Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Gospel of Andy Griffith

The story -- which I have heard often enough from reputable enough people to believe -- is that "The Andy Griffith Show" dominates the ratings at 5:30 on weekday afternoons where I live. As a matter of fact, again as the story goes, a competing station once paid a vast sum to get rights to the Oprah Winfrey show when she was at her nation-dominating height to run against Andy ... and lost. To this day, at 5:30 pm in the Roanoke-Lynchburg television market, you will hear with the certainty of the sun rising and the tide shifting the whistling theme of "The Andy Griffith Show."

It's one of a handful of anecdotes I always tell newly arrived people moving to the area. (Another is that Roanoke once had a Hooters restaurant ... which went out of business. It wasn't put out of business, it just didn't get enough customers.*) I tell these in order to help people understand in a more visceral (and hopefully sympathetic) way the culture of the area. Call it my gentler version of The Hillbilly Elegy.

But what is it about Andy that holds such rock hard appeal? You would think that the viewership would age out. (The station only airs the early black-and-white episodes, with Goober and Gomer Pyle appearing fairly late. I was once told there are only 107** of them, which run in sequence, and then the line up begins again.) How could anyone born in the 1990s or even 1980s find anything in the small town of Mayberry circa 1961: before the Kennedy assassination and the upheaval of the 60s, before rap and the internet. How dull and figuratively as well as literally colorless it must seem to them, wouldn't you think?

The Word of the Lord

In the Catholic Mass (as in most Christian services), there are rituals of gathering and prayers, and then readings from the Bible: the old Testament, some from the later books (eg: letters from Paul), and finally the Gospel.

The priest takes up the usually ornate copy of the New Testament, which has been on display on the altar, and shows it to the congregation, first to one side, then the other, before walking to the ambo and setting it down to read.

I enjoy that, which to me is a very tangible connection to the 2,000-year history of the Church and its rituals, a remnant of the time when most of the congregation couldn't read and that New Testament was probably one of only a handful of actual books in the community. "This," the priest seems to say with his gesture, "is the real deal. See, right here, I have the book with the writings we have all gathered to hear."

The readings are on a regular cycle (three-year for Sundays and two-year for weekday Mass), so if you're a frequent churchgoer, they're aren't going to be a lot of surprises. Then why bother with all the hocus-pocus and recitation? Simple: to re-enforce the common beliefs and values that bring that community together.

As you've probably already realized, I think The Andy Griffith Show serves a similar function here in Southwest Virginia. It's a vision of an idealized middle south (fictional Mayberry is in the mountains just over the NC border; nearby Mount Airy claims to be the town it's based on), a place where an amiable sheriff rarely feels the need to carry his gun, community members settle differences eventually, and even violent crime is more acting out than a real danger. It's a place where everyone has a role which he or she seems to understand and have somehow organically settled into, where assisting one's neighbor is assumed, and even when someone is insufferable (usually Barney Fife), he is politely tolerated and handled in a way to not hurt his feelings.

While Big City types occasionally pass through (sometimes as criminals, sometimes as government officials or state police), the are briefly dealt with and sent on their way or embraced until their more obnoxious characteristics are smothered and they come to appreciate the True Way of Mayberry.

I can, at this moment, imagine a Marxist academic recoiling in his dashiki-covered desk chair as he does a spit take with the organic, free market chai he (although he prefers some other pronoun, no doubt) just put to his lips. What I have described to this person is the very vision of entrapping horror, a gray flannel world dominated by the white patriocracy, an intellectual and in some cases literal prison without bars, more reminiscent of a dystopian nightmare than an ideal town.

"Be seeing you, Andy."

But that is both to see my point and miss it. Unlike you, professor, these people live by the calming rules that smoothed out the rough edges of life. There was crime and dissension and conflict, but it was the crisis of a family, not the signs of a sick society. You knew where the problem was because you all knew the rules of interaction and behavior, and those rules outlined a path to resolution.

In today's world, the world where our professor would enrage himself over the bigoted, misogynistic, stultifying white male privilege of Mayberry, those foundations shift and sink. It's okay, the Andy viewers ask, to dismiss the faith of evangelicals, but not Muslims? The Other must be welcomed, but members of the tribe shunned? And I have to be careful which pronoun I use?!

Better to flee, even if only for thirty minutes, back to a world where stability was sure and seemed infinite and the rules were the ones I was taught by my grandma.


* However, a new consortium is working on bringing several new Hooters to the area. Perhaps they need to spend some time, while they're up to that, watching Andy.

** Wikipedia says there are 159 black and white episodes (Seasons 1 through 5)

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Moment of Clarity: Two Thougths on the Media World

While watching TV today, I grew impatient with an extended ad break. With some 250 satellite channels to choose from, I had already mapped out a couple of alternative shows to view, and switched to the next ... also in an ad break. But I stayed there. Why?

One might argue it's a constant search for novelty (the old show was okay, but now I wanted something different), but I also think it was actually the quality of the ad. The old show had a classic, cable-TV, 1-800-number product pitch on it, while the new show had a creative, artful, high-end candy commercial. Simply put: I found the new ad more entertaining.

Is this a trend? Is this something of importance? As technology allows us to time-shift and skip commercials, is the answer to make more commercials more like actual entertainment? We seem to have discovered this with Super Bowl ads, which now are featured in shows of their own as part of the game run up. Is the old truism that an annoying ad which caused you to still remember the product was an effective ad now obsolete?

Frankly, I can find this only a move to the good. It reduces the amount of garbage in the world, and the increase in the amount of "art" of a form, even harnessed in the cause of sales, can only make the world a better place.

And maybe it will provide work for the truly talented, hardworking professionals who make film and television ... which leads to my second thought.

As news media cut back, trying to do more with less, one of the areas frequently cut is in photography. Much of this is due to a misunderstanding of the skill and professionalism good photography and photojournalism require, as well as a failure to appreciate the necessity for good (if not great) photography rather than just adequate pictures.

Now, I continue to search for a clear, relatively simple of explanation of where the money has gone (old media companies were able to make tons of money producing newspapers and television broadcasts using more people and much more expensive equipment; what's the difference now?), but in the meantime it strikes me that we could be on the cusp of an interesting professional moment.

To back up a bit, corporate media thinks they have found a solution by reallocating news collection resources. They assign several tasks to a single journalist (classically, the Multi-Media Journalist -- MMJ -- or one-man-band of local TV, where the reporter also shoots and edits the story), they accept more handouts both from organizations and from non-profit and other non-traditional journalism organizations, they encourage "citizen journalists" to send in pictures and information, and so on. All of it is driven by the fact that these things cost less than paying professionals to collect news.

What to do, if you -- like me -- treasure the image of a journalist (that being a person who is curious and interested in learning an accurate account of what we call news, who then can take that an present it to the rest of us as an enlightening, understandable and maybe even entertaining piece, no matter what the media ... to be over simplistic)? How do we save the profession of people dedicated to its idea and ideals?

Well, this is not really a new question, though it might be a newish variant. And I think an answer might be found in the past.

The legendary photo agency Magnum was founded in 1947 by some of the great photojournalists of the day, men who had tired of a media environment they saw as tyrannical as we might see today's: a place where corporate management calls the tune by way of available jobs and money, and no room for creativity or deeper coverage was allowed. They decided to fund assignments themselves, then have agents sell the stories for the best possible price. Magnum continues today as a key player in the photography world.

So, if the new media corporate world wants to eliminate staff and the expense of continuous coverage, go ahead. Let's answer them by forming our own world of little Magnums: co-ops of photographers and writers with similar visions and interests, covering stories and making them available to the highest bidder. This will mean some business and bargaining acumen on our part, though we wouldn't be the first. Besides the older example of Magnum and other photo agencies, one can find any number of photographers (like John Harrington) and writers who are also clever businessmen as examples. (Sadly, I am not one of them.) We just can't accept their scraps with gratitude as we have in the past, but insist the work has value.

Now this in turn requires the consumer to discriminate between quality work and crap, but if we go to my first thought, where I reflexively turned away from the bad ad to the good, it should shake out. The question is whether management will see that at the start and avoid the difficult culling period ...