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One normally doesn’t expect much of a television network that can’t even spell its name right and uses a puppet to co-host its morning show. But the fX network, launched last summer as a subsidiary of Fox Television and seen in D.C. on Channel 43, was attractive enough that cable systems covering 18 million homes subscribed—a record for a start-up cable service.
Of course, you don’t make your way into 18 million homes just by assuring cable operators that an ersatz Ernie will leer at guests from behind a sofa. In fact, the two-and-a-half-hour morning show, Breakfast Time, is a complete remake of morning TV—and another leap forward in television’s ceaseless struggle to end fantasy’s oppression by reality. The show’s producers clearly do not believe in niche marketing; they have aimed indiscriminately at viewers of Barney and Gumbel, fans of Mr. Rogers and Willard Scott, aerobics addicts, followers of TV therapists, and all the other faithful of the media matins.
The program is broadcast from a 6,500-square-foot set made to look as an apartment would if it were also a television stage. There is no anchor desk; the closest the show has to a geographical center is an arrangement of overstuffed sofas and chairs where the hosts, guests, and any others who happen to be around lounge briefly before rushing somewhere else. The kitchen is large enough to feed all hands, which on one recent morning seemed to include every ad agency executive in Manhattan. On another occasion, among the occupants were some two dozen members of the Sounds of Blackness, the Knicks’ dance team, an indeterminate number of winners of a contest as well as the entire fifth-grade class of NYC School No. 1 that was marched into the apartment with considerable fanfare and never seen again. There is also a ballroom, a rec room (complete with pinball machine, dart board, and punching bag) and on the street below, a trailer that provides a tranquil haven should matters upstairs get too chaotic.
This can happen easily. Hosts Tom Bergeron and Laurie Hibberd dash from room to room and out onto the street for inexplicable reasons. Bergeron organizes, harasses, and informs his guests with the aid of a portable loud-hailer. An interview is stopped in midstream because two contest winners have been found eating breakfast together in the bathtub. A sweatshirted stagehand is hauled before the camera to explain why an order from McDonald’s hasn’t arrived. At the end of one show, cameramen and suits from the executive suites are dragooned into a yoga demonstration.
People on this show come in all colors and ages, although the hosts and correspondents are in their 20s and 30s, and clearly the show’s favorite generation contains the same capital letter as its network. Nonetheless, Breakfast Time makes a strong cross-generational pitch, with little kids brought in to play computer games and a “visiting family” featured each day.
The marketing logic of this may possibly be related to the fact that sales of Barney paraphernalia plummeted from $130 million in 1993 to only $30 million this year—a decline undoubtedly hastened by the virulent Barneyphobia of young parents and their friends. At a recent party hosted by 30-year-olds, for example, I found myself invited to pronounce the death warrant for a Barney piñata, which I did—“we have come to off Barney and not to praise him”—in a basement room lit only by the candle I held in my hand. The catharsis upon the creature’s destruction was irresistible and may help explain why the Breakfast Time producers selected the anti-hero puppet Bob—a lecher, among other things—and real children rather than Barney’s show-business kids from hell.
On the other hand, the human hosts and their correspondents—called “road warriors”—tend to be more ebullient than either the hour or circumstances warrant. This, combined with their unfailing smiles and good looks, leaves the sense that one has stumbled upon a dysfunctional version of Up With People. While Bergeron approaches the show with the semi-satirical detachment of a cat who’s swallowed his agent, Hibberd acts as though the program had some serious intent. This is a pretense hard to maintain as she attempts one of her three-striking-questions-andyou’re-out-of-here interviews or tries to read the news (actually four or five headlines) without getting upstaged by Bob the puppet.
The program also seems to have an abnormal interest in shrinks. In less than a week, at least four popped up. One advised (apparently for all those viewers involved in bicoastal affairs) that six to nine months apart was about all a relationship could take. Another doctor—perhaps under orders from a managed-care provider—completed a family therapy session in just two minutes and 50 seconds.
In fact, three minutes is about as long as reality is allowed on this show. Dr. Ron Hoffman’s dissertation on the kidney ran 10 seconds longer, but that included Hibberd’s counsel: “So take care of your kidneys, folks.”
The attention span of everyone on the set is extraordinarily short. One of the rules of this show appears to be that every segment can be interrupted at any time by anyone doing anything else. No one on the set has taken seriously the warning proffered in Spinal Tap that there is a thin line between clever and stupid. Thus when the gardening consultant fumbled with her twigs, the camera switched to Bergeron mindlessly covering a TV screen with a piece of paper as Bob the puppet made comments. On another occasion, the camera cut away from a serious interview to show a young member of the visiting family trying to balance a large plastic letter O on her head.
A similar agitation characterizes the field reports from the program’s road warriors. These correspondents also share Hibberd’s feel for probing inquiry, as when Spencer Garbett asked a Russian circus performer, “Why have you come to America here?” In the end one wonders why—if these folks are so hip—they are in such a hurry. The message seems to be that anything is possible—provided it doesn’t take too long. Miles Davis could never have been booked for this show.
The apartment, fX tells those who inquire, was designed as “a traditional home that was livable and comfortable…but versatile enough so that every space is available for shooting. It had to look and feel like an apartment but work like a television studio.” The “library is traditional English style with insect collections.” The bathroom has taken its inspiration from New Orleans, although not, apparently, from Dr. Hoffman’s lecture on the kidney; the entire apartment contains only one toilet.
The rec room has a “riot of opposing diagonal lines” which is “a proud nod to Frank Lloyd Wright.” The bedroom has a “colorful, quirky rococo presence.” Finally, “throughout this apartment is this playful juxtaposition of modern and classic styles, where the attention to detail has produced an environment that is welcoming for not only the cast and crew but the viewers, who are the real inhabitants, as well.” I asked a realtor who deals in this sort of property how much a group of 20-to-35-year-olds might expect to pay for such an apartment in New York City. She estimated about $3-4 million—not, of course, including the audiovisual equipment, punching bag, and nod to Frank Lloyd Wright.
Perhaps the most startling aspects of the show are the subtitles that pop up on interviews and field reports. During a segment on ostriches, for example, the following data emerged serially at the lower left corner of the screen: “WOW! THAT’S A LONG NECK. THE FARM ANIMALS OF THE FUTURE. LONG LEGGED FRIEND.” Meanwhile, the correspondent was offering such insights as, “Ostriches are very big, bigger in fact than a big football player” and “They could punch a hole in that van over there.”
Similar trenchant analysis marks the weather report, provided by a perpetually off-screen Muppet-voiced announcer named Jim. Blue ovals appear on the weather map and Jim explains, “In these big blue things, there’s rain.” Sun icons are described as “spiky round balls.” And, as a long black frontal line emerges: “The way this thing works is that there is this line here. Below this line [an arrow helpfully indicates the direction of “below’], it’s warm. Above, it’s cold.”
Thus has postmodernism—already infecting everything else in America from architecture to the Clinton White House—finally come to morning television. Postmodernism is an assault on every favored philosophical notion since the time of Voltaire (or, in the case of television, since Howdy Doody). It derides the concepts of universality, history, values, logic, truth, reason, and objectivity.
Among other things, the post-modernist is obsessed with symbolism and its manipulation. And just as other postmodernists deconstruct texts and ideas, so Fox Television has deconstructed its own medium. The very name of its subsidiary—fX—with no vowel and the capital at the end of the word—reveals a pomo contempt for tradition. While words, however, are declared free of all rules or consistent meaning, some things in postmodernism remain sacred. Hence the elaborate instructions in the fX press kit on the proper care and handling of its logo: “Never print the logo in two colors….Do not reduce logos less than 50 percent.”
One of the ironies of postmodernism is that for all its rejection of the past, it remains highly dependent upon it. What it wants is not so much a new age but the absolute right to reassemble the old one any which way it desires. Thus we find a growing number of copyright infringement cases in popular music as creativity is redefined to include repackaging the work of others. Lego high-rises that steal from a different decade for each tower and structural edifice are further evidence of the postmodern faith that the past just got it wrong.
Finally, like many of their postmodern peers, the folks on Breakfast Time demonstrate an uncanny ability to keep the focus on themselves rather than on what they’re meant to be doing or talking about. Perhaps this is a wise decision, since in more than a few instances their greatest talent—as with other contemporary American cultural icons—is to be found in their hair and their teeth.
Despite all the novelty, one watches Breakfast Time with some of the same feeling of rummaging through an old box one has found in the closet. There are memories, but one of the memories is that there was once something more. Here, for example, we have Bergeron à la Letterman enjoying with the audience the absurdity of his chosen trade, yet without the originality of the Velcro walls or stupid pet tricks. Camera angles and on-camera attitudes evoke MTV’s The Real World, but unlike The Real World, we will not learn if Hibberd is really a faux-hip Jack Kemp Republican or if one of the other personalities is HIV-positive.
Also familiar are the puppets talking to real people and the subtitles and the upbeat diversity and the set that made us feel we are home and the funny characters with funny voices and the laughs mixed with education and the short segments and the running madly about. We’ve seen them before. Only we were much younger then, and the show was called Sesame Street. In fact, Breakfast Time premiered just before the 25th anniversary of Sesame Street. Educational researchers—a dour lot that never liked Big Bird in the first place—are claiming that a season with the bird only added knowledge of two new letters of the alphabet for the kids who watched. Maybe. But what it did accomplish was more profound; it gave real life a run for its money, creating a fantasy in which strange creatures reached out, touched, and made friends with real people. It prepared a generation for a world in which no one would be able to say with any certainty what was real and what wasn’t. And borrowing a function once reserved to the gods, Kermit and Cookie Monster may also have helped that generation keep going despite this non-knowledge.
A 5-year-old child who watched those first Sesame Street programs is now 30—near ground zero for the Breakfast Time marketeers. Stumble upon Breakfast Time, and you will initially be confused as to who is a personality, who is a staffer, who is a guest, who is audience, what is real, and what isn’t. You may wonder whether you are being informed, entertained, or sold. But it really doesn’t matter anymore. You see, as writer Walker Percy once said of California, and as Breakfast Time argues daily, we are all television now.