Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Fox News Alert. Amid the slow and painful-to-watch collapse of American Idol and generally dismal ratings, programming chief Kevin Reilly is leaving the Fox Broadcasting after about seven years at the helm. It’s definitely time for a change at the network and speculation is running rampant about who will get Reilly’s job. The list includes several execs already heading other branches of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, including 20th TV CEO Dana Walden and John Landgraff who runs the uber-edgy FX Networks. One name I have not heard bandied about is one that, to me, warrants genuine consideration.

Roger Ailes has headed Fox News Channel since its inception in 1996. Since then, the network has gone on to not only handily dominate the cable news market but to become one of the highest-rated cable channels overall. Perhaps the prime reason for that is that FNC (where I worked some years back) provides viewers an alternative to other TV news outlets that virtually all — to one degree or another — tilt left. That same general decidedly left-of-center tilt exists in television as a whole and, most definitely, at the broadcast networks.  There is, as a result, a huge vacuum to be filled similar to the one that Fox filled when it launched. It’s also a void that Fox Broadcasting is uniquely positioned to fill.

First of all, the network is firmly established (a huge plus) but after years of leading the field in edgy programming, its ratings have tanked — making the timing for a change of direction. Secondly, in terms of branding, Fox’s news and entertainment divisions have seemed to be at war for years. Bill O’Reilly and others on the news channel rail against an elite entertainment culture  that often mocks traditional values — the kind of stuff Fox Broadcasting has pretty much exemplified since its Married…with Children days.  Currently, shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy are pretty clear about their contempt for Fox News.

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Now, is the time to resolve that rather-glaring branding issue. Furthermore, given the demonstrated strength of family-friendly and faith-based films, it’s more than clear that that audience is being severely under served on television. True, Hallmark Channel and UP TV have been growing fast on cable, but on the broadcast side everybody’s still trying to out HBO HBO.

Moreover, it’s been said that politics is downstream of culture and, on that score, having conservative voices heard via a powerful broadcast platform — through comedies dramas and other programming — is actually important. This is especially true in an era when cable bundling, the creative use of demographics and over-valued internet buzz have skewed the television medium so much in favor of elite cultural gatekeepers that the total number of people that actually a watch a given show is made to seem incidental. Low-rated programming is essentially subsidized by cable operators. Individual shows, meanwhile, are made to appear more popular than they really are by simply declaring one segment of the audience to be more important than another and through the echo chamber that is the internet.  Despite all this, appealing to a mass audience that includes a cross-section of all Americans still makes good business sense — and will make even better sense in the future as new technology allows people to break free of cable and subscribe only to networks they enjoy and that don’t deliver sucker punches aimed squarely at their values.

So, given these factors, Ailes, who also runs Murdoch’s My Network syndication service (which offers blocks of off-network series programming to local broadcast stations throughout the country), is the right man at the right time for the job of righting the Fox Broadcast ship.

What might an Ailes revamped Fox Broadcasting network look like?  Well, in my view, it wouldn’t necessarily be conservative in a political sense. But it would make a real attempt at being, shall we way, “fair and balanced” in its presentation of characters across the political spectrum. It would respect (i.e. not mock) traditional values such as faith in a loving God, strong families, self-reliance and personal responsibility. It would less graphically violent and less sexually obsessed. It would replace themes of cynicism with themes of kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, wisdom, courage and friendship. It would promote tolerance, including tolerance of thought, and the all-important abilities to resist hypocrisy and laugh at our own foibles (as opposed to arrogantly mocking those with whom we differ). It would also respect American history by acknowledging that, while there have been (and are) injustices, we stand on the shoulders of those who built this country and we are fortunate to live here.  Yes, television should make us feel good about who we are as a people and light the way toward becoming a better people. Culture counts.

BTW, if Ailes (or anyone else) wants to build a network that’s truly aimed at appealing to the large cross section of this country that actually believes in those values,  there’s a bunch of extremely-talented providers out there who have strong track records, along with quite a few promising proposals and pilots that have been passed on. On Thursday, I’ll have a list.

Faith Links

Mother Teresa biopic gets Sept. 5 release date

Dinesh D’Souza says “The left is winning the culture war”

Variety Family and Faith-based Summit set for next week

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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