark Week, either, despite the fact it consistently boosts Discovery to the top of the cable network ratings every year. The other 51 weeks, Discovery networks (and their competitors) put unscripted programming up against that other unscripted behemoth—live sports—for ratings supremacy.
Live sports get written about, perhaps too much. Live sports get talked about, definitely too much. But outside of a few specific unscripted programs (Vanderpump Rules, etc.) the sources of entertainment for most Americans are not in any way part of our broader discourse.
And the scripted cable TV programs? Oh, boy. Are you perhaps aware of how few scripted programs remain on cable television? Here's a complete list of the scripted programs that were among the 150 most-watched shows during one recent week:
8 LAZARUS PROJECT SNEAK TURNER NETWORK TELEVISION 25 BAND OF BROTHERS AMC 26 BAND OF BROTHERS AMC 27 BAND OF BROTHERS AMC 34 BAND OF BROTHERS AMC 36 BAND OF BROTHERS AMC 37 BAND OF BROTHERS AMC 47 BAND OF BROTHERS AMC 48 AMERICAN DAD TBS TBS NETWORK 53 BAND OF BROTHERS AMC 54 BAND OF BROTHERS AMC 67 CRAIG OF THE CREEK THE CARTOON NETWORK 73 CRAIG OF THE CREEK THE CARTOON NETWORK 83 BAND OF BROTHERS AMC 87 BLUES BIG CITY ADVENTURE NICKELODEON 96 CRAIG OF THE CREEK THE CARTOON NETWORK 99 THOMAS & FRIENDS: ALL ENG THE CARTOON NETWORK 100 CRAIG OF THE CREEK THE CARTOON NETWORK 114 P+ JOE PICKETT PARAMOUNT 125 FATAL ATTRACTION TV ONE 127 BREAKFAST CLUB, THE BLACK ENTERTAINMENT TV 128 PRIDE: SEVEN DEADLY SINS LIFETIME TELEVISION
That's 22 of 150, and 10 of them are Band of Brothers. Three of them were movies. (While pro wrestling is in fact scripted, it's not really what we're talking about here).
Scripted television still has a foothold on broadcast TV, at least. Eight of the top ten most-watched broadcast TV shows this past season were scripted (the other two were overall #1 Sunday Night Football, and 60 Minutes at #8). But again, is anyone really talking about NCIS, FBI, Blue Bloods, Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, or The Equalizer?
No, you say, because most TV viewers are past the age of contributing to or being a target for the discourse. You dolt! You fool! Use the demo ratings instead!
OK. Using the 18-49 demo ratings, the only changes are the addition of... Survivor, American Idol, The Masked Singer, and Next Level Chef. Whoops! Those are, at least, shows we talk about. But the top ten canceled shows by viewers? All scripted. (No one will miss you, NCIS: Los Angeles.)
And no, despite what you may have heard, TikTok hasn't supplanted the boob tube. The average American still spends three hours a day watching television.
Despite the Long Tail abundance of choice future described by Chris Anderson in 2006, the future of entertainment options is very much in question. The sort of media consolidation that has left David Zaslav in charge of a major movie studio and premium cable TV networks has also created a world of entertainment that looks remarkably...familiar:
More important, in the intervening years, the opportunities available to ambitious directors have narrowed further. The notion of a starry, C.G.I. “Bambi” reboot has gone from a joke on the HBO Max industry satire “The Other Two” to an actual movie that Sarah Polley is making in the wake of her Oscar-winning film “Women Talking.” During the pandemic, multiplexes collapsed. The future of moviegoing now seems increasingly tenuous, and studios have leaned on pre-awareness as a means of drawing people to theatres: a nostalgia play like “Hot Wheels” is seen as a safer bet than an original concept. The box office has borne this out: the ten highest-grossing films of 2022 were all reboots or sequels. Disney’s much derided strategy of remaking “Aladdin” and other animated classics as live-action spectacles has largely paid off; by contrast, Pixar’s recent attempt at an original story, “Elemental,” bombed. On an earnings call last November, David Zaslav, the head of Warner Bros. Discovery, emphasized that “a real focus” of his was to revive the conglomerate’s most popular franchises. “We haven’t done a Harry Potter movie in fifteen years,” he said. (In fact, there have been six.) The mandate for audience recognition has pushed artists to take increasingly desperate measures—including scrounging up plotlines from popular snacks. Eva Longoria recently directed the Cheetos dramedy “Flamin’ Hot”; Jerry Seinfeld is at work on “Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story.”
Studios have churned out so much of the same shit that alleged entertainment genius David Zaslav doesn't even know what his own company has been releasing. (He belongs in this graf for another reason; "Flamin' Hot," like his Shark Week megalodon doc, is also not based on a true story.)
In his Maps & Legends, Michael Chabon dedicates a good amount of space to his career-long advocacy of genre fiction and the individual pursuits of appreciating comic books and sci-fi. At least when it comes to Hollywood studio films, we may be past the point of there being a "genre" category at all; of those ten top-grossing films last year, seven were either comic book or science fiction films. (Eight if you count Top Gun: Maverick as sci-fi, and you absolutely should. Also, one of the others was a video game movie.) The films not based on existing IP are now the genre.
"Crap," you say. "It's all crap." It's always been crap, though, and here we'll return to Chabon, who in Manhood for Amateurs points out the treasure many find in other generations' trash:
What smells strongly of crap to one generation—Victorian penny dreadfuls, the music of the Archies, the Lone Ranger radio show, blaxploitation films of the seventies—so often becomes a fruitful source of inspiration, veneration, and study for those to come, while certified Great and Worthy Art molders and fades on its storage rack, giving off an increasingly powerful whiff of naphthalene.
More central to my regard—in principle, at least—for the artistic possibilities of crap is my lifelong personal experience with the power of mass art to transport and enrich the imagination of its consumer. I saw a lot of lousy movies and watched a ton of crappy television and read a bunch of utterly forgettable books and comics and listened to hours of junk music as a kid. And I’m still drawing profitably in my own art on some of the tawdry treasure I stored up in those years.
There are two ways to look at this. There's no question we've been provided incredible works of entertainment inspired by, derived or, or outright adapted from the "crap" of Chabon's childhood (some of it, obviously, in his own literary work, but also the MCU, HBO's Watchmen series, and the films of Jordan Peele). Whether these works hit for average is for someone else to decide.
But we're running out of stuff to reprise.
This past TV season saw remakes of Night Court, Frasier, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Quantum Leap, and Criminal Minds launch. They were late to the game for which Magnum, P.I. and others blazed a trail.
What inspiration to the next generation of entertainment creators is provided by Hoarders? Storage Wars? 90 Day Fiancé? Or is the future of entertainment remaking yesterday's viral TikTok?
This is not a project to make subjective judgment on the aesthetic qualities of popular entertainment works. It's also not really intended to fill in the gaps of discourse about what television programming is actually being watched by the majority of Americans. It is, instead, going to ask a lot more basic questions, things like:
What is entertainment?
How do we make choices about being entertained?
My promise to you is that these will not, always, be 2,500 word essays that sound suspiciously like things we discussed in cultural studies doctoral seminars. In return, you promise not to demand an immediate answer, and we might not come up with an answer to either of these things.
We're going to talk about weird pop music anomalies, old TV ads, and why such an enormous amount of activities that purport to be entertainment leave us in a worse emotional state than if we'd simply avoided the content entirely.
Our mandate is simple: despite the promised abundance of choice in entertainment options, people like David Zaslav are actually playing a bigger role in how we're able to make those choices since the days before widespread adoption of cable television. Here's our method:
- We can triangulate the specific time in American cultural history when consumers had the greatest agency over their entertainment options.
- This constituting the "most free" market of entertainment options, we can assume the most popular choices in that time rose to the top through merit.
- The qualities that made those choices successful are either because of cultural relevance or because they possess uniquely entertaining qualities.
- If the latter, we can identify those qualities and replicate them in new works.
That's right, we're here to save the world of entertainment—the Western world, at least. Unless our answer ends up being "Michael Jordan," and it's quite possible that our answer could be "Michael Jordan." But who knows!? We'll find out.
Or maybe we won't. I'm not making any promises. But given the circumstances from which I type these words, I need a place to publish. This is that place. Welcome!