The Right to Make Wrong TV?

April 26, 2010
By | 15 Comments

Lest you thought Saturday Night Live’s recent sketch about a Sarah Palin Network was simply idle humor, later this year, the RightNetwork will launch as an independently-owned network programming solely for conservatives. Their website explains:

Our mission is clear: to entertain, engage, and enlighten Americans who are looking for content that reflects and reinforces their perspective and worldview. RIGHTNETWORK will consistently impact the political and cultural discussions of Americans.

The site currently offers trailers for several will-be programs, including Running, a reality show focusing on six conservatives running for office; Right to Laugh, featuring conservative stand-ups in action; and Politics and Poker, a show whose premise is pretty much there in the title. These and other promotional materials cutely employ puns-aplenty to make “right” mean “correct,” “good,” and a moral principle, while they also encourage the syllogism that everything else is “wrong.” Frontman Kelsey Grammer notes, “There’s wrong, and there’s right — RightNetwork — all that’s right with the world.”

A few thoughts:

(1) While points (2) through (5) should make it clear that I’m not likely to be their biggest fan, I will admit that I’m captivated by the prospect of a non-news network that sees its watchers as citizens, not just consumers (even if it may simply be treating them as such to capitalize on them). Take Running, for example. In a media world in which citizenship is often reduced to the simple acts of voting and watching the news, it’ll be refreshing to see a show that explores how and why people “become political” and what’s involved in “getting involved” in politics. As I watch, I may need a slopbucket beside me for the moments of biased excess, but I nevertheless give credit where credit is due.

(2) Using a tiresome conservative martyr complex in posing itself as new and different, part of its rhetorical purpose seems simple – to insist once more that the supposedly Trotskyist media system is alienating conservative viewers, as though NCIS, The Office, American Idol, and Dancing with the Stars team up weekly to call for children to have abortions, pay more taxes, and marry gay welfare mooches. But how will this fare as a channel for people to actually watch, not simply as a rhetorical strategy of victimization? When one can watch Right to Laugh or something that’s legitimately funny elsewhere, what will happen, especially when many other options exist that, even if not Tea Party parades, hardly challenge a conservative worldview (how is Two and a Half Men liberal?)? Comcast-Spectator chair Ed Snider is a huge fan, which will certainly help, and may suggest my prognostications are half-witted, but I do wonder about its long-term financial viability.

(3) There’s a fascinating and telling contradiction in the mission to “enlighten” Americans “who are looking for content that reflects and reinforces their perspective and worldview.” Surely enlightenment means the shining of light onto what was dark, and hence requires challenging or otherwise expanding – not reinforcing – one’s perspective and worldview? I could snidely surmise that they need a dictionary, but instead I’d pose that we’re seeing more sides of a very different epistemology at play here (see here for more sides of it) – one that defines enlightenment as flattering reminders that one is already in the light. Indeed, this is an interesting moment in an era of “egocasting,” in which one tunes in to media that only offers one’s own perspective, and that reflects one’s image back at oneself.

(4) It’s also interesting how, even while egocasting, the mission statement’s grammar (and its Grammer) subtly suggests that this is for all Americans, and that all Americans share these beliefs. Not surprisingly, then, they overreach. At the minute mark of that Right to Laugh clip above, for instance, we see minstrel humor as the only African-American reduces African-Americans to being, gee whiz, such a musical folk. Or watch this music video by Polatik about the Tea Party, on their YouTube channel, to see Polatik’s rather stunned audience try to work out what to do with a minority rapping at their event (while, coincidentally enough, once more the featured minority is a musical fellow). My question, then, is whether they’re actually trying to reel in youth and/or minorities, albeit poorly, or whether such instances are simply there to salve Tea Partyers’ self-image and to insist to themselves that they’re representative?

(5) Finally, it’s worth asking what this does to Fox News. As the explicitly, openly conservative, pro-Tea Party channel that wears its politics on its sleeve, RightNetwork could allow channels like Fox News to seem less objectionable and as more moderate. Oh boy.


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15 Responses to “ The Right to Make Wrong TV? ”

  1. Jeffrey Sconce on April 26, 2010 at 10:33 AM

    Thanks for the heads up, Jonathan, I had no idea this was coming down the pike. I share your horror/fascination.

    A couple of points though: if conservatives (like Pauline Kael, I’m not sure I know any personally), believe TV is a Trotskyist cesspool, then it must be…at least for them. This outrage is such a huge part of the conservative sensibility that it becomes in effect true. “Two and a Half Men,” for example, may seem wholly innocuous to most, but I can imagine a predisposed viewer thinking it promotes non-traditional parenting (wink wink), promiscuity, “coastal” lifestyles, etc.

    Perhaps conservative “martyrdom” is just a significant component in their particular structure of desire–it’s not just “how” they see themselves, but how they “enjoy” seeing themselves.

    And finally, isn’t part of the pleasure of all-niche or egocasting the fantasy that you the viewer will be in a vanguard of some kind, leading others to eventually discover your truth? “Enlighten” can mean expand, certainly, as in a Lefty friend who constantly implores you to watch “Treme” in some promise of learning different perspectives about New Orleans, but it can also mean the revelation of a singular truth–mystical, spiritual, REPUBLICAN!

    In any case, I look forward to “Right to Laugh,” which must have the most uninviting title ever.

    • Jonathan Gray on April 26, 2010 at 11:53 AM

      Thanks Jeff. Quick responses, taking your paragraphs in turn:

      (1) I don’t doubt they can do the work to make it Trotskyist (maybe here’s our new “active audience”?), but on one hand I find it disconcerting how “The Media” always seems to include everything else, not what one’s watching (as when Fox News boasts of the best viewership in news, then wants to say that “mainstream media” is lefty), and on the other hand the Nielsen figures — if they’re to be trusted — suggest quite clearly that conservative America is watching just as much TV as the left. That perhaps leads to the next par., though …

      (2) Yes, extremely well put. I remember meeting a radical right-wing undergrad at Berkeley who very clearly went to Berkeley just so that he could be in the afflicted minority. With this in mind, the question is, will all this rightwing media kill their buzz, or is the beauty of the system that the leftwing media will always be seen to be a present and looming danger, even if that means symbolically turning Ace of Cakes and Dancing with the Stars into the Red Army?

      (3) Perhaps I misread the mission statement. The point is perhaps not that the network will enlighten its viewers per se — it’s that the viewers will enlighten the masses with whom they come into contact … hence the last sentence of the mission?

      (4) We can set up viewing parties in Rockford, IL, as a midpoint between us if you’d like 😉

      • Matt Sienkiewicz on April 28, 2010 at 8:07 AM

        There is certainly a sense in the vast, vast majority of corporate television takes stances on human behavior which a sizable portion of America doesn’t care to endorse. I don’t think it’s about abortion or gay marriage or anything else that riles up The Base though.

        More than anything it’s about much less controversial sex. There are very few characters (I can’t think of one…) on network television who I can say, with certainty, believe that one shouldn’t be have sex outside of marriage (I realize that statement has a funny ontology, but you understand). There are, however, lots of perfectly reasonable Americans who hold such an opinion, even if they’re not much inclined to blog about it or bother people outside their families about it etc.

        Personally I don’t see this as a left-right issue, but I think it’s the kind of thing they’re playing off of. The problem is that you get bigger headlines further to the margins where, indeed as Jonathan notes, you’re not enlightening anybody.

        It’s sort of Dutch Pillar Systemish and I suppose at least you ostensibly know where the people stand when you watch their shows. My greatest fear is that it gains a big presence and people who make their money narrowcasting gain even further control over a key political concept like conservativism.

        • Jonathan Gray on April 28, 2010 at 9:20 AM

          The sex outside of marriage thing is a red herring, I feel, Matt. First off, there are plenty of characters on TV who feel that way. Glee just had an episode about it last week, for instance, where the teen virgin who stayed a virgin felt good about it, while the one who had sex felt remorseful — a pretty clear message if you ask me. Which leads to a second point, which is that many who have sex outside of marriage are punished for it, or considered sluts — anytime SVU has teens having sex, they’re inevitably raped, murdered, or subjected to other forms of misery.

          Third, when this was a hot-button issue after the 2004 elections (when so-called “values voters” were seen as being responsible for Bush getting reelected, and as a constituency that the media had been ignoring), Hollywood was keen to release Nielsen data that showed Desperate Housewives and other seriously sexed-up shows played really really well in red states, and not just in the bluer parts of those states. The porn industry followed up by noting their similar success in such areas. I’m always amused by American depictions of Brits as repressed, when the American capacity for sexual repression far eclipses England’s. Perhaps you’re right that people are hating Hollywood rather than (or in addition to) themselves while they’re watching all that sex, but for them to turn premarital sex on TV into a sign of The Great Liberal Evil is therefore yet another act of profound misdirection.

          • Matt Sienkiewicz on April 28, 2010 at 9:39 AM

            I just don’t see it. I saw the Glee episode and definitely did not read that as having anything to do with pre-marital sex really. It was about “being ready” and the clear message to me was “don’t have sex until you’re ready.” It wasn’t a moral argument, it was a psychological one. And I’m sure sex leads to all sorts of evils on all sorts of shows but I would wager those all depict the sex as somehow “abnormal” in a fashion that keeps most casual sex outside of marriage perfectly ok, likely focused on the age of the participants. I see these as near-exceptions that reinforce the rule more than any sort of coherent stance regarding the question sex and marriage.

            As I said, I don’t see it as left-right really issue and I’m not sure that blue state-red state is useful here. If I had to pick a large demographic most concerned with sex and marriage my guess (and yes, just a guess) would be Catholics, who are concentrated in blue states (NY, IL, MA, NJ) and vote bluer than average.

            Absolutely, this is no reason to vilify Hollywood, but I think we do a disservice when we don’t consider things like this a real issue.

            • Jonathan Gray on April 28, 2010 at 12:58 PM

              Well if it’s not a left-right thing, I’m not sure I get where it fits in the discussion of a conservative feeling that the liberal media is a vast creature in need of a rightwing alternative. After all, RightNetwork has not promised to be the “only when you’re married network,” and isn’t marketed that way. So, yes, many shows accept pre-marital sex. I accept that. But how’s this create a space for RightNetwork doing a show with standups talking about how much they hate Obama? I’m lost

  2. Mary Beltrán on April 26, 2010 at 11:43 AM

    Thanks for this piece, Jonathan. You remind me of the importance for media scholars to study the range of what’s out there, and not just what’s in our ideological and intellectual comfort zone. I’m going to be very curious to see how “rightness” is constructed in this RightNetwork’s programming, and also to see how successful the network is with its ratings. And your point on Fox News being positioned as less stridently right in relation is especially well taken. Yikes.

  3. Nick Marx on April 26, 2010 at 12:15 PM

    Interesting that their mission statement reads like that of a news network and not something more explicitly entertainment-based. Seems like the network ought to be positioning itself against the likes of Bravo and Comedy Central, not MSNBC (or, hell, even Fox News). A handful have tried the “Daily Show for conservatives” thing before, like the kinda-worthwhile-yet-hilariously-poorly-executed “1/2 Hour News Hour,” but that show wasn’t doing anything that O’Reilly wasn’t already doing a hundred times better an hour earlier. Can’t conservatives build a primary media community whose boundaries aren’t mostly defined by politics? I mean, you know Bill Engvall is looking for a job.

  4. Jeffrey Jones on April 26, 2010 at 1:03 PM

    Been there, done that with the last Conservative populist uprising of 1994. America’s Talking and National Empowerment Television were the two channels that actually led me to the research I do today. I discussed them more in my dissertation, but check out pp. 47-50 of the first edition of Entertaining Politics (if it isn’t currently being used as a plant coaster). America’s Talking was Roger Ailes baby for two years before the channel became MSNBC and he left for Fox. And National Empowerment TV was run by Paul Weyrich, a conservative/Republican apparatchik. Both had hilariously funny names for shows that fit right in today–Pork or Bugged!

    Question: So every time the right wing gets in these populist moods, they turn to television to spread the word? It really is laughable, but it also makes me wonder about the real intentions here. Certainly they know they are going to fail economically. Which means that your point number 2 is what is really going on. But why TV?

    • Derek Kompare on April 27, 2010 at 9:27 AM

      I suspect the populist posturing is what it always has been: a brand to serve a particular niche audience. There’s room for all sorts of channels slicing and dicing demographics; hell, uber-wealthy oligarchs even have at least two channels that I know of (Wealth Channel and Fine Living TV).

      Thus, Ailes’ master plan is basically to keep fanning the flames of resentment towards the “liberal media” enough to keep the suckers rolling in to his media venture. If it helps elect politicians who’ll help him get even richer, even better. Sure, in the very long run it’ll have diminishing returns as their most loyal audience literally dies off (Fox News has the oldest audience of any basic cable channel, by a pretty wide margin), but what does Ailes care? He’ll have cashed it in for some kick-ass Costa Rican beach villa by that point.

  5. Heather Hendershot on April 29, 2010 at 12:55 AM

    So glad to see Jeff bringing up the mid-90s National Empowerment Television and America’s Talking, and to read Derek’s suggestion that we see RightNetwork as yet another example of branded niche programming.

    RightNetwork–like NET and AT–does seem a complete product of the post-network era of niche marketing. So, no TV explicitly targeting right-wingers during the “mass” network era? Yes and no. On the one hand, much “mass” TV was very much targeted to a conservative constituency (there was a kid from an uber-conservative family in my 4th grade class who was ONLY allowed to watch The Waltons, and we were all so sad for him…but that’s a story for another day), and one could go on and on about the various kinds of conservative programming, before cable, peacefully or not so peacefully coexisting alongside Fred Silverman’s jiggle TV, Lear’s “relevant” shows, etc.

    On the other hand, there were tons of explicitly right-wing radio shows, and a smaller number of right-wing TV shows, picked up locally throughout the US in the post-Goldwater years–all shows not even pretending to be for “everyone,” and really targeting a niche. Before cable this seemed particularly weird, but it did happen. Millions of people in the US watched anti-Civil Rights “public service” TV programs throughout almost the entire decade of the 1960s, produced in particular by the White Citizen’s Council (see Steve Classen’s fine book) and Dan Smoot (as per my forthcoming book on cold war right wing broadcasting).

    As for Ailes and his “master plan” to draw in the “suckers,” as Derek so aptly puts it, it’s interesting to consider his pre-cable venture, The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder. It’s got clear conservative intentions, but is restrained by two things. 1) Snyder has all the wit and intelligence of a very damp sock. 2) Anxious about being attacked for being UNfair and UNbalanced in the pre-deregulation days, Ailes programs people from the far right and far left (or, more precisely, from the far right and from the punk rock scene), so you end up with programs that open with Rev. Donald Wildmon, then show Wendy O’Williams blow up a car. It’s ultimately just plain weird and politically incoherent, and though Ailes wants to veer right, he can’t quite pull it off. In sum, even if there were shows that appealed in particular to the right in the pre-cable days, Ailes apparently needed cable and deregulation to make his master plan really work.

    • Jeffrey Jones on April 29, 2010 at 9:03 AM

      Great discussion and examples all around, Heather. Yeah, you make me long for more regional histories of programming at the local level during the 60s and 70s.

      Also, let’s remember that Ailes produced Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated television program, which lasted on the air for about two years, I believe (I have videotape of that if you ever need it). Definitely warming up his chops with that as well.

    • Derek Kompare on April 29, 2010 at 9:49 AM

      Excellent point about history, Heather; can’t wait to read your book! It’s particularly interesting (as you infer with your discussion of The Tomorrow Show) how these shows had to work around the Fairness Doctrine and stations’ ascertainment requirements, particularly in the 60s and 70s. I’m especially looking forward to reading about that in your book.

      It’d also be very interesting to go back to the “big tent” era of network broadcasting to tease out some more of this explicitly conservative material. Michael Landon’s entire ouevre seems pretty important here; like your Waltons-only family, I knew of one family that was only allowed to watch Little House on the Prairie! Massive nostalgia for an imagined pre-60s America obviously going on with these texts, though it also shows up elsewhere at the time (e.g., Happy Days, though that was much more of a big tent show).

      • Jeffrey Jones on April 29, 2010 at 9:54 AM

        Being from Alabama, as with Heather (sorry to “out” you), I too remember such families. But I can’t help believe that that was ALL they watched. It would be fascinating to uncover just what they DID watch–the news, perhaps a local religious show, perhaps Romper Room. It had to be an interesting mix of highly selective programs that constituted their safe moral universe as per TV. Not sure oral histories would even be able to uncover the complexity, but perhaps a start.

  6. Jeffrey Jones on April 29, 2010 at 9:11 AM

    Political economy: Two articles that I think make a contribution to this post are the one’s appearing recently on Sarah Palin as President of Right-Wing America and the big salary that carries ( and the one on Glenn Beck Inc. ( that appeared in Forbes–Beck as money machine.

    Simply put, obviously Rush has done this for a long time, but stocking the flames of victimization, marginalization, and seething anger is, well, big business. Ann Coulter certainly cashed in. Bernie Goldberg, Jonah Goldberg, and all the other Icebergs are doing just fine as well. I have been interested for years in this internetwork of right-wing commercialism in the political-religious vein. Richard Viguere’s book America’s Right Turn charts this out from an organizational-ideological perspective (though he is a cheerleader, not a critic or scholar). But it seems there is a book waiting to happen for someone who wants to chart the political economy of right-wing media production.