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Dum Dums: how America sucks the intelligence out of television
By MICHAEL ELLISON
Thursday 16 March 2000
EVERYONE knows Americans will do anything to get on television. There was the non-smoker who forced himself to light up a Marlboro so he could get on a CNN item about nicotine addicts having to leave their offices for a drag. One university student taught her pet hamster to eat while sitting in her mouth. That worked too.
Darva Conger fleetingly became famous when she made herself the victim of Who Wants To Marry a Millionaire? One of the spurned competitors said she was terrified the soon-to-be-tarnished millionaire might have picked her. But it was worth it just to get on television.
So why are only four people in front of me at the appointed hour for the studio audience to present themselves for ABC's Good Morning America? True, it's 6.15am, but this is where television history is made, the very media outlet Darva graced with an exclusive interview when she tired of marriage to her millionaire about the same moment he attempted to negotiate their first kiss. It's not as if there is any question about it: come, and you will be on television. All you need to do is wave and smile as a camera pans along the eager faces behind the rope in a studio that's a facsimile of a red brick and flowers mall in Anywhere, America.
Nor is it a slow news day. There's another shooting for the ABC anchors, Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer, to look grave about; the presidential primaries to be handled with impeccable impartiality; and Kathie Lee Gifford is quitting her daytime talk-show berth, perhaps the biggest media story since the memorable debacle over whether she had stopped wearing a bra.
But the star of today's show is the Dum Dum lollipop. The flagship morning program on the nation's most-watched network has found Tony the weatherman temporary employment in a confectionery factory. So Tony gets to predict sunshine with mild precipitation while tending a pair of giant steel hands kneading what will become a fraction of the 6.5million Dum Dums produced today somewhere in Ohio.
"We'll have you smiling in no time," says Jeremy, the audience liaison man, warming up a crowd that has now swollen to 14 and been ushered into the studio from the street in Times Square. "We want everyone to be sucking a lollipop in every shot." Right, Jeremy.
A monitor shows Diane fixing her hair in the studio upstairs. We are in the studio downstairs. "They usually do the light-hearted stuff down here," says Jeremy. That takes care of just about everything but massacres, politics and Kathy Lee. "It'll get exciting in a little while. I know it's boring at the moment. Just keep sucking the lollipops."
Upstairs in the serious studio, ABC political analyst George Stephanopolous is discharging a public service: "Presidential candidate Bill Bradley has to decide what's the most dignified way to get out. How do you go with some class?" Perhaps by taking the lollipop out of your mouth, turning on your heel and walking out the door?
But no, that would mean missing Tony's weather update from the Dum Dum factory. It would mean missing Jeremy's wistful reminiscence of the program's golden moments. "That was the day we had the world's sexiest geek finals."
For the last really serious element of the program there is an interview with an expert on hyperekplexia, apparently a predisposition to being startled that strikes only a few unfortunates. Charles Gibson, or Charlie, matey thoroughgoing professional that he is, suffers from nothing of the sort. The startling slot closes and Charlie pops a Dum Dum.
"Do we have people eating lollies?" Jeremy asks. "We need a shot of you, so get out those lollies. Wave everyone." The audience has grown to 19, but we are still implored to bunch together to make it look as if every tourist in the city is here.
Then a genuine live television moment happens. A man with a formidable mullet has walked in, passed through the metal detector, and pushed his way to the barrier. Bill from Florida is carrying a sign: "Marry me Renee." In an ad break, Bill gets on his mobile phone: "Hi. You've got to watch at 8.30. Yeah, Charlie and Diane. You've just got to. That's all there is to it."
He can only be talking to Renee. Now, Charlie and Diane did not get where they are today, rising in the middle of the night to broadcast to a grateful nation, by passing up a chance like this. Off-air, Charlie tells Bill to get Renee back on the phone, takes the receiver, and tells her this 8.30 thing really needs to happen.
Diane is working the other end of the audience, now at its peak of nearly 40. She is perfect in her turquoise top and matching earrings, a wardrobe woman picking at her rump. "I tried doing that with her skirt and she just slapped me across the face," says cheeky Charlie.
Before Renee gets back, there's the interview with Millie (lighthearted). Millie was the first winner of Queen for a Day, a kind of forerunner to Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? in which housewives, as they were known before they were wiped out by homemakers, sparred with sob stories. Back then, Millie needed to learn to drive so she could visit her three-year-old in hospital. Little Michael died six months later but Millie did learn to drive.
She also won a flight to Italy to visit her husband. But there was a war going on and an agreement was struck to put the Italian job on hold. Millie never did get her trip to Italy.
Given Darva Conger's self-inflicted wounds in the game-show wars, perhaps that was just as well. Oh, and wouldn't you just know it, Renee said yes. Charlie (his favorite flavor: root beer) took a last pull on one of his lollipops. "Even though they're called Dum Dums, they are not at all easy to make."
As I cannot believe I read this I decided to share it with you Yanks. Afterall, you mob lead the world in this stuff....
Regards from puerile-ville somewhere Down Under
-- Pieter (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 15, 2000