How Breaking Bad Got Smarter Than Breaking News
Like every one of my holidays, there were three guarantees this past Easter: covered dishes, time spent with the extended family, and my older relatives’ insistence that according to Pundit X, Politician Y is determined to destroy the America we know and love and only Cable News Network Z has the courage to report the truth. The third guarantee is usually declared during the transition from green bean casserole to banana pudding, but it can come as late as post-meal coffee. It’s not an exact science. I think tides and moon phases are involved somehow.
My elders’ concerns aren’t uncommon. It’s a familiar tale told by many Americans and follows a curiously similar format. When asked what I think about what Pundit X has to say, I usually respond that my television is occupied by the likes of "Breaking Bad" and "Community" instead of Pundit X and that I avoid television for my news. The truth is that I care more about what Walter White has to say than Pundit X. And the truth is that I’m better off for doing so.
The television landscape of the past four decades is one where our popular entertainment got smarter while our news got dumber. Where once there was "The Dukes of Hazzard," now there is
The Wire." Hackneyed sitcoms like "Gilligan’s Island" have given way to clever and hilarious pop culture commentaries like "Community." Just compare the characters of 1978’s top rated show, "Three’s Company," to modern ratings powerhouse "Breaking Bad."
The characters in the former are two dimensional at best. Insert conflict and watch the scenario play out according to each character’s predictable disposition: Janet will scramble to fix the problem, Jack will ogle, and Chrissy will be eye candy while exhibiting the cognitive abilities of actual candy. "Breaking Bad"’s Walter White transforms over the course of the series. He morphs from life’s abused underdog to top dog; at once a father and megalomaniac, victim and murderer. The plots of modern shows like "Breaking Bad" put their intelligence on display by treating their subject matter with the recognizable realism audiences see everyday. Relationships with friends and family can become strained. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, no matter how noble the intention. Conflict is ubiquitous in our lives and good, intelligent entertainment puts it on display and allows us to manage these issues through surrogates. We feel for them, but once credits roll the stakes for the viewer are the same as they were 42 minutes ago.
Meanwhile, a few channels over, the stakes for the viewer have never been higher. Danger, destruction, and yelling are the prominent themes. Conflict and drama are in full force—only this isn’t entertainment, this is news. And it’s dumber than ever.
Sixty-six percent of Americans turn to the television as their primary news source and of those, 24-hour cable news networks are the content providers of choice. Every day hundreds of millions of Americans will tune into either MSNBC, Fox News, or CNN and every day they witness TV news at its dumbest. It should be noted that I’m making no value judgements on the specific content of these networks but rather the form this content takes. This is not about how the pundits on Network X are making an argument for gun control, but why there are pundits in the first place. Why are five people given a three minute segment to discuss such a complex and nuanced topic? Why—if time is doled out equally—is each person given 36 seconds to articulate any sort of cogent opinion on this issue when it takes longer to put on one’s socks and shoes? The answer is that the opinions, good or bad, don’t matter. What matters is those three minutes.
TV news is dumber than ever because cable news networks are no longer in the news business, they’re in the entertainment business. And business is booming. In 2012 Fox News alone made $1.8 billion in total revenue and $985.6 million in profits. The vast majority of this money comes from advertisers. The relationship is simple: the more people watch, the more eyes advertisers can have on their product. Cable news shows with high ratings become huge assets for advertisers willing to pay millions for ad space. For networks, the bottom line is to keep people watching no matter what. How do you keep people watching? Give them entertainment. Those three minutes for the gun control segment were not important because the audience was presented with an informed, logical discussion. They were important because you watched it. You cheer on the pundit with whom you agree and nod with satisfaction when the host puts the wormy guest in his place. After all, he’s well-lit and sharply dressed and I’ll be damned if the red stripes on his tie don’t just pop against that snazzy blue backdrop. Sets, music, personnel, and topics are all are carefully crafted to make the most engaging, exciting, and sometimes enraging program viewers will watch and watch consistently.
The irony is that the same handling of conflict that makes our entertainment so dynamic is what makes our news so static and dumb. It’s in our nature to find conflict and danger compelling. We even coined a term, “rubbernecking,” as a shorthand for this very behavior. Slowing down to see a car accident doesn’t inform or enrich, it just satisfies the simplest pleasure centers of our brains. The rubbernecker doesn’t come away from an accident with a newfound perspective or understanding. Nothing is gained other than the excitement of engaging in spectacle, and it’s this excitement that has led cable news to the top of the ratings while appealing to the lowest common denominator. If we want to put an end to our nation’s political and social gridlock, we must cease to be a nation of rubberneckers and avoid the wreck on our televisions. Only when viewers demand and support substantive news will we glean substantive results. Until we can find the likes of Walter Cronkite on our TV sets, we’re better off watching Walter White.