Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Media: Is There A Difference?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A casual viewer of CBC Television's "The National" late last week would have been left with the impression that Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" is a serious conservative show (the program appears on The Comedy Network in Canada). In talking about the announcement by "The Daily Show"'s Jon Stewart of a "Rally to Restore Sanity" in Washington D.C. on October 30th, the report claimed that Stephen Colbert's "March to Keep Fear Alive" was a conservative response to Stewart.

Admittedly, Colbert has created some degree of confusion ever since his show debuted in 2005. Based on the popularity of "The Daily Show" and its satire of a news program, "The Colbert Report" has been a parody of conservative political pundit talk shows in general, and "The O'Reilly Factor" in particular. While most of the humor is so over-the-top that it would be difficult to mistake for a serious show (I mean, who would ever hold a "March to Keep Fear Alive"?), some of it is subtle enough that some conservatives have been known to say they agree with Colbert's character.

Meanwhile, on KUOW's The Conversation with Ross Reynolds last Thursday, Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead stated that she had talked to a pair of Canadians who thought that "The Glenn Beck Program" on FOX News was a great parody show. Clearly, there is a sizable portion of the United States citizenry--at least 87,000 of whom (if not 300,000) attended Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally last 28-August--that take him seriously. The Canadians found the show "hilarious parody."

Yet, Winstead's observation raises an interesting question--is there really a difference between Glenn Beck and Stephen Colbert, other than the network on which they are broadcast? Beck has been an entertainer his entire life. For a long time, he advertised his syndicated radio show as "infotainment." While I have no reason to question Beck's sincerity, do we really know what is real in his presentation and what is acting, just like seen on the Comedy Channel? Would an observer from a culture outside North America be able to tell the difference between Beck and Colbert if they were just shown the two shows? If Glenn Beck were on Comedy Central with a laugh track and Stephen Colbert were on FOX News without a studio audience, would we notice?

Granted, context is important in all media, but when a foreigner has trouble telling a parody show from a show hosted by a person regarded by some as the effective leader of a political party, that doesn't reflect well on anyone referred to in this sentence.

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