Michael Moore likes to ask the question: “What if the rest of us had a TV show?”
We might want an amiably unkempt, roly-poly everyman in a baseball cap for an anchor. We’d want to fly a kite with suicide-assisting doctor Jack Kevorkian, and run a convicted felon for president under the slogan, “From the Big House to the White House.” We’d poll audiences on which country the U.S. should invade next–Belize or France?–and then ask a White House spokesperson to compare invasion costs and strategies.
Or we might see what happens when we try to smuggle Canadians over the U.S. border (nothing); or set off sirens outside the home of a car-alarm manufacturer; or buy white slaves in Mississippi to take advantage of the state’s failure to ratify the 13th Amendment.
Such Monty Python-esque vignettes were the actual stuff of prime time each Friday for seven weeks this summer, as TV Nation took to the airwaves for a second season, this time on Fox. The newsmagazine’s 1994 incarnation on NBC recently won an Emmy award for Outstanding Informational Series, and why not? TV Nation is no more surreal than Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House. And the documentary-cum-comedy show is a rare alternative to what Moore calls “the blow-dried place where most TV comes from.”
TV Nation roots out stories on important but underreported topics like racism, labor abuses and white-collar crime, gleefully presenting perspectives, voices and unpleasant truths not usually heard in mainstream news.
The show is populist in intent and execution, taking every opportunity to play a fanfare for the common person and unsettle the powerful. Last year, TV Nation went down to Mexico, exposing the poor pay and working conditions at plants owned by U.S. companies (including GE, NBC‘s owner). “I want to fire all my people and hire Mexicans. How much will they work for?” Moore deadpanned at bemused corporate flacks running south-of-the-border factories.
This year, TV Nation continued its anti-corporate ethos–embodied in its most visible correspondent, Crackers the Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken. “Crackers isn’t a joke,” Moore insisted in hurt tones when New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had the bird barred from a press conference. And Moore’s right: An investigative journalist inside a seven-foot, fluorescent yellow chicken costume, Crackers has confronted issues of corporate malfeasance ranging from bank overcharge fees to lead poisoning.
The irony of such a show on network TV is not lost on Michael Moore. “It is truly one of the beauties of capitalism that they’ll sell you the rope to hang themselves if they believe they can make money,” he told USA Today last year (7/19/94). But he soon discovered that the sale of such rope comes with strings attached.
Last year, on NBC, TV Nation enjoyed a moderately successful, critically acclaimed run. But it was never going to be more there than a summer replacement or an occasional year-end special–Moore once joked that he only stayed on the air because he was broadcast during summer and holidays when network execs were away in the Hamptons. NBC refused to run a much-publicized segment about a prominent abortion foe who suggests that government leaders should be assassinated, and also spiked a hilarious piece on condom sizes.
The first season’s success–along with the fact that 40 percent of the show’s production costs are picked up by the BBC, making it a bargain at $330,000 an episode–led other networks to woo TV Nation away for the ’95 season. Moore picked Fox, which offered him a chance at a regular timeslot. But the relationship with Fox has been equally frustrating.
At Fox as at NBC, TV Nation episodes have regularly met with nervous notes from programming executives to the effect of, “Uh, Mike…don’t you think you could be an equal-opportunity basher?” His answer was no. “That’s what is wrong with the way things are going in this country right now, [that attitude of] ‘Let’s sit on the fence.'” (Chicago Tribune, 7/21/95)
TV Nation staffers told Extra! of constant struggles to do stories the way they wanted in the face of execs’ and corporate lawyers’ decisions to rewrite scripts and alter tone or phrasing. For example, in one script, a voiceover was to say Crackers “marched in solidarity” with strikers; ultimately they had to agree to say “met with.”
Other times, executives would ask why a segment couldn’t be “punched up.” “They don’t seem to realize we’re doing documentary,” marvels John Devlany, a staff writer. “They seemed to think it’s a sitcom, where you can ‘make this character say that.'”
TV Nation‘s research chief (who is also a lawyer) and Moore himself had to battle to get some segments aired at all. Fox balked at re-enacting the battle of Hiroshima, and initially nixed (the later critically acclaimed) visit to House Speaker New Gingrich’s congressional district, which found federal money pouring in to the home of big-government’s biggest critic.
Some segments got spiked. A profile of a homophobic Kansas family that pickets at the funerals of AIDS victims was deemed beyond the pale, along with a politically sensitive expose of “whatever happened to failed S&Ls?” (The un-airable answer: Their owners are now wealthier than ever.) When a black youth taped in an on-the-street segment pointed out that the “Nike corporation pays Michael Jordon more than all its Indonesian workers,” the word “Nike” was edited out for broadcast (In These Times, 9/18/95).
The show’s future is uncertain–not because of political censorship, but because of low ratings. Although it did well with the advertiser-desired demographic of males aged 18-49, TV Nation wound up near the bottom of this summer’s ratings barrel.
Having been pre-empted several times for sports events, TV Nation wasn’t given an optimal chance for Nielson success. Its popularity has been greater in Britain, where this season’s episodes began airing in late summer on BBC 2, and in Canada (perhaps its “only in America!” appeal).
Perhaps, as some critics have charged, the show’s direct approach was too belligerent. But Moore and his correspondents gave the people they confronted every opportunity to state their case. Often enough, the subjects thrust their hands over the camera lens and ejected the crew from site.
And there’s the question of TV Nation‘s openly progressive point of view. Chances are, some viewers are made uncomfortable by the truths that linger after Moore’s ingenuous schlump persona and prankish human fade from screen.
But that’s how Moore wants it. “It’s not safe or familiar. Our challenge is to find a broader audience,” he says. (Boston Globe, 12/28/94) His goal, after all, is spurring family. As he told the Tampa Tribune (7/21/95), “I want this show to get people riled up….If they can see a guy like me, without a college education, from Flint, Michigan, walk into the headquarters of some big corporation, or into the halls of Congress, and challenge some people, maybe people will say, ‘Hey, maybe I can do something like that.'”
Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer and editor based in Hoboken, N.J.