The best TV programming tipster I know was on the other end of the phone. She'd just made a discovery and was excited: "I've just seen the worst show on television. It's completely disgusting."
She was talking about "The Insider," the spinoff and fraternal twin of "Entertainment Tonight" that had just gone on the air as "E.T.'s" lead-in.
I wasn't sure I agreed back then. We're talking here about a landscape that, at the time, brought us "The Fear Factor" and worm-eating as a competitive sport (not to mention "The O'Reilly Factor" which, many would argue, involves a different form of competitive worm-eating).
I know what she meant, though.
As premature as it may have been, her instincts, as always, were golden. I agree with her completely now. "The Insider" is, indeed, nauseating.
Or rather, that whole hour of television which runs locally on Channel 2 after the "NBC Nightly News." It's all one big show, really, produced by the same people and sharing most of the same "stories." Pat O'Brien and Lara Spencer may host "The Insider" and Mary Hart and Mark Steines may do "Entertainment Tonight," but the two shows are a DNA-match and then some.
"Entertainment Tonight" is, in any case, virtually unrecognizable from the innocent show it was when it first went on the air.
It has been hopelessly slimed by its new fraternal twin. Both are now one big hour of sleaze and promotion, a weird and distinctly American blend of supermarket tabloid freakishness and showbiz hype. Call it "Hollywood Sideshow -- The P. T. Barnum Hour."
It isn't just that in the current world of infotainment, the state of Britney Spears' undies is considered big news. That's just a flagrant example of Murdochism -- in which the Rupert's-eye-view of celebrity has now become everyone's vantage point. And that, too, has a kind of sick innocence to it.
It was the nightly Sweeps Weeks exploitation of Anna Nicole Smith, a protoplasmic creature whose epidermis varies wildly from the erotic to the fulsome but whose demeanor remains a steady demonstration of brain damage when she talks. Whether it's organic or pharmacological in origin, her difficulties forming words and sentences are not the stuff of TV interviews or behind-the-scenes footage, especially not spread out nightly over several weeks after the mysterious accidental death of her 20-year-old son Daniel (which virtually coincided with her giving birth).
Anna Nicole Smith is a nightly subject only to those who have lost both the ability to pity and the ability to figure out what might actually matter.
She is a sideshow grotesque -- Exhibit A in the ruthless Barnumization of Infotainment USA. But then if you watch a full hour of "Hollywood Sideshow" for a couple of weeks running, you will encounter endless stories about bulimia, anorexia, people weighing 1,000 pounds, hideously botched plastic surgeries, all manner of unsightly things presented with the pretense of compassion and not-so-secret relish.
We're not even talking here about drop-dead gorgeous babe Vanessa Minnillo doing a "fat like me" segment and donning a fatsuit for "E.T." to present to us the "sensitive" issue of anti-fat discrimination.
In fact, if you spend a few full hours watching "Hollywood Sideshow," the openly tabloid show "Inside Edition" across the dial starts looking like Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly's "See It Now" in comparison. As P.T. Barnum always said "there's a sucker born every minute."