There are only three things television does reliably well these days: rich, immersive cable programs centered around deeply flawed but relatable antiheroes, live sports, and public humiliation.
Thursday provided a festival of that last category, beginning with the rush-hour pantsing of Ann Curry and carrying through a Supreme Court ruling whose coverage brought ignominy to most of cable news. It was an appropriate end to a week that kicked off with Rielle Hunter’s whistle-stop tour of shame.
Humiliation is now a major profit engine for TV, replacing “news” and other commodities that networks have mostly lost to the Web. Several cable channels make all their money off women inexplicably willing to degrade themselves on camera. But when it comes to true schadenfreude, the real housewives and mob wives and teen moms everywhere have nothing on the highly paid stars of television news.
For a viewer, Thursday’s spectacle was ghoulish and captivating, a classic train wreck. It began at 8:50 a.m., when, after weeks of strategic leaks seemingly calibrated for maximal abasement, Curry tearfully left her post as co-anchor of NBC’s Today show. She had been on the job less than a year and plainly did not want to leave. But the ratings have faltered, and collective wisdom holds that Curry, who likes her news hard and her shoes yellow, is to blame.
So at the most forgettable moment of the day, just before the Supreme Court announced its ruling on Obamacare, the 15-year NBC veteran knelt down and put her head in the guillotine. Even if you haven’t cared about the morning-show wars since the 1990s, the speech was heartrending and difficult to watch. “I have loved you, and I have tried to give you the world,” Curry said, the lump in her throat painfully audible. Then her eyes deadened, and she described her job going forward: “They’re giving me some fancy new titles.” Like lightning, a press release went out from NBC, gamely spinning: “Ann Curry announces her new role as NBC News national and international correspondent …!” She walks away from the anchor chair with $10 million to soothe her troubles.
Elusive viewers always turn up to watch someone fall on their sword.
Curry is not the first to have been ousted from broadcast news, and her reluctant farewell held up nicely against previous classics from Dan Rather, Elizabeth Vargas, Deborah Norville, and all the other more or less decent human beings who’ve been turned into TV roadkill. As traditions go, the farewell speech is not a great one: undignified for the departing anchor, uncomfortable for everyone else. But viewers love these moments. When Rather signed off from the CBS Evening News, 8 million people tuned in to watch, 2 million more than tuned in on the average night. It’s not just limited to news either: Conan O’Brien tripled his competitors’ ratings the night he signed off from The Tonight Show. Curry’s departure undoubtedly had a similar Willy Loman quality. Elusive viewers always turn up to watch someone fall on their sword.
Which is hopeful news for CNN, a network viewers have been eluding like the plague. CNN joined Fox News on Thursday in falsely reporting that the court had overturned the Affordable Care Act, provoking rounds of mea culpas and reports that staffers were “fucking humiliat[ed].” The flub drew so much attention, a CNN executive put out a memo saying the network would investigate the mistake and reminding her staff, “We are not the story.” Star SCOTUS analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who predicted in March that Obamacare wouldn’t survive a court challenge, announced he was “eating crow.”
The error comes amid news that CNN’s ratings at their lowest since 1991. So perhaps there’s a silver lining in the Obamacare screwup. The secret of TV news is that a little humiliation never hurt anyone.