Monday, April 20, 2009

INTERVIEW: Television Columnist Rick McGinnis on TV, Radio, Newspapers, and the Future of The Media Establishment

For anyone who knows me, I've always been a fan of public transit. Whenever I travel to a new city I always make a point to check out their subway or commuter train. We're also a one-car family. So needless to say I rely on public transit for my daily commute.

Starting about 10 years ago, a free daily showed up called "The Metro", which was distributed around most Toronto subway stations. I must admit at first I avoided the paper as I saw it as an affront to quality journalism

(this was before Fox News, so my concerns seem quaint now). One day, after looking at the same subway ad for the zillionth time, I decided I needed to divert my attention and reluctantly picked up a copy that was lying next to me. The paper is in tabloid form and is clearly designed to be consumed in a single commuter trip. Most news articles are presented as "snacks" rather than a "meals". Nevertheless, The Metro does employ some writers who clearly take pride in their work and strive to create something that people actually look forward to reading.

Rick McGinnis exemplifies this. His television column - "The Idiot Box", rebranded, "Intellivision" - was not only my favourite Metro column, but also one of my favourite columns in general (up there with Roger Ebert's writing). His droll sense of humour grounded in humility was coupled with a sincere interest in the medium of television. These qualities really made his columns resonate in the post Pulp Fiction/Simpsons era. Rick spoke to the modern audience: The audience that can both appreciate pop culture on the surface non-ironically, but also enjoys peeling back the facade to dissect the underlying mechanics and manipulations. While for some this may seem to blur the line between "laughing at" and "laughing with", I feel this approach is actually more egalitarian and inclusive in its nature.

Two months ago when Rick's column stopped appearing in The Metro, I at first thought he was just on vacation. Then after a couple weeks went by I got worried and Googled his name. That's when I found his blog "Life With Father" and discovered that he was "downsized" due to the recession. I must admit, it was one of the most surreal media experience I've ever had. I had been reading his column for all these years in paper form, and now with barely missing a beat, I was continuing to read Rick's daily musings through my iPhone... still on the bus to my office in east Scarborough.

It occurred to me then, that Rick might have some time for a TUN3R interview. While many of us are familiar with Rick's take on television, I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore his music and radio side. Enter Mr. McGinnis...

Q1 Neil: Rick, thanks very much for taking some time for this interview! To get things started, how long had you been writing the television column in The Metro? What was the best part of the job? The worst?

A1 Rick: I wrote the column for just over four years - 500 daily columns as Tube Talk, the original name of the column when I took it over, then 523 as Idiot Box, the name I came up with, and the one I always preferred. At some point last year our publisher and new editor decided that they wanted to change the name, claiming that they thought Idiot Box "insulted the readers." Frankly, I always assumed that everybody would guess that the idiot was the guy writing the column, but you really can't do much for the irony-challenged. They held an internal contest at the office for someone to come up with a new name, and Intellivision won, but before we could use it, the lawyers started fretting about infringement with whoever owns Coleco's trademarks, so it was slightly changed to Intellevision, which is a pretty bad pun any way you look at it. I wrote 136 columns under the name before I got laid off, along with all of the other reporters at the paper.

I guess that was the worst part of the job - working hard on turning an afterthought column into something worth reading, dealing with people who didn't really get it, building up a readership and then getting canned. There's no positive spin you can put on that kind of experience. Apart from that, I guess it was the increasingly tight word counts - 375 per column on average by the end - though any good journalist should consider that a challenge, I suppose. It made me a tighter, more concise writer, I'm sure, though I'm quickly squandering that skill with the blog, which lets me write at New Yorker magazine lengths.

The best thing was having to analyze, over a long period of time, my relationship with television, which had always been a big part of my life, even though I really didn't watch if for about 15 years - roughly from when I started college to the point in my mid-30s when my wife moved in with me. I watched a lot - A LOT - of television when I was a kid, and to some degree my conception of TV remained locked in place in the late '70s, when the big three networks were still unquestionably the industry monoliths, though cable was starting up, and all these small, local, specialty players were starting to nip at their heels.

Obviously a lot had changed by the time I started writing the column in early 2004, and I had to get up to speed pretty quickly. I started with the usual prejudices - reality TV was bad, a successful show had to pull pre-cable network numbers in the multiple millions, TV was an inferior medium to the movies - and had them all swept away in quick succession. It was, really, an exciting time to be writing about TV.

Q2 Neil: In your blog "Life with Father", you argue that there is no such thing as a Golden Age of Television, or rather today is the Golden Age. Do you think the same applies to music and radio?

A2 Rick: I think there have been patently more exciting, interesting eras for movies, music, maybe even books - definitely newspapers and magazine journalism - but TV has actually always been in the process of getting better. Of all these media, it's the one whose fate is tied most closely to technological progress, and all the technologies relevant to television have been surging ahead over the decades since it was invented, which has only widened the possibilities for what TV can accomplish.

Everything from broadcast quality to the sets and recievers themselves, not to mention the internet explosion and digital file-sharing, has made TV better, more integral to the way we live, in a way that movies, for instance, can't quite match. Everyone in the movie industry complains that the time constraints - the 2-3 hours maximum that a mainstream audience will tolerate sitting still to watch a film - necessarily reduce the scope of what they can do with story and character, but now that TV looks as good as the movies, the distinction between the two has been made irrelevant.

The way people consume TV also gives it an edge. Until recently, movies were an event - you had to go somewhere to enjoy them, and you paid to rent your seat for the duration of the program, with extra cash paid for food and drink. You watch TV at home, in a space you own, with your own food, and a bathroom without lineups that's as clean as you want it to be. The atmosphere is far more comfortable, so it's not surprising that people will spend a whole weekend at home devouring, say, a season of 24 - something they'd never really think to do with movies, which in any case are still limited by the duration and economics of the theatrical experience.

Of course, home video has taken film out of the theatrical venue, but it's too late - actors have realized that, if they can get on a series that really clicks, they can have the luxury of an audience, a longer character arc than they could dream of with a film, and something like a steady paycheque. In the long run, I can imagine the distinction between movies and TV blurring and ultimately dissolving - there's just no good reason that it wouldn't.

If it seems like the golden age of radio and music has passed, it's probably because circumstances have changed in the way we've consumed both of those. The golden age of radio as a technology was probably in the '30s and '40s, when it was the fastest and most modern of communications technologies, but its cultural golden age probably came later, when AM top 40 radio was literally an expression of the tastes of the baby boomers who made top 40 - and the music industry - wildly profitable.

It's a simple matter of demographics - any medium that serves such a huge, largely homogenous group will appear vital and timely. The Beatles are still the most famous group in the world because, for at least a decade or more, they were the favorite group of the majority of a huge demographic bulge. Even today, they're the gold standard for success for a musical group, though it's almost impossible that another group will ever duplicate their influence or impact.

I actually think that's a good thing. Any cultural phenomenon so overwhelming is a bit scary to me - like a demagogue, or a political movement. The balkanization of musical taste has been hell for the musical industry, but I think it's made the proverbial thousand flowers bloom. Ten years ago I would have thought that every band would be making music on laptops today, but the music scene is full of young bands playing acoustic instruments in the most arcane combinations, singing multipart harmonies. The irony, of course, is that all this creativity playing to small but loyal audiences is happening past the far fringes of commercial radio, which has come to rely on formats like talk, or that muzak-like "hit radio" formula that's so general it actually appeals to no one in particular.

Q3 Neil: Are there lessons from the current trials and tribulations of the television industry that could be applied to the music industry and/or the radio industry? Were the television networks even to blame for their own decline?

A3 Rick: Oh, they were certainly to blame. They were able to guess that digital video files were as easily copied and shared as music files, and they've tried to avoid repeating the mistakes the music industry made by ignoring the changes for too long, then trying to litigate them into submission after it was far, far too late. But what they didn't quite see was how the broadcast TV model - which hasn't appreciably changed since the creation of commercial radio in the '20s and '30s - was becoming utterly irrelevant to their viewers. It isn't 1936 or 1956 anymore - people don't rush home to park themselves in front of the Stromberg Carlson or the DuMont to catch the latest Rudy Vallee with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, or I Love Lucy.

The PVR was the mp3 player of this transformation, and it caught on because people wanted convenience, and they got it in a technology that refined what VCRs and cassette tapes had offered, but in a far less sophisticated user experience. I just don't think the broadcast TV model has any life left in it, and the sooner the industry gets it the better.

The sooner they move from the scheduled broadcast model to the marketplace one the better for everyone. For instance, by June of this year the first leaks of the fall's TV pilots will start hitting the file-sharing networks, either put out there surreptitiously by the shows' producers to build buzz, or by people from all the points in the production chain - PR assistants, interns, staff at editing, duping and mastering facilities - who can get their hands on a screener DVD and slip it into their computer and out onto the net. I had the pilots for Life On Mars and True Blood weeks and months before they aired, and for the life of me I couldn't understand why the networks were waiting to air these shows when they had them in the can already.

No one thinks the strictly delineated fall TV season makes sense anymore, but it persists regardless, mostly because it's hard to get the industry to break from their stasis. It's partly laziness, partly fear, and partly the unwillingness of any single competitor to break out and do something new while everyone else nervously strains at the starting blocks, unwilling to try something that might fail, or might work spectacularly, or at least become something that works with some refinement forged by the market.

Q4 Neil: On a related note, do you believe that now that big media giants are beginning to crumble that we're seeing or going to see an increase in quantity, but a decline in quality?

A4 Rick: Not at all. Smaller players like AMC have produced shows as good or better than their competitors, and as long as you can spot talent - and get it to come up with an idea that doesn't, for instance, require you to build ancient Rome on a studio lot in Italy - you can make a show that people will want to watch. Digital technology has made cinematic sci-fi possible on TV, but TV's strength has always been attracting young, hungry talent willing to work long and hard to make their name, right from the early days of TV when New York was producing intense chamber dramas in tiny studios with all these Broadway and method names, or budding talents like Paddy Chayefsky and John Frankenheimer.

Frankly, I can't see why someone can't make a really compelling show with a consumer video camera, freeware video editing software and a YouTube account. It's certainly been anticipated for a few years now, though the fact that it hasn't happened doesn't mean it won't.

And besides, as the big media players start shedding staff and productions, they'll be freeing up people who - if they're at all serious about what they want to do - will want to do it wherever they can, and not just under the umbrella of a big, lumbering - and frequently interfering - media conglomerate's production arm.

Q5 Neil: A bit off topic for radio, but I have to ask. What ever happenedto the sitcom? It seems like a pinnacle was reached with Seinfeld, and we've never been able to reclaim that high ground. Is there a reason why this once popular genre seems to be stagnant?

A5 Rick: The genre just got tired. I assume you're talking about the 3-camera, "live" audience and laugh track sitcom. Don't forget that they still make them, and that one of them - Two And A Half Men - is still one of the most popular shows on network TV, even if it gets no critical love. There's definitely nothing now like the "golden age" of the sitcom - roughly the '70s, with shows like Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Barney Miller and - though I'm not a fan - Norman Lear's shows.

It was a long, slow decline for the genre after that, at the end of which Seinfeld was a freakish little renaissance all on its own, mostly because it was such an ironic, knowing take on the sitcom, and one that assumed that the audience was perfectly aware of the traditional sitcom's inherent flaws, which Seinfeld both spoofed and defied. But it was a death blow to the genre, I think, and good riddance.

Q6 Neil: Getting back on topic. Growing up, what radio stations did you listen to? What kind of music were you into? How have your tastes changed?

A6 Rick: I grew up with this sort of schizophrenic radio experience as a kid - my brother and sister had CHUM AM and the top 40 music of the '60s, and my mom's was devoted to CHFI, which was on a total MOR "Music of your life" format, playing everything from James Last and Andre Kostelanetz to Sinatra and Tony Bennett and old big band swing and light classical. I still listen to most of that stuff today - well, maybe not the Last and Kostelanetz.

And then in the '70s I discovered my own taste - prog and FM album rock at first on CHUM FM, then punk and new wave on CKLN, which was broadcasting out of Brampton then, I think. Punk rock was really my music - the first music that I really owned, and wasn't passed down to me by my mom or siblings. I loved it - still do - but I quickly learned that most of it was wildly uncommercial stuff that even an FM maverick station like CKLN wouldn't play. If you wanted to listen to punk rock, you either made a lot of money and collected every record you could find, or you traded tapes with friends - or made friends with people who had the huge collections. If only we'd had file-sharing back then!

In fact, the single largest iTunes playlist I have is my punk rock one - over 20GB, and growing all the time. Almost everything on it was recorded between 1976 and 1982, and it's the soundtrack of my youth, albeit idealized, as if I'd grown up all over the U.S. and Europe, and picked up hundreds of singles a week in every record shop I'd find. I listen to a lot of music - jazz, old blues, prog rock, indie, ethnic (not "world") music. I have gigabytes of '60s garage music; are you aware how many little bands in the U.S. were printing nasty little singles on tiny little regional labels between 1965 and '68? The Beatles might have made a lot of people pick up guitars, but most of then ended up sounding like the Seeds, or ? and the Mysterians.

It was this kind of connoisseurship and packrat collecting that made writing about music the most natural choice when I left school, and I did that for years, until I burned out. I used to think it was unique, but there were obviously a lot more people who hoarded music and created their own radio stations using mix tapes and trading, creating a need for custom music experiences in the absence of the technology that would make it possible. Basically, I've been waiting for an iPod all my life (though I actually prefer the Zune.)

Q7 Neil: Have you ever listened to Internet DJ-mixed radio (e.g. Radio Paradise) or custom radio (e.g., Pandora, Jango)? Where does most of the music you listen to come from?

A7 Rick: I used to listen to the channels on Live365, and we have an XM satellite radio in the kitchen, where the family is together most of the time, but most of my music is downloaded, from iTunes, band and record label online stores, or file-sharing sites for obscure and out-of-print stuff, and I hear about new things - current bands or obscure old music - from mp3 blogs, which are the greatest thing out there for a music fan, as far as I'm concerned.

I discovered great new bands - Fleet Foxes, My Mourning Jacket, The Black Keys - thanks to mp3 blogs, most of whom got the tracks from the bands, as previews for albums, with permission to make them available for promo. When you find an mp3 blog run by someone whose taste you trust - something like Sound Bites, SirensSound, The Unblinking Ear or Milk Milk Lemonade - it's as good, or better, than reading Rolling Stone or Creem or Spin or Maximum Rock and Roll back in the day.

Tivoli loaned me one of their PAL internet radios to review last year, and we had it in the kitchen. It was great - the selection of stations was better than decent, there was a lot of variety, and the sound was fantastic. I love internet radio, but its lack or portability compared to, say, a plain old car radio would be a big drawback for most people and their radio habits. It's a technology issue, though, not a content one. People want more variety and choice in what they can listen to, and that need's being addressed very creatively - the technology will follow, I'm sure.

Q8 Neil: Recently, CBC Radio 2 has undergone a transformation from a mainly Classical Music station, to a station that plays a more eclectic music - sometimes indie pop music. Traditional CBC Radio 2 listeners got angry and felt that the programming consists of music that is "ephemeral" (note to readers: CBC Radio 2 also launched 4 Internet streams, one of which is classical, so it's only the FM broadcast that's been impacted.) My question isn't so much whether or not CBC made the right decision - although I'm interested in your opinion on that - but do you think the Canadian government, or any government have an obligation to intervene and shape culture? What should the government's role be in this regard?

A8 Rick: Government should get out of the culture business as much as possible. There's really no other way for me to answer this question. I think that the CBC is in a great position right now to get out of the business of competing with commercial television networks like CTV and Global - and the U.S. networks that they share the dial with, and compete pointlessly with for audiences.

I agree with Colby Cosh, a columnist at the National Post, who wrote a few weeks ago that the CBC should get off the airwaves and go online. Newsworld might make sense as a bare-bones news channel that commissions some original content but mostly licences news and documentary programming from other English-speaking countries, but a CBC that tries to pretend it's a player in the same league as CTV - or ABC or NBC - is an expensive joke. I think TV programming will go online eventually, so why can't we enhance our national prestige by leading the way?

I actually think CBC Radio is in more viable, but I think they should pare down to one, very basic national station focused on news, weather, and the most politically neutral current affairs programing possible. It sounds unexciting, but providing the country with the most utilitarian radio service imaginable is the essence of their mission. The rest of their programming - all the music and arts and cultural chat show stuff - should go into internet radio channels and podcasts.

I used to work in a record store classical music department back in the '80s, when classical music aficionados were replacing their LPs with CDs, after which the classical market collapsed. It's a niche musical interest, and it's most economically served by small, local broadcasters in cities, not a national, publicly funded radio network.

Basically, I just don't think you can legislate culture, or fund an audience into existence. We've been doing it for years, and there's never been any kind of unqualified success story; the movie industry has been an exercise in producing films for the smallest possible audiences, and CanCon regulations in music have become completely irrelevant in the internet age. We have to grow up, and the first thing we have to do is shed these old, counterproductive habits and assumptions about building culture, which barely made sense forty years ago, and have become anachronisms today.

Q9 Neil: Obligatory question: If you could have had a theme song for your Metro television column, what would it have been? Actually, make that two: One for "Idiot Box" and one for "Intellivision".

A9 Rick: No question - T.V. Eye by the Stooges: "I got a TV. You got a TV. We all got TVs. Big fucking deal." Words to live by. In a more sophisticated mood, "TV Is The Thing" by Dinah Washington.

Q10 Neil: Apart from typical freelance work, do you have any larger or personal projects in the works?

A10 Rick: I'm trying to get a couple of book projects going, and I have the usual unfinished novel in my desk drawer. Newspapers certainly aren't hiring these days, so whatever freelancing I do will likely be more online than anything else, which I'm actually excited about. Most of my reading happens online, so I can't see why I shouldn't be working there. It's a strange, anxious time in my business right now, though - no one knows where things are going, and I'm thinking that the fewer assumptions I have, the better.


Hockey Outsider said...

Rick McGinnis for Prime Minister!

Kate said...

What a great interview - provoking and amusing. Nice work