Carlson Weaponizes The ‘Political Variety Show’
Variety shows used to reside at the intersection of law and society. When, in 1967, Ed Sullivan censored the the Rolling Stones, forcing them to change the lyrics from “let’s spend the night together” to “let’s spend some time together,” the show was not only fearful of the legal ramifications of airing Mick Jagger’s words but wanted to and succeeded in sending a message to American society as to what behavior was and wasn’t permissible to show on television.
Fast forward just over half a century and while the variety show format seems to many observers to have vanished, it is actually booming, just in a different guise. Today’s variety show is about breaking bad, raising a little hell by challenging whatever status quo the host and network want to challenge, with the end result a deepening divide between the political poles that now define the nation.
Tucker Carlson is not a journalist yet is an excellent variety show host, arguably one of the best in history. Earning over $10 million per year, Carlson is perhaps best in breed of political variety show hosts.
Yet the political variety show itself is a relatively new animal, originally a crossbreed between actual journalism (read: a news show) and the reincarnation of the variety show format.
Webster’s defined the traditional variety show as “a theatrical entertainment of successive separate performances (as of songs, dances, skits, and acrobatic feats)” which it is again today, except that these are now metaphorical. Today’s variety show has hosts and guests (sometimes in panels) who are there to stir the same emotion in the viewer as we feel when watching the spectacles of the earlier times.
Whether in a modern-day variety show such as Tucker Carlson’s or Sean Hannity’s on Fox, Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, any Jon Stewart program or appearance, any range of nightly offerings on CNN, a dissection and often questionable re-creation of current political events provides us the same thrill as variety TV.
But what makes the political variety show so dangerous to society is that no one will admit that the genre actually exists today.
All of the creators and personalities behind these successful political variety shows use their pulpit to entertain and inflame an often deeply-pliant base. But what we are seeing now is an intentional transition in these shows from entertainment to action catalysts, which is precisely the issue that has arisen this week with Carlson’s show.
In what was intended to and did become a viral overnight meme early this week, Tucker Carlson told his live television audience to harass people who wear face masks outside. Carlson went on to state that if adults see children wearing masks, the response should be no different than when they see a child being abused: “Call the police immediately, contact child protective services.”
Seen through the most literal legal lens, such a call to action could be legally viewed as either fomenting or coordinating terrorist acts on American soil. While this reads admittedly as quite dramatic, it is a question of scope.
Like The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, Carlson’s show is currently atop the ratings pile, averaging approximately 3 million viewers each night. While this pales in comparison to the ratings behemoth that was The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, with 13 million viewers, the impact is exactly the same. Today, while other viewing choices such as Netflix take people away from traditional TV, the internet creates memes and can send what TV hosts such as Carlson say into the stratosphere of political and societal influence. In other words, having 3 million people watch your show each night in 2021 probably has the same effect as 23 million Americans watching a show in 1967, and that is very powerful and potentially very dangerous.
Michele Finizio, a criminal defense lawyer in New Jersey, observes that talk itself isn’t cheap. “Being a TV entertainer isn’t a hall pass when your speech moves people to violent action,” she says. “Whether you were standing on a soap box in the town square in simpler times or you’re broadcasting to tens of millions of viewers today, when you incite people to violence, this comes with potential legal liability.”
Mick Jagger’s eyeroll, in response to the Sullivan censorship, was both playful and sent the audience a serious message: Times were changing, and free expression would no longer be denied on the airwaves. Whether today’s entertainers, such as Carlson, have titled the balance too far in the other direction is less an issue of censorship and more one of legal responsibility for one’s political speech. How this plays out in an era where words and actions are arguably more politically charged that they have been in 70 years, will be fascinating to watch.
Aron Solomon is the head of digital strategy for NextLevel.com and an adjunct professor of business management at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.