Television Without Millionaires?

11/30/2011 05:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 30, 2012

In the first phase of the AIDS crisis, a campaign was initiated to have a Day Without Art to highlight the impact of HIV in society by drawing attention to the impact it had in arts communities. Today, over 8,000 museums and galleries take part internationally to alternately shroud or highlight works of art on Dec. 1 of every year, on World AIDS Day. It was/is a simple and astonishingly effective interruption of the narrative of business-as-usual to see so many individuals and institutions to come together to draw attention to the fact that the AIDS crisis exists and continues to complicate and crush communities under the weight of treatment complications and prejudice.

Recently, I talked to a friend who has a fairly substantive job in broadcasting. We have a history of dialogue and he has helped me to realize ideas from time to time. On this occasion, he thought that my idea was a stunt when I presented it. It is completely earnest. The idea is simple. What would happen if we broadcast an entire day's programming without a single millionaire being visible on the screen? Inclusive of hosts, announcers, guests, meteorologists, sports figures, and actors, there would be nobody who was a millionaire on television for an entire day. How interesting it would be to see both who was absent from our living room screens, but also who was present.

Might we realize the national and international audience about how much their newscasters are often much wealthier than their everyday homilies imply? If we really understood how much money was concentrated in the hands of sports stars, could we hold them to higher standards? If we saw how many actors we might think of as rich still being visible, would we understand how easily we will accept little to perform for our own corporate masters? Most notably of all, how many members of our political class, pundits and policymakers and politicians proper, would be unable to appear due to the size of their bank accounts?

What would happen if the entire television audience recognized the degree to which their lives were being described and choices dictated by the global rich rather than the global majority? How many unheard voices would get to be heard if we removed some of the rich from the airwaves for a day? Would the proportions in the media be along the same lines that the Occupy movements' numbers? Is the proverbial One Percent taking up Forty Percent of content or are they controlling far far more than that?

Would such a day not honor the heart and soul of people who are trying to change things in the territory of media that take up more and more of our lives? What would talk shows discuss on this day? Who would host the talk shows? Before dismissing such a suggestion as a form of quasi-class-warfare, we might wake up and see the degree to which our narratives are class biased and resemble the objective standards very little indeed.

What would happen in a world wherein, instead of parceling out stays in the White House Lincoln Bedroom to top campaign donors, there were a national lottery that allowed average citizens the chance to win and stay overnight? What would happen if congressional portraits and offices were only provided to politicians that were not millionaires?

I do not mean to impugn the presence of wealth per se. There are many people who use their accumulated monies to try to do real good in the world, just as there are many who do not. It is a fine thing to improve one's material condition in the world and surely those who claim that money can't buy happiness usually make the statement with a full belly and while warm under a roof. But it is this Occupy Wall Street movement (or movements, more properly) that has begun to draw attention to the fact that inequality is a problem and that as a society we have lost sight of the fact that there are obligations to those among us that need care and support. You may quibble over the idea of the particular number, but that is not important.

Of Andy Warhol's many quotes, he famously announced: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." While we can read this as an accurate impression of our attention-deficit-heavy modern news cycle, we might remember that the wealthy get to continue their fame far longer than a simple brief burst. After being ceaselessly asked to comment on his famous quip, he'd regularly complicate interviews by spinning the quote, including the statement that "in the future only 15 people will be famous." It is the wealthy that have been controlling the message and the narrative of the media. It is the later statement by Warhol that seems to be the more prescient.

The early years of A Day Without Art were punctuated by elaborate public stunts by Visual AIDS, ACT-UP and Gran Fury among others. Their spectacles and interventions challenged the perception and sentiment enough to focus attention on faster access to drugs and a more sustained commitment to research with the recognition that AIDS has effects on all of us. The implications of a A Day Without Millionaires might be just as jarring and more so. For the rich and the poor, economic inequality has consequences for us all. Occupy Everywhere.