Subterranean huckster blues


WASHINGTON -- Shameless hucksterism is one of the things that made America great. Shameless hucksterism built the capitalist system into the greatest economic engine ever imagined. It sells newspapers, TV shows, movies, books, iPods, cars, trucks, cereal and elected officials. It also keeps me and my peeps employed. Shameless hucksterism settled the American West.

Shameless hucksterism only becomes a problem for me when I don't know when I'm being shamelessly huckstered. Subterranean hucksterism is a problem, and lawmakers got an earful of it last week during a House telecommunications subcommittee hearing.

The panel is run by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. Markey is one of the most savvy purveyors of political hucksterism. His combination of smarts, showmanship and legislative legerdemain gave us the V-chip. When he ran the subcommittee before what is known in some circles as the "Brief Republican Interlude," Markey held up what he claimed was the V-chip. At that hearing, he said it could be easily and cheaply installed in all TV sets.

There's always been a question about what he held up. It's unclear if a V-chip had yet been invented. Whenever I ask him what that was, he artfully dodges the question. No matter. It turned out he was right. It was cheap, and it is now in every TV made.

Last week, Markey wasn't playing huckster. Oh, he did a little bit. He recorded a YouTube clip showing what it looks like from the chairman's seat. In the clip, when he mentions the press, I'm the guy waving from the front row wearing a tan suit. (Hey, we all huck every once in a while.)

The witnesses -- YouTube founder Chad Hurley, Disney/ESPN president Ben Pyne, TiVo CEO Tom Rogers, HDNet co-founder Mark Cuban, Sling Media CEO Blake Krikorian, and MediaFLO USA president Gina Lombardi -- all seemed to be in their best huckster mode. So many of them showed videos, it felt more like a trade show than a congressional hearing.

Phil Rosenthal, creator of the hit TV series "Everybody Loves Raymond," was the only witness who wasn't huckstering. Rosenthal, who represented WGAw and SAG, wants to stop the studios, TV networks and cable companies from forcing people like him to include particular products in their shows. He claims that "product integration" occurred more than 4,000 times on primetime network TV in 2006.

I kept thinking that I was caught in the congressional version of "product integration" as I watched the videos. During Pyne's clip for ESPN, it looked like a commercial for Nike flashed upon the committee TV screens. I guess that's product integration to the factor of two.

To survive, the media has to find new ways to hawk their products. They've got to take hucksterism to the next level, but somehow this new "subterranean hucksterism" just doesn't seem like The American Way.

"Would we have wanted our memories of 'Casablanca' to include Bogart saying to Ingrid Bergman as they say good-bye: 'You're part of his life, the thing that keeps him going,'" Rosenthal said. " 'Now get on that plane and enjoy United's nonstop, three-class service to Paris with seats that recline to a full 180 degrees.'"

OK, Bergman's flight was actually headed for Lisbon, but Rosenthal was on a roll. Before the hearing, Rosenthal told me he'd walk away rather than write in some product pitch that harms a story's narratives.

He might, but most won't. I've learned that economic imperatives tend to trump our best moral instincts. If the networks, studios and cable outfits figure out a way to share the Sara Lee, then I'll bet you dollars to Dunkin' Donuts, artistic integrity gets thrown out the window.