By Chez Pazienza: I happened to stumble across the very good 1994 movie Quiz Show on cable the other day. For those who haven’t seen it or don’t know much about it, the film dramatizes the television quiz show scandal of the late 1950s, in which Twenty-One and other popular TV game shows were revealed to have been fixed by the producers behind them. The most infamous revelation during the scandal, and really the one that started the snowball rolling downhill, was that handsome and seemingly brilliant Twenty-One returning champion Charles Van Doren — who rocketed to pop culture stardom because of his supernatural staying power and apparent wealth of knowledge on a broad number of topics — had actually been given the answers all along by TV exec Dan Enright and had initially won on the show only after the previous long-time winner had been ordered to take a dive. That previous champion, Herb Stempel — who admitted that he too had been handed the answers on the show during his extended run — was a somewhat schlubby dullard from Queens, while Van Doren was a youthful and engaging academic from a successful family.
It’s really a shame that I hadn’t gone back and watched Quiz Show since the first time I saw it in the theater on its initial release; as my grandfather used to say, I “might’a learned somethin’” about the business I’d chosen. Much like Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece Network, which is still the best movie ever made about television, it was a prescient piece of art that highlighted perfectly where things were headed in the wake of the story it depicted; however, where Network was pitch-black satire based on the state of TV at the time and what was surely to come, Quiz Show looked back to the early days of the medium to document in methodical fashion the fact that the poison tree that TV has become was once a mere sapling, but it was always poisoned. The way TV producers thought back then is the same way they think now — the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same.
I bring all this up because MSNBC just hired S.E. Cupp and cast her as one of the rotating anchors of its new 3PM show.
Again for the uninitiated, Cupp is a conservative commentator and cultivator of the naughty librarian look; she supposedly stands out from other female conservative talking heads because she’s a bit of a smart-ass and claims to be an atheist, but really aside from that there’s little to distinguish her from every other right-wing pundit with a gripe and a forum these days. Unless you take into account, of course, her looks. There’s no way around it: S.E. Cupp is ridiculously easy on the eyes. And I’ll give you one guess as to what played the larger role in her getting a crack at her own show on MSNBC, her political wisdom and opinions on various topics or her drop-dead gorgeousness. The truth is that S.E. Cupp has always known exactly what her brand is and has played it up for maximum profitability; she knows she’s a great-looking young woman and that that sort of thing, combined with the ability to string a couple of words together coherently while tossing a little red meat in the right direction, no pun intended, can equal a hell of a career as a conservative mouthpiece. She’s one of those people I truly doubt believes 90% of the crap she espouses — she simply knows that it works for her in spades so at this point it’s a marketing gimmick and not much more.
MSNBC probably knows this as well, but Phil Griffin and the guys in the corner offices likely don’t care what Cupp’s motivations are — they simply know that people will tune in to see her even if MS’s regular audience has to do it with the volume turned all the way down. They hired her because she’s beautiful and because she allows them to make the horseshit claim that they’re inclusive of all points of view, not simply the progressive perspective. I’m not saying that MSNBC isn’t more balanced in its worldview than, say, Fox News — a network which has a top-down, institutionalized political agenda that infects every single second of its coverage — but merely that MS’s attempt to “reach out” to conservative audiences is doomed to fail. First of all, the hiring of Cupp will do nothing to stop the relentless criticism of MS from the howler monkeys on the right because there’s no amount of evidence that will convince them that the boogeyman that they need to demonize doesn’t exist. Playing the far end of the political spectrum is always all about victimization, particularly on the right — and conservatives will never be willing to admit that the liberal media actually isn’t all that liberal and isn’t out to get them. Couple that with the fact that MSNBC execs aren’t really all that interested in what S.E. Cupp has to say anyway — at least not compared to what she looks like — and you’ve got a recipe for the most cynical of television endeavors.
TV is a visual medium therefore it stands to reason — and seems entirely unreasonable to stand against the fact — that attractive people are going to get a leg-up. As sexist as it is, it’s also undeniable that a good-looking woman can and will often see a hell of a lot more doors opened for her on her way up the television food chain than one who’s seen as unattractive. Yeah, Erin Burnett has a background in finance, but if she hadn’t made little hearts dance over Chris Matthews’s head every time he talked to her on the air, she never would’ve been the success she was at NBC and consequently wouldn’t have her own show — as much of an abomination as it is — on CNN right now.
Over the next couple of days, you’re going to hear a lot of poetic effusion from Phil Griffin as he enthusiastically touts the big brain behind the eyeglasses of his network’s newest star-in-the-making, but I probably don’t need to tell you how galactically full of shit he’ll be. Like Dan Enright in the 1950s, he’s nothing more than a producer meticulously trying to engineer a successful show by putting the person most likely to be watched and adored in one form or another by the widest possible swath of the public in front of the camera. He’s found the face, one he knows people will enjoy looking at — and it doesn’t even matter what that face has to say or how smart the person wearing it is; he’ll coach her thoroughly and make sure she has the correct answers ahead of time anyway. S.E. Cupp gets her own show for the same reason Charles Van Doren did all those years ago: because she’s got sex appeal. As it once was, it continues to be in the world of television. The fix is still in.