Audience ratings, not white male privilege, killed Michelle Wolf’s not-bad-but-not-great TV show
By Kent R. Kroeger (September 17, 2018)
McFarland and Fallon apparently are not fans of old, white guys doing non-topical comedy in an uninventive way, while criticizing the #MeToo movement for not being more forgiving to sexual assaulters like his friend Louis C.K.
On that level, I understand why East Coast media mavens are already panning Macdonald’s new show, which I would describe as Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” with a slightly higher production budget. Norm Macdonald Has a Show is why I don’t watch TV anymore, except for an occasional live sporting event or hurricane. Macdonald rehashes the ‘Can you believe this dopey guy has a TV show?’ concept, brilliantly re-imagined by David Letterman 35 years ago and mined dry of inventive comedy by the mid-1990s.
Two minutes into this preview clip of Macdonald’s show will give you a good idea of what to expect:
“Norm Macdonald has a show and Michelle Wolf does not. That’s aggravating,” bemoans Fallon. “It’s aggravating because of what Wolf’s show and her material contributed to the national discourse, and the utter pointlessness of what’s happening on Macdonald’s series.”
McFarland takes Fallon’s lament one step farther and declares Macdonald representative of all old, white guys ever: “The world has always been ruled by some version of Norm Macdonald. That’s why so many people love him.”
Four thousand years of male domination will produce powered flight, anabolic steroids, and an enduring bias towards things masculine, but I don’t think it makes us ‘love’ Norm Macdonald. That said, I do agree with McFarland that there is no way a show like Macdonald’s even gets out of a development meeting unless the process is dominated by old, white guys and the women who pretend to love them.
The real tragedy in McFarland and Fallon’s critique is that Macdonald persists in getting work while Wolf and Thede must struggle. While the Norm Mcdonald Has a Show premiered this week on Netflix, The Break with Michelle Wolf, also on Netflix, and BET’s The Rundown with Robin Thede were both recently cancelled after only one season.
Why were these shows cancelled? According to Deadline, The Break simply didn’t garner a large enough viewership for Netflix to secure a renewal (Note: Netflix does not generally release viewership numbers for its programs). And while BET’s press release announcing the cancellation of The Rundown did not mention ratings, BET’s new president Scott M. Mills, who has little patience for shows with low ratings, prefers original movies and shows with scripted content. In its final episode on April 19th, The Rundown achieved a 0.09 rating (Persons 18-49) and attracted only 200,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Research.
In an economic system where boardrooms are held accountable by shareholders, ratings are the critical metrics informing decisions made at TV networks. If you have any media companies in your 401k, you’d better hope that is how decisions are made.
Yet, McFarland and Fallon are crying ‘sexism.’ The same boardrooms dominated by womanizing, sexual assaulting men like CBS’s Les Moonves, in their view, are not giving women-led shows a chance to find an audience.
There is truth to that assertion, but it is difficult to prove. Case in point, at the same time Michelle Wolf’s shows was cancelled, Netflix also announced the cancelling of The Joel McHale Show, which debuted only a month earlier than Wolf’s show. McHale’s show, too, did not find an audience.
The Break and The Rundown were immensely popular with critics — both received Rotten Tomatoes ratings over 70 percent (which is very good). But there aren’t enough arrogant, insular East Coast critics to keep a major network show alive. TV shows need millions of regular viewers and history is littered with so many high quality/low-rated TV shows you could fill a 24–7 cable network channel with them (Freaks and Geeks, Deadwood, Mr. Show, Flight of the Conchords, Firefly, Arrested Development). Great shows with tiny audiences. Networks hate great shows with tiny audiences.
For McFarland and Fallon to attribute the cancellation of The Break and The Rundown to sexism is just another lazy narrative posing as insightful analysis, meant to give their confederates living in the same ideological bubble something to talk about at parties. McFarland and Fallon’s cry of sexism is as unsurprising and lifeless as Norm Macdonald Has a Show.
Their conclusion also ignores this non-controversial fact: TV shows are generally cancelled when people don’t watch them and networks don’t make money selling advertising on them. If it makes you feel good to tag others as sexist, I suggest you try to understand why the American television viewer (which skews female, by the way) doesn’t seem to appreciate shows like The Break and The Rundown. Is the patriarchy driving their TV viewing tastes? If so, why does Full Frontal with Samantha Bee routinely finish in the Top 10 in the ratings?
If white male privilege is driving the view options and habits of Americans, please explain why Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, the Oprah Channel series Greenleaf, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, and VH1’s Black Ink Crew Chicago are routinely in the Top 10 for cable TV shows?
Is it possible The Break and The Rundown were not good enough to inspire people to carve 30 more minutes of viewing time out of their day? And I’m saying that as someone who has been a fan of both Wolf and Thede from their Daily Show work. I posted on my blog the morning after Wolf’s appearance at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner that she was “brilliant” and, minus a tasteless and unfunny abortion joke, her performance was funnier than Stephen Colbert’s legendary 2006 performance.
But then I watched her Netflix show and, while I was amused, I didn’t leave feeling her “material contributed to the national discourse,” as suggested by Fallon. Which begs the question: Is our national discourse now being legitimately driven by comedy shows? Really? If true, someone in academia should look into that problem. That cannot be a good sign for democracy. As Sam Kinison once said, “Stand-up comics are smart people who didn’t pay attention in class.” Probably not the people you want setting the national policy agenda.
Here is one of The Break’s best episodes.
The show’s production values were excellent. I love her look and voice (some people strongly disagree with me on the latter). And the writing was what you would expect from a show spawned from the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. More importantly, The Break was far superior to what I expect to see in the future from Norm Macdonald Has a Show.
Here is one of the most provocative episodes from The Rundown with Robin Thede, a show structured more like The Daily Show than is The Break, but whose content is more serious and not as funny as The Break:
So, am I agreeing with McFarland and Fallon after all? No. There is no rule or law that says if I (or they) like a show it needs to say on the air. And that is the problem with the McFarland and Fallon sexism supposition that tries to superimpose a sex- and gender-based sociological framework to what is more likely a cold and mundane business decision driven by simple microeconomic incentives. Moreover, they violate one of the basic rules of social analysis: You must rule out the most obvious causal factors (TV ratings, in this case) before proceeding to other potential explanations like sexism or racism. Their insight on sexism, while still plausible as a distal factor, comes across as merely an attempt to sell an ideological agenda.
That doesn’t help anyone. Not Michelle Wolf. Not Robin Thede. Not anyone trying to be bring a new idea or perspective to television.