Insipid

Early last week everybody--well, every media outlet--in town was buzzing with anticipation over two media-generated cliff-hangers: the final episode of Fox's American Idol 2, and the last installment of the Star Tribune's four-part series, "Infidelity," in which readers would learn the fate of Brian and Vanessa, a local married couple struggling to save their marriage after an affair.

Teased the headline on top of the Strib's third installment: "An exhausted Brian, beyond caring, finds release in a strip club. Vanessa asks an agonizing question: Can she be herself and still be married to Brian?"

Brass at both companies had to be pleased with both the ramp-up and the results. Wednesday night's finale on Fox drew 52.2 million viewers, tying Joe Millionaire to earn the network's highest-ever rating among coveted 18- to 49- year-old viewers. Over at the Strib, according to deputy online editor Will Outlaw, the serial averaged some 44,000 views a day, making it "one of the top individual stories we've ever had," rivaling recent coverage of the war in Iraq.

Basically, Idol is The Gong Show on steroids, pumping up its viewership with the kind of synergy that only media conglomerates can deliver. Viewers are introduced to a cast of "real" people, the entertainment media dutifully respond with personality profiles, fan groups form, and the blow-by-blow coverage takes on the frenzied aura of an athletic competition. (Thursday morning, chat sites around the globe were clogged with post-game analysis, complaints, and even impassioned cries of foul.)

Idol does not exist in a vacuum, however; it is part of a larger sporadic phenomenon that hit its stride in late 2000, when TV and film writers in Hollywood were threatening to strike and the networks needed a cheap, easy way to patch potential holes in programming. Prompted by the success of "reality" shows such as CBS's Survivor--and Candid Camera-esque laughers like Jackass--entertainment executives have since green-lighted a host of projects that not only promise low production costs and huge returns, but pander to the public's insatiable appetite for unvarnished voyeurism. Who needs staged drama or comedy when there's a seemingly endless supply of everyday folk willing to humiliate themselves?

Network affiliates such as WCCO-TV and KARE-11 have happily cross-promoted these sorts of programs for their parent companies, and in the process they have become expert in packaging the fluffiest of confections to capitalize on the fad, especially during sweeps periods. (May is one of three critical sweeps months, along with February and November.) The result is three-to-five-minute spots that do not pretend to any news value; they really just consist of anecdotal tales designed to stimulate ratings with fear, scandal, or superhuman feats of stupidity.

So news organizations are engaged in pandering; what's new? But there's a more troubling undercurrent in the "reality-TV"-ing of everything. Whatever fuzzy line remained between corporate news and commercial entertainment up to the late '90s is now being erased in the indiscriminate quest for "users"--and low-cost, low-effort programming.

Which brings us back to the Star Tribune's "Infidelity"--a real-world soap opera dressed up as a cultural snapshot. For four straight days, staff writer H.J. Cummins was given the front page of the paper's Variety section to detail one couple's crippled and crippling relationship. Structured conventionally, like an episode of MTV's Road Rules, each segment is larded with teasers and cliffhangers to bring you back for the next installment. In part one, Vanessa wonders whether Brian will agree to an open marriage. Part two is supposed to leave you fearing that Brian--who has found a used condom in his house and, worse, discovers that he finds spiritual release listening to the Indigo Girls--will hurt himself. By the last two installments the marriage is on the line. The couple is "emotionally spent."

Will they make it? Should they try? Is she a bitch? Is he a wimp? The content of their character became public domain, the sort of stuff that inspired 24 million people to vote for a winner on American Idol 2.

Along the way, readers were given access to a number of sidebars featuring statistics on infidelity, pithy advice from therapists, and resources for those in need. Susie Hopper, an assistant managing editor at the paper, doesn't believe higher-ups in the newsroom would have even "considered" running the series without these sidebars. "The only reason to do it would be to offer some utility," she says. (The key word, I guess, being "some.")

Knowing how much hand-wringing goes into every major editorial decision at the Strib, I have no doubt that Hopper and the six other editors who vetted "Infidelity" believe the story served some higher purpose--to open a discussion, or to prove that the paper's new management is capable of being adventurous. On both counts, though, the series is an embarrassment, no more edifying or artful than your average installment of Springer.

As Hopper herself says: "It may make you feel good and normal to read this thing. You can voyeuristically go into a story like theirs and say, 'I'm glad that's not me.'"

The main material in the series is, until the end of the fourth segment, essentially straight memoir, written in an up-close, oozing-compassion style that becomes as grating as the protagonists, two people who richly deserve each other. We see Brian curl up on the kitchen floor and cry. We hear Vanessa say she won't leave her lover, even though she wants to save her marriage. We know what friends think (they're doomed), what the counselor suggests (they're not, if...), even what the weather is like when there's a dramatic turning point in the story. "They sat together for a long time, wanting to enjoy this happiness before taking on the 15 years of hurt and bad habits that had come between them," one section reads. "The rain continued. They held one another. Vanessa cried." I'm not kidding.

In the most skilled hands, this sort of structure has its limitations, especially in a news venue where readers are accustomed to reading stories that make a point. A more ambitious, albeit less flashy, approach would have been to use this couple's intimate details to frame a larger discussion about the kinds of issues their story raises. That is, after all, what journalists do.

That would have required a lot of legwork, though, and it certainly would have generated a less steamy reaction from readers. The piece the Strib did instead was about making you come back for more, day after day, to watch two people as though they were characters on a TV show. On startribune.com, in fact, readers were asked to answer the question, "Can the marriage be saved?" At the end of last week, over 5,000 people had responded and 60 percent had said no. The accompanying bar graph, like the half-page graphic that ran with each installment of the series, is as colorful as it is meaningless.

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