|Open Mike for ratings|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
You can tell when a network desperately wants to launch a successful new TV show, needs to get a number, make a splash, get noticed.
You can tell this when the show starts trolling the backwaters to see if there's a way it can hook into our subconscious human fears, and callously exploit them.
Today let's take on Mike Tyson and serve him up (again) as the abnormal psychology version of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, and Jack the Ripper, and O.J. Simpson, combined.
The suckers, hopefully, will line up, if we promote it enough.
"Suckers" is the euphemism for viewers. They would be us.
Na´ve as we are, we still have a certain weight and power and heft to us. If a certain number of us don't watch a TV show, it's history.
This brings us to "The Pulse," a new weekly show which debuted Thursday night on Fox. We were warned in plenty of time to be sure not to miss this show, because Mike Tyson, dependably shocking Mike Tyson, who breaks into our homes, ties us up, demands that we watch him, would act up, with prodding from Greta Van Susteren, herself. Tyson was guaranteed and promoted all over the map for his appearance on this show, and he would amaze us and shock us with nasty things he said about rape and one Desiree Washington.
The word "rape" would be used again, again, and again.
And, as we all know, or should know, on the souls of our mothers and sisters and nieces and aunts and daughters and friends, rape is a heinous crime, and it must be punished when it occurs; it is a violent crime against humanity, really the height of exploitation, wickedness and betrayal, in some psychological ways as bad or even worse than murder. Even Mike Tyson seems to be aware of these facts about it.
But the legitimate emotion and utter revulsion these facts about rape cause in us, the "decent" viewership, is, in my view, carelessly, callously and exploitively manipulated to get attention, and placed at the door of Mike Tyson.
Only I don't think so.
The fact is, he was encouraged to talk about it by Greta, so that maybe, if she disarmed and led him well enough, he'd shock and appall us; so we'd be sure to tune in, because we are sick like that, I guess, to so happily tune into stuff that shocks and appalls us. So that, in turn, Greta's skillful applications would put the show on the map. Tyson would be its springboard to success.
I've talked to Mike Tyson on occasion, and still do when the occasion warrants. When I do speak to him -- and I've got him on speed dial -- somehow rape doesn't come up.
It came up 10 years ago, when he caught the case. We went over it with a fine-toothed comb then. Nowadays, I figure it's a tender subject with him, and I know he's volatile about it, because he believes he was railroaded, so I don't get into it. It makes me drop my head. It embarrasses me. Not Tyson. He has been embarrassing about a lot of stuff.
But about this, I'm embarrassed by us. We as a society took our pound of flesh off him. But in a long interview with Greta Van Susteren, "rape" came up repeatedly, because the show segment was about Tyson's old rape case. "The Pulse" was asking if he got a raw deal. Well, it's about a decade too late to start to ask the question of did he get a raw deal. Think Tyson chose this subject?
It makes no difference to me what a man or woman does for a living, you understand. But this ... this can be a little dangerous.
Before this week, I'd always noticed and been impressed by the intelligence and skills of Greta Van Susteren. She came to prominence during the O.J. Simpson trial. She was a lawyer herself and a good co-host on a CNN show attached to the Simpson trial, along with a man named Roger Cossack, who also made hay for himself, but was thought not to be able to sustain his own show, once that trial, sadly, for all the commentators and networks it made, closed.
Greta was another matter. She had a winning way, was a good interviewer, was quick, likeable, passionate and knowledgeable about the law; she had a long and impressive referral list of other telegenic lawyers she could turn to for comment, counterpoint, and debate, and of course there would always be new trials of the century to commentate about, or so it was then believed.
Van Susteren had plastic surgery to appear more telegenic and was hired away from CNN by Fox, one can safely assume for more money. Her show, "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren," has done well enough for Fox to use her (and Tyson) to try to make its new show hit the ground running.
Fox used Greta, who had a sound, legitimate legal curiosity, as it turns out, to see if Tyson had appropriate legal representation in the trial. That's not how the show was promoted.
The show was promoted -- everywhere -- as another string of antisocial comments about antisocial behavior from Mike Tyson. Instead of an examination, it was promoted as another exhibition of What's Wrong With This Dude? A desperate grab for attention to hype a new show by using "rape" and "Mike Tyson" in promos, which the show figured would help draw a measurable audience, which could be reported back to bosses and advertisers.
In fact, what happened was not exposing Mike Tyson, or what happened to Mike Tyson, but exposing "The Pulse," the new show that Greta's skills, pedigree, talent, shrewd and winning ways helped authenticate. Without Greta, and Tyson, I'd have never even seen "The Pulse," and I seriously doubt Tyson would have sat still for any other host. In fact, I'm pretty sure of it.
We already know Tyson can willfully shock us; he is quite expert at it, especially when sore subjects or his volatility about them are pricked. He knows full well -- he is not unintelligent, no matter what you think -- that is what media expects of him, and so he very often gives them what they came for, especially if they are obvious about it, or if they make him comfortable; but here is the great irony of it; they are airing him not to study his case, not really, or not even to expose his bestiality. They air him so that he will save their show, or help make their show viable, by helping them to get a rating. While pretending to be shocked and appalled and disgusted and repulsed by Mike Tyson, they all keep showing up at his door and performing this public service by allowing us a window into his soul, as it were.
He gave the folks at "The Pulse" exactly what they wanted: Greta: "Did you rape her?" Tyson: "No I didn't rape that slimy bitch ... lying reptilian young lady ... put me in this state ... where I don't know ... now I really do want to rape her, her and her mama ..." (We are supposed to be feeling the chill by now, and checking to see that our doors are locked). Greta: "Why do you think she did this?" Tyson: "Because she's a sick, money-hungry ... a really bad person ... now I'm all f----- up .... I got issues. ... So I'm this big black rapist who wants some p----, so if she says no I'm just a black ape and hits her with a club and drag her by her hair (and rapes her) ... I'm left with the stigma of this ... it's the worst thing, even worse than being a murderer. I'm stigmatized ..." No wonder he's angry.
And we, the media, profit by this; not only Fox, either. The night before the show ran, I was contacted by my own people at ESPN to discuss Tyson's appearance on a show that hadn't even aired yet, asked to perhaps authenticate and expand upon the Tyson "interview" and the Tyson "comments." I declined to do this, of course. And I wondered if people like Greta and I had spent years building up cred in order to have it utilized like this.
We now can be one of the bad guys, in the new media Matrix. Tyson is like the human battery, feeding us all. So I wanted to save everybody the trouble. Still, I was further enticed with phrases like "since you're a boxing expert." The thing is -- this has nothing to do with boxing. Nothing at all. It has nothing to do with crime, or rape either; rightly or wrongly, Mike Tyson was convicted of rape and served his time for it.
So now, do we have a media version of double jeopardy?
"The Pulse" trolls shamlessly for bottom-dwellers with another Tyson re-do, even though deep down I don't believe that was Greta's intent; she had a great legal curiosity and was trying to satisfy it, and actually did a good job of putting it all together. But that doesn't change how the program was sold, or how Tyson is continually sold. From "Outside the Lines" to "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to "SportsCenter" to "The Pulse" -- heck, even on Page 2 -- there is this morbid fascination with Tyson's pathologies, as if they were not our own, and had nothing to do with us. We just like to watch. Let's throw buzzwords at him and see if he verbally goes off. Oooo! He did it again! He did it again! He did it again!. . .
Hell, they might as well just loop the footage and hook us up to it like an I.V. with electroshock nodules, or simply lobotomize us.
This is crass, manipulative, pure exploitation, of Tyson, and us, like having our eyelids forced open and being forced to watch the same bloody car wreck again and again. And to what end?
To increase our understanding of him, or the world around us?
No. To get a number. Period. That's all it is. That's all it means.
I'm sad to see a sharp mind like Greta's co-opted, to try to grab a few more ratings points. But that's the deal we make when we start up shows that need ratings, by any means necessary, in order to survive in the manner in which we've become accustomed.
Yes, we all make our deal, Greta and Fox, and me and ESPN, and you and yours too; we don't make our deal with Mike Tyson, but with a devil that is far more encompassing, and real.
It's TV in the 21st Century that has become the horrific prizefighter, doing everything to survive, biting our ears off, hitting us below the belt, slashing at us when we're down, knocking us unconscious, making us -- and them -- something less than human.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."