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You Get What You Pay For -- Unfortunately


The HBO two-hour movie, Recount, that debuted last Sunday night to deservedly rave reviews brilliantly and dramatically makes the point that "every vote counts" only when the vote-counting system is not corrupted and politicized as it was in Florida in 2000.

This lesson is especially relevant today, eight years later, as Hillary Clinton, in increasingly more desperate attempts to wrest the Democratic nomination away from Barack Obama, tries to corrupt and politicize the voting process. It is a scary irony that she and Bill are using the same deceitful, hate-filled strategies that their mortal enemies, the neo-con Republicans, Bush, and Rove, used in 2000. The intelligent HBO film Recount and the Clintons remind us that all is fair in politics and war. The Clintons tell us they are "fighters," supposedly to remind us that politics and war are dirty, deadly conflicts in which the ends justify the means and winning, not truth or decency, is the only thing that counts.

But Americans have to pay to be reminded of the importance of the concept that "every vote counts" only when they are counted properly and honestly. They have to pay to receive basic cable service and to pay an additional monthly fee for HBO, thus reinforcing the old saw that "you get what you pay for." To get high-quality drama that deals with important and meaningful ideas without being bombarded by a gaggle of interruptive commercials, you have to pay extra -- unfortunately.

Can you imagine the free networks (aka advertising-supported networks) such as ABC, CBS, FOX, or NBC putting on thought-provoking movies like Recount that serve the public interest as well as interest the public? In another irony that unmasks the irresponsibility of the commercial broadcast networks, it's the commercial-free, paid-for HBO that puts on meaningful, uplifting programming when no public interest regulation makes them do so, and it's the commercial broadcast networks that are distributing banal, lowest-common-denominator programming such as Dancing With The Stars to television stations that are licensed to serve the public interest.

But the commercial broadcast networks (at least ABC, CBS, and NBC) are not totally ignoring their public interest responsibility. This week the three networks with evening newscasts announced that they "have agreed to set aside the same hour of prime-time television on the first Friday night in September for a live, joint telethon benefiting cancer research." Charles Gibson, Katie Couric, and Brian Williams "have agreed to put aside their competitive instincts, albeit temporarily," according to the Times, and raise money to fight cancer, which has taken the lives of members of all three anchors' families.

This joint effort is certainly worthwhile and in the public interest, but it is also, unfortunately, all too rare for the three commercial broadcast networks involved - to say nothing of FOX, which is not involved. To fulfill their public interest obligations, these networks should be doing much more to fight cancer, to educate people about global warming, and to deal with issues of public importance in all types of programming, including both news and entertainment programming. And as HBO proved with Recount, meaningful programming doesn't have to be preachy or boring.

Also this past week, HBO announced that New York Times columnist Frank Rich would join former New Yorker and Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown as a creative consultant to the network. Felix Gillette, in his New York Observer piece, suggests that Rich will bring a wealth of ideas (my play on words, not his) to HBO. I have read Frank Rich religiously over the years and believe that he has a deep understanding of cultural and political issues, has a conscience, and is committed to serving the public interest. I believe he will bring his conscience and commitment to HBO and that HBO will be the better for it.

Too bad that one of the commercial broadcast networks didn't hire Frank Rich first -- they really need his conscience and commitment. But then again, as we know, you tend to get what you pay for -- unfortunately... unfortunate for those who can't afford cable or HBO.