TV trumps Twitter. At least this election cycle.
Happening to be in a target area, I was among the first to get a gander on my telly of a campaign commercial for Michael Bloomberg. Its narrator intones that Bloomberg will fight the “menace from Washington.”
It’s Gotham versus Golgotha. As I watched, in the early gloaming, I saw “a crack in everything,” as the late Leonard Cohen sang. TV made Trump. It could unmake him. Probably not Bloomberg, but if he isn’t nominated, then someone he backs. The bucks stop here.
Predictions of television’s untimely demise have been with us now for years, and are taken as holy writ. Sure, the kids are cord-cutters. They have big-screen flat TV’s, but theirs are hooked only to video-game consoles. Soon those consoles will be gone as well, as gaming is moving to the cloud. Be that as it may, those of us who still watch TV also vote more often.
Bloomberg dipping his big toe in one more election is as surprising as the seasons coming around again. His bet this time is that Trump can tweet away to his heart’s content --his Twitter followers number an impressive voting block of 55 million -- but network television can still dwarf this number with 255 million adults in the country.
Sure, only half of them voted in 2018, but by my math, that still makes far more potential voters that Bloomberg bucks can sway to the Dem cause than pray at the altar of Trump tweets. Even Trump’s cable mouthpiece of Fox News is absurdly overrated. Beyond Hannity’s hype, Fox News on an average evening maxes out at about 2.4 million viewers. Were I a West Wingman hoping for strikes in the basement bowling alley in 2021, I’d be ready for a lane change.
It was another world at the first televised presidential debate on September 26, 1960, but TV showed its mettle even then: my dad cast a ballot for Nixon, after hearing the debate on the radio, but my mom went for the charismatic man from Massachusetts, joining the majority of the 70 million viewers who caught the Kennedy appeal. Tricky Dick’s five-o’clock shadow, sans makeup, helped tank his tight race; JFK was ready for his close-up.
As I’ve watched the Democratic food-fights, aka debates, I’ve been amazed that anyone would think their fifteen minutes of fame attacking Biden would catapult them to the top of the pops. Kamala and Castro took their swings. Wishful drinking, as Carrie Fisher would say. You need reach and frequency, in TV lingo. Scant viewership tuned in for those dirty dozen lineups full of infra-dig sniping. So here comes a disrupter to say you can debate to your heart’s content, and tweet till your thumbs fall off, I don’t need a podium: I’ve got you by coaxial cable. Hello world.
It is all image anyway, two-dimensional creations swaying to the choir in the church of self. This is the apex of where we have been heading since Reagan, where skill as an actor becomes polish as a politician selling scripted narrative.
Small wonder that much-maligned Ukraine has a TV star for President. Zelensky may not have real-world experience, but he played a prez on TV. In such a Lewis Carroll universe, good old TV ad-buys, lots of ‘em, can stand in for working the turf. Mayor Pete has crisscrossed Iowa; Mayor Mike: not so much.
Stop me if you find him frisky, but Mayor Mike's campaign spots still don’t give him back his youth. He’s a Biden with bigger bucks, minus Joltin’ Joe’s shoeshine smile: a gray-on-gray businessman whose ads convey that he won’t scare us with Elizabernie’s socialist Medicare-for-all, carries a rainbow flag in the Gay Pride parade so was woke before Pete, and has no bangs of anxiety quivering like centrist fellow-traveler Amy the K. Sure, his street-corner policing is an Achilles heel that dogs him. But he’s betting the middle solves the riddle and that Joe stumbles. Good luck with that.
I doubt Bloomberg will get the nod. It’s late in the day for the man in gray. But his late-day lean into a classic TV blitz persuades me that, if he puts his ad-spend behind whoever does, Tweety Bird may be a canary in a coal mine. Tweets don’t fail me now.
In media, size matters. With enough old-media throw-weight behind it, my buy’s bigger than your buy is a taunt backed by muscle. If Obama is a Kennedy figure, and Trump a Nixon type, Bloomberg is another Ike. He’ll try to wear us down until we like him, or someone he anoints. A safe choice for an unsafe time. Win or lose, he resets the bar.
TV or not TV, that’s the question. The eyes have it.
Dalton Delan is a writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.