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A Few Grim Truths About Media Right Now (and One Happy One)

Paula Deen and TV's Karaoke Economy Sadden Our Media Guy, but Stephen Colbert Saves the Day

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As Ad Age 's "Media Guy," it's technically my job to try to make sense of the media world. Sometimes it's not easy, but of course I stand on the shoulders of giants (including those of a certain Comedy Central host). Other times I wish I could stomp on the kneecaps of the media world's cretins, but I won't get into that right now. Anyway, here's a quick download of what I've figured out lately:

Colbert's antics in South Carolina have shown how ludicrous the political situation is .
Colbert's antics in South Carolina have shown how ludicrous the political situation is .

Stephen Colbert is America's greatest living cultural/media critic
Hands down. Part of the credit, of course, goes to the writing team on "The Colbert Report" (somehow already 6 years old and more essential than ever), but it's Colbert's pitch-perfect rendition of the "Stephen Colbert" character that makes his show's satire work so brilliantly night after night. There is no funnier or smarter (or more heartbreaking or depressing) deconstruction of the American scene -- particularly our fatally flawed political process, as signified by Colbert's Super PAC -- to be found anywhere else in the culture right now.

America's entertainment industry = the new Karaoke Economy
"China's products are popular, but rarely original," the journal of the British nonprofit Design Council declared in a 2007 piece titled "The Karaoke Economy." But if you read The New York Times' epic investigation last week headlined "How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work," you know why China gets to make so many of the world's state-of -the-art gadgets even if the ideas for them originated in, say, Cupertino. (Hint: It's not just about cheap labor; the sophistication of China's supply chain has left America's in the dust.)

What does the U.S. still make? Media -- entertainment. The only problem, to put a twist on the Design Council's phrasing: America's entertainment products are popular, but rarely original. My Ad Age colleague Michael Learmonth, writing about the 500-channel universe last year, counted no less than 19(!) reality shows in the pawnshop genre. There must be at least that many shows about cake-baking ice-road-trucking Texas socialites.

Meanwhile, "American Idol" is back on Fox and "The Voice" returns to NBC right after the Super Bowl. "Idol," of course, is but a slight variation on its British predecessor "Pop Idol," and "The Voice" was born in the Netherlands. In other words, we're all supposed to get excited about the face-off of two massive TV karaoke singing competitions that are themselves a form of conceptual karaoke.

Paula Deen is the new Kim Kardashian
The media world turned on Kim Kardashian when her brief marriage last year was exposed as a profit-generating sham. Pop-culture consumers enjoy vulgar "reality" and absurdity to a point, but in the end they don't like being blatantly duped; the Kardashian brand -- irreversibly associated with shameless deception and greed -- is permanently damaged. (The New York Post recently reported that "Circulation at Us Weekly, In Touch, Life & Style and OK! dropped about 18% when a Kardashian was on the cover in December.")

But luckily for the assorted Kardashians, the media already has a new punching bag: Paula Deen, promoter of insanely unhealthy, artery-clogging cooking on her assorted Food Network shows, who timed her public revelation about having Type 2 diabetes to an endorsement deal with pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk. Deen's hawking the $500-per-month diabetes drug Victoza with the unforgivable tagline "Live a life that 's delicious." (Longtime Deen critic Anthony Bourdain's recent tweet nails it: "Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.")

Deen's endorsement deal and the timing of its announcement is making everyone feel just kind of ... queasy. (See PR pro Eric Webber's recent guest post on AdAge.com: "Paula Deen's Credibility Crisis Is Our Credibility Crisis.") Last week the news broke that Deen's longtime publicist, Nancy Assuncao, had resigned in December specifically because of the unconscionable endorsement deal. I predict that Assuncao will be joined by plenty of others distancing themselves from the now-toxic Deen. Advertisers who sponsor "Paula's Best Dishes" and her other shows are surely monitoring the outrage over Deen's deception (she's known about her diabetes diagnosis for three years) and greed. I think the damage to the Deen brand will be long-lasting and, quite possibly, irreparable.

The Republican primary season is the new Weather Channel
In late December, BigThink.com labeled 2011 "The Year of Completely Bizarre, Downright Crazy Weather," citing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that damage from weather disasters throughout last year could ultimately end up costing more than $50 billion (vs. $1 billion in a typical year). I'm not going to wait until the end of the year to dub 2012 "The Year of Completely Bizarre, Downright Crazy Presidential Politics." Consider, just for starters, Newt Gingrich's upset victory in South Carolina -- thanks in part to strong support from ultraconservative, religious voters ... which makes no sense! (Except in an anyone-but-Romney way.)

There's a parody image floating around the meme-sharing site Imgur right now that riffs on the disconnect. It shows a shot of a laughing Newt above the headline "Family Values" -- which is defined just below, in faux motivational-poster style with white type against a black background, as "Using daughters from your first wife to convince everyone that your second wife is lying about your third wife."

There can be only one explanation for Newt's bizarre popularity with the conservative religious base: climate change.

I kid! But I do think we should henceforth move all Republican primary debates and coverage to the Weather Channel, where they'd fit right in as shocking, logic-defying phenomena -- although maybe over on CNN, Anderson Cooper could occasionally bravely wade into the shit storm in a tight, black T-shirt to report live as the tragedy unfolds.

As for me, if you need me, I'll be watching "American Idol" to see how Jim Carrey's daughter does.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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