Today’s Guest: Eric Deggans, media critic, St. Petersburg Times, NPR
Eric Deggans is easily one of the smartest journalists I know. Okay, okay, I know some of you connect “smart” and “journalist” and chuckle the way other people combine “military” and “intelligence.” But trust me, Eric is really bright. He has his own way of looking at any topic and bringing aspects of it to light.
Currently the television and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times—and author of a media savvy blog called “The Feed”—Eric is filling a job the newspaper created specifically for him. Before serving as media critic, he sat on the newspaper’s editorial board and wrote bylined opinion columns specializing in race issues, pop culture, media, and national affairs. From 1997 to 2004, he worked as TV critic for the Times, crafting reviews, news stories, and long-range trend pieces on the state of the media industry, both locally and nationally.
Eric is also the president of the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists. And, if you search his name on myspace.com, you’ll find he also worked in the 1980s as a professional drummer touring and performing with Motown’s The Voyage Band throughout the Midwest and in Osaka, Japan. He continues to perform in the Tampa Bay area with local bands and recording artists as a drummer, bassist, and vocalist.
You may also recognize Eric as a recurring panelist on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” Join us if you’re fascinated by boob tube talk.
ANDELMAN: Eric, welcome to Mr. Media.
DEGGANS: Thanks. I’m going to spend the next half hour disproving everything you said about me being smart.
ANDELMAN: I have to build you up before I start to tear you down.
DEGGANS: Bring it on, pal.
ANDELMAN: You know how the media works. Let’s start with a big question: If you could change network TV in any way, what would you do?
DEGGANS: I would make the season shorter for new episodes, and I would more strictly enforce the decency guidelines, but I would make them looser at the same time. What I would do is, I would be a little more strict about trying to keep explicit content out of the 8 PM, the 8–9 PM hour in prime time, the first hour, but I would relax it a little at 9 PM, and I would really relax it at 10 PM, so that we would see more FX and HBO-type shows on network television, and they would have shorter runs, so you wouldn’t be forcing the guys from “Lost” to come up with 25 episodes of stuff when they really only have thirteen episodes of decent material in them. We would get more series, and frankly, I think they’d be better.
ANDELMAN: It’s interesting that you brought that up. We both have kids. Your view of these things changes once you become a parent.
ANDELMAN: Ten years ago, I found the 8:00 – 9:00 family hour, which is what it was really referred to then, a real pain in the butt, because there was never anything on that I wanted to watch, and now in that hour, there is plenty of stuff I’d want to watch, but I can’t because I have a 10-year-old daughter, and we’ve found you really can’t watch… pick a show. It seems like in this climate for some reason, in the “family first” climate that we’re in and family values, there is no respect for that hour anymore. Does that surprise you, and have you changed your views since you’ve been a parent?
DEGGANS: I probably have changed my views a little bit because if you’re not a parent, then obviously you don’t care when explicit content airs on television, because it doesn’t affect you; you’re an adult. Once you become a parent and you are responsible for raising a child and sort of moderating and guiding their exposure to media, then it becomes more of a concern, because if you want to sit down with the family and watch TV at 8:00, what do you watch? And that’s the reason why these reality shows and these game shows have become so popular, “Deal or No Deal,” “American Idol,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?”
One of the reasons why these shows are so popular is because the whole family can sit down and watch them without fear. It’s a singing competition, or it’s a game show, so there is not going to be any cursing, there is not going to be any sex, and it’s interesting enough that everybody in the family wants to watch it. Why the networks have not figured out how to do that with fictional programming, I don’t know. My hunch is that sex jokes and curse words are an easy crutch for lame comedies and overly complex dramas. Frankly, I think it’s possible to do a comedy where there is not necessarily a lot of sex or where the language isn’t totally explicit. I let my kids watch “The Simpsons,” I let my kids watch “Seinfeld,” I let my kids watch “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Those are all shows that have some sex in them, and they have some explicit words in them occasionally, but it’s not a mainstay of the show, so I feel pretty good about watching it with them.
ANDELMAN: “Raymond” is a good example, I think.
DEGGANS: The best example.
ANDELMAN: It seems like on the whole, it’s a fun family show, and now it’s in repeats from like 7:00 – 8:00 PM, so it’s even earlier than the so-called “Family Hour,” but so many episodes start with Ray and his wife in bed, and he’s trying to get a little something, and that’s the opening of the show. My wife and I sit there looking at each other going, “Hmmm, we should change the subject. So Rach, what’s new? What did you do in school today?” Watching her with the left eye, and the right eye, we’re waiting to see if they’ve moved off of….
DEGGANS: I mean, from my standpoint, I have a two-year-old and she doesn’t pay attention to situation comedies. If it’s not a cartoon, she’s not interested. And then I have a 10-year-old, and I have a 12-year-old, and frankly, by the time my kids are at least 10 years old – know about sex, and they know that mommy and daddy have sex, and they know other people’s mommies and daddies have sex. So if there is a scene where Ray and his wife are in the bedroom and he’s making jokes about wanting to make love to her, they get that, they understand that.
ANDELMAN: I hope it mostly goes over their heads, since they’re not at that point. It’s like a lot of things as you go through the day that it just doesn’t strike them.
DEGGANS: Well, I don’t know. My experience with my girls is that they understand that, and they understand it in a way that totally makes sense. I mean, mommies and daddies do that. They get the humor of it. Frankly, I’m much more concerned about them seeing really violent stuff on TV, really bloody stuff….
ANDELMAN: Plenty of that at 8:00 o’clock.
DEGGANS: On TV, I am not concerned about the sex stuff. As long as the sex stuff isn’t really crude, and as long as it’s not really explicit, you know. One of the problems we have, for example, is that we like to watch “Law & Order” re-runs, and I don’t let my girls watch that with us, because there are too many mature themes in those shows. And you know, what 10-year-old needs to be aware that there are elements of that kind of stuff in the world?
ANDELMAN: Well, now, that’s interesting. I won’t watch those shows because I swear, it seems like every time – and my wife watches all of them – every time I sit down to watch one, it’s a story about a child endangered, a child killed, a child abused, a child molested, and I just think, there’s gotta be something else these script writers are thinking about!
DEGGANS: Well, I think maybe you just had bad luck, because I watch them a lot, and I don’t see a preponderance of those kinds of stories. But they do push the envelope in terms of explicit themes, so I don’t let my kids watch those shows with me. But I do think we ultimately need broadcasters to be more responsible about when they use explicit content in their shows, and if they were, I have a feeling that they’d be allowed to use it more often, and they’d be allowed to introduce material that is more explicit. But the problem is, we can’t trust them. They put “Friends” on at 8 o’clock, and there are lots of curse words in it, there are lots of explicit sexual situations. It was a great show, and because it did really well at 8 o’clock, that just created a whole trend that we have never been able to get away from.
ANDELMAN: That probably was the show that opened that up.
DEGGANS: It definitely was. It was a huge success at 8 o’clock. “Spin City” moved to 8 o’clock right after that, and because both of those shows did well in those time slots, the next thing you know, even the slight hesitation that the networks had about putting explicit content at 8 o’clock went away.
ANDELMAN: Let’s skip around a little bit. One thing you’ve written a lot about, probably has no value whatsoever, “American Idol.” Has it jumped the shark with Sanjaya?
ERIC DEGGANS: No, not yet. In fact, I did an interview yesterday with Indian-American Magazine, a writer for that publication, and of course, they are interested in Sanjaya, and they asked me that very same question. We are at a weird point in “American Idol.” First of all, “American Idol” gets a ton of attention because it is the highest rated show on television, and it’s not only the highest rated show on television, it’s split up into two and sometimes three editions in a week, and every one of those editions becomes the highest rated shows on television. They also feed in a tremendous audience to shows that either precede them or follow them, so for the last few weeks, for example, the top five shows on television that week have all been either “American Idol” shows or shows that aired immediately before or after. So it’s a tremendous engine for the Fox network, and so everybody is paying attention to it.
ANDELMAN: Eric, are you smarter than a 5th grader?
DEGGANS: No, not based on those questions. But what I would say about “American Idol” is that because it’s so popular, because so many people watch it, it obscures the fact that there are peaks and valleys in the contest itself. What I’ve seen year after year after year is that when you get your 12 finalists or your 10 finalists, generally you have five people who are sort of serious contenders for the top, to win, and then you have five people who are there because of the strength of their personality or because of the strength of their image, or because they have some kind of personal back story that the producers and viewers find compelling, whatever. There are five people there who are probably not going to be the top Idols, but they’re there to fill out the ranks of the 10 finalists or the 12 finalists.
So that’s where we are now. Those people are getting knocked off, and you could quibble about the order in which they’re getting knocked off, but the fact of the matter is, all the people who are leaving now are all mediocre singers, and it’s all about whether the audience is vibing with their image or not. So once Sanjaya stays on the show and people who are real contenders for the winning slot get ejected, that’s when the show may have jumped the shark, but that hasn’t happened yet, and there’s really only three or four people among the 12 finalists who I think fit that category.
ANDELMAN: In the time we have left, let’s talk about a couple of things, a couple of quick things. Katie Couric. She’s about eight months in now, she’s switched producers. You were fairly critical of that. How is she doing?
DEGGANS: Well, she’s struggling for an identity, and I think the biggest mistake that they made was not really settling on, what do I want to say? They didn’t really settle on a fully realized identity for her before the show debuted. They didn’t figure out what the show was about, and they didn’t figure out what she was about as a broadcaster, as a traditional news broadcaster. They had months to work it out, so I don’t understand why they didn’t have this figured out. But they didn’t. So the show debuted, and they had some things they were going to try, and they had a few things here and there. They didn’t listen to, number one, their own research people, who told them that they were going to get a huge initial tune-in, and then all the people who tuned in because they were curious about how she was going to do as an anchor would fall off, and they’d be left with a traditional news audience. They didn’t believe that, probably because the guy who is running CBS News came from CBS Sports. He hasn’t been in traditional news for very long, and then the guy who was calling the shots above him is Les Moonves, the president of CBS, and he’s a brilliant TV programmer, but he doesn’t know anything about TV news. That is his Achilles heel.
ANDELMAN: Eric, ultimately, do the three network anchor chairs, do the three network news shows at 6:00 o’clock each night, 6:30, do they even matter any more?
ANDELMAN: Do they really?
DEGGANS: Yeah, they matter because in a fragmenting media universe, they are still the only platform that draws something like 25 million viewers every day. Every day. There aren’t even that many Web sites that do that kind of traffic in a half-hour period. In fact, I would be surprised if there were hardly any, so it’s still an incredible platform to reach people. It’s a huge audience. I think it’s premature to give up on the concept of an evening newscast just because it’s shrinking and people haven’t figured out how to connect that show to a younger audience.
ANDELMAN: Let’s talk about CBS’ morning show for a moment. Rene Syler let go in December, and then the awful coincidence of the double mastectomy. What did you think about her being let go at the time, as you look back now a couple months, has your opinion changed about the situation?
DEGGANS: Well, first off, I preface it by saying that Rene Syler is somebody that I sort of view as somewhere between a professional acquaintance and a friend. We met through the National Association of Black Journalists, and she’s followed my work, and she’s always been really cool. I have sort of been in contact with her since she left. I am on an email tree that she sends emails about how she is doing. So I will preface it with that, but I will say that I thought it was kind of unfair and kind of crappy the way CBS handled it. They knew that she was going to have this double mastectomy when they decided to boot her off the show. Her family has a history of breast cancer, and her doctor suggested a preventive mastectomy as a way to ensure that her risk of getting cancer would go down. After years and years of getting biopsies regularly and being worried about lumps and all kinds of things, she just decided it was time to do it.
So, of course, they decided to change “The Early Show” right when this happened. There are four people on that show co-anchoring it, or there were when she was on it. Harry Smith is sort of the go-to guy. You can’t get rid of him. He’s the only one who can really handle the hard news, and he’s the only male. The other person, Julie Chen, is Mrs. Les Moonves, so you’re not going to get rid of the wife of the head of the network, so that left Rene Syler and Hannah Storm, and frankly, I thought they were equal. I thought they were both pretty lightweight. They both did sort of the same thing, and so they decided to get rid of Rene and keep Hannah. I guess CBS would say they thought that Hannah was more talented than Rene, I don’t know.
Frankly, I sort of felt like it would have been nice to kind of preserve the diversity of the show, and it seemed like all things were kind of equal other than that, so I probably would have kept Rene. For whatever reason, they let her go, and you know, what can you say?
I thought it was kind of a bone-headed decision to have four co-anchors on that show, anyway, and that’s another show that’s been floundering to try and find its vision.
But I wanted to go back to the Couric thing for a minute, because what they needed to do was understand that they are going to have a huge influx of viewers, and then the viewers are going to drop off, and then they are going to be left with the traditional news audience, and they are going to get criticized because people are going to say that they failed. The network audience is glacial. They take a long time to change courses. It took Bob Schieffer a year to build up CBS’ Evening News when he took over for Dan Rather to the point where it was about 300,000 viewers ahead of when he took it over. It took a year to get to that point. Bob came in, he knew what kind of broadcast he wanted to do, he started doing it almost from day one, and he kept doing it for a year. People finally realized, “Hey, this is kind of cool,” and they migrated over, but it took a long time.
What they’ve done with Katie Couric is they assumed that her celebrity would somehow speed up that process or overcome that process, and it didn’t. And they didn’t have a Plan B ready, and they didn’t have a clear understanding of what her image was as a news anchor. What they should have done was figure out a vision for the show, debut it in September, and stick with it for a year. Make a few tweaks here and there. The bottom line is, you are going to get criticized every day, but it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. And if you run a marathon like you’re running a sprint, by the time you get halfway through it, you can’t finish. I think Katie Couric’s biggest problem is that as much as they say they don’t listen to critics, they listen to critics way too much (laughs), and they’re changing what they do based on it. There’ll be a deluge of stories about two weeks of programming, and they’ll make a decision about what’s on the show rather than seeing it as a long-term game. I’ve always felt from day one that that was their biggest mistake.
ANDELMAN: Finally, Bill O’Reilly. No question, I just wanted to say his name and see how you’d react.
DEGGANS: I always laugh when I hear Bill’s name, because he, like a lot of cable news guys, has this incredibly slick shtick that he has put together, and it involves presenting himself as the man who has all the answers. And the way you do that is that you don’t let any data or information come into your environment that contradicts your ideas. And he’s very effective at that. So the only depressing thing about it is that polls seem to indicate that he is one of the most trusted journalists on TV even though he’s not a journalist. So what are you going to do?
ANDELMAN: Oh, he’s got as much credibility as the Onion News Network.
DEGGANS: With certain viewers, he has way more credibility, unfortunately.
ANDELMAN: Well, Eric, thank you so much for joining us on Mr. Media this week.
Learn about what Eric Deggans is up to now in this 2012 Mr. Media video interview about his first book, Race-Baiter: