Christine O'Donnell and the rise of cable TV politics: Why we're responsible

So long as sensational programming drives TV news ratings, outlandish figures will stick around. You vote with your remote – for either real solutions to complicated issues or snarky comments and snappy sound bites.

During the past 18 years, frequent talk show guest and current “tea party”-backed US Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell has made a lot of statements – such as denying the separation of church and state in America – that I consider ridiculous.

But she and I are on the same wavelength about one subject: why people like her are able to use TV as a springboard to fame.

Having worked on both sides of the camera, I know why news producers are attracted to ambitious, compelling, even zany characters: Viewers enjoy the show and a big audience brings good ratings.

Sometimes I feel like a relic of some lost civilization. I grew up watching elected officials who practiced civility. I got my broadcasting license in an era of strict rules about what not to say into a live microphone. Policy debates focused on content and critical thinking. But today, ideas have been replaced by talking points. Snarky comments are prized elements in the battle to “control the narrative” and “push back” against opposing views. Public discourse has been transformed into the spoken-word equivalent of cage fighting.

You may not like the type of candidates this system is producing, but no one should claim to be surprised. The audience gets what it clamors for.

In a recent interview, Ms. O’Donnell recalled how her on-camera adventures began. “I was a Bush-Quayle youth leader, happened to talk to the producer of CNN on the convention floor, and she liked what I happened to say.” And suddenly, as the saying goes, her crowded hour had begun. Any career counselor will confirm that a good first impression can open lots of doors to success. “That’s how it works; that’s how it still works,” O’Donnell said. “You get on one producer’s Rolodex, and ... it just kind of spreads exponentially.”

Regardless of how you feel about O’Donnell’s beliefs, she understands the system that catapulted her to fame. Her point about Rolodexes is clear and succinct. I know how crucial those factors are when producers evaluate guests. It also helps to have a confident, outgoing personality that keeps viewers engaged even if they disagree with the point of view.

The process has a purpose: avoid boredom. Anytime a discussion drifts into dullness, viewers change channels. “What you never want,” a newsroom supervisor once advised me, “is a segment that plays like three guys on cable access talking about soil conservation.”

No offense to soil conservationists. My boss was just trying to emphasize that he wanted all interview segments to be lively and compelling.

Searching for the right person to interview can be a hard slog. You want participants who will respond to questions quickly and speak in complete sentences. Hesitation isn’t good. Long pauses – the kind that are needed to make a thoughtful point instead of recycle a talking point – are worse. When I found people who could handle the pressure of being on camera and get their points across effectively, I put them on my A-list.

Pundits have warned about the dangers of making presentation the top priority across the broadcast spectrum. An equally serious problem is that Americans born since 1985 have grown up watching TV news guests and political figures talk about policy the way school bullies talk about your mother. They assume it’s normal.

I keep coming back to the image of those three guys on cable access. In the real world, you can’t rush through soil conservation. You won’t find solutions to complicated issues in snappy sound bites. There is no shortcut to wisdom and anger seldom leads to insight.

Unfortunately, ratings rule in TV and if guests like O’Donnell can pump up ratings (and possibly get elected to the US Senate) don’t expect changes soon. Critics of the system have my support, along with this advice: Leave the producers alone. They’re already hard at work on an upcoming segment.

Jeffrey Shaffer, a former news producer, is the author of “It Came With the House.”

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