Nothing can defeat the will to fail. But television has given failure a new dimension -- by taking some of its dimension away. Failure has lost sting in TV, partly because it is so common, and partly because, what with most TV programming falling into the safely and grimly routine range, an extreme like failure becomes almost as desirable as success.
Under the legerdemain logic of big-time TV, failure -- The New Failure -- isn't inherently dishonorable any more. Its just an alternative workstyle. It's like success, except it's, well, failure. A lot of mileage, fame and attention can still be gotten out of it.
Failure is a lady called Success.
Success snatched from the gums of failure, however, is still the hottest ticket of all, the one the world beats paths to doors for, and nohing illustrates this better than TV coverage of the Carter peace junket to the Mideast. Somewhere along the way, everybody in TV news got together and decided to go with failure in reporting this baby. It was a safe decision, because the more they predicted failure, the better the story would be if success were achieved at the last minute.
TV thrives on news stories that conform to the narrative contours of fiction.
And thus was Walter Cronkite beamed down by satellite from Jerusalem to the national living room on the CBS News "Sunday Morning" show to tell us that things were looking dim. Dim, indeed! Walter even injected one of his famous impersonal "personal notes." Naturally the thought occurred to all of us simultaneously that if Walter were in there negotiating instead of Billy Carter's brother, the whole thing could have been wrapped up in a day, and this would be success to make the world swoon.
Reverence for the Sage of CBS precludes our wondering if this thought also occurred to Walter Cronkite.
But the Mideast story isn't the only example of America's new failure kick. In New York, the print media especially are busy monitoring with the diligence of a respirator the failure of NBC President Fred Silverman to turn the network magically from No. 3 to No. 1 overnight. At some newspapers, they keep a Fred Watch. Nearly every day somebody will bravely and authoritatively remind the world that "NBC is till No. 3" and that Silverman has yet to walk on the water in the Rockefeller Center fountain.
Fred Silverman sat on the couch in his office the other day, made one of his exasperated but not infuriated sighs, and said, "I wonder what they'll do if four or five of these shows start taking off?" They won't like it, because it botches up the story. Hardly anyone in broadcasting seems to be wished ill by more media people than Silverman. This helps make him one of the few true heros left in television management.
Each Monday, we all rush to our newsstands to see who this week's has-been, could-be and Definitely Is are.
Both flops and hits make more entertaining spectacles than quiet, unobtrusive, steady hangers-on. That is why hardly anything is ever written about "Little House on the Prairie." And yet if as many people went to see a movie in one week as watch "Little House on the Prairie" on a typical Monday night, that movie would zoom onto the covers of nearly every magazine in the country.
Eyewitness news-hens would be tripping over each other's mike cords in the scramble to do stories about it.
But television encourages a lust for failure, as well as for success, because it must pour out hours and hours of material that is bound by the law of averages to be average. In addition, from a producer's point of view, it has never before in history been so attractively profitable to commit mediocrity.
Right now in Las Vegas, the annual convention of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) is just winding up. What a perfect spot for these gamblin' kind of guys to convene, except that they really aren't the gang of Gaylord Ravenals they may think they are. What they get together for is not to think up ways to improve television or to take real risks.They get together to assess and purchase the most potentially reliable mediocrities they can find.
True, they discuss such matters as how to prevent thingamabobs like superstations from encroaching on their profits. But mostly they wander among hospitality suites set up by program syndicators and try to decide whether to buy The Dum-Dum Show or The Cluck-Cluck Show.
They are not looking for smash hits. They are not looking for fantastic failures. They are looking for palatable newts. Who can blame the public, then, for craving something along the more dramatic lines of a fiasco or a triumph, or for settling for the former in lieu of of the latter?
Rooting for those in spotlights to fail is hardly an unnatural act. In many quarters there will be justifiable joy unfettered, for instance, when "The Osmond Family Show" is canceled by ABC and that house full of teeth is shuttered at last. When entertainers are so eager to thrive and to please that they drag their little babies and old grandparents into a TV studio and hold them up to the camera like rabbit's feet, they deserve failure of a veritably virulent strain.
Only "Starsky and Hutch" merit it more.
The trouble is, not long after the Osmond show is axed, some magazine -- say, one incongruously named "People" -- will do a touching little tome about how the family has had it with nowheresville and is determined to wangle its way back into the American heart, forgiving old organ that it is. Failure has thereby been turned into something vaguely charming; TV has mellowed the ignominy right out of it.
And entertainers like Tony Orlando build careers on the virtue of having failed in the past.
The trouble with The New Failure is that it's so guiltless; it only leaves its victims ashamed to show their faces for about five minutes. Take the strange case of Mary Tyler Moore. She flopped as a musical-variety star earlier this season on CBS, so she took one brath and came right back in a new vehicle nearly as obviously a jalopy as the previous one was.
Now it's as if she is punishing the audience for its rejection of her alleged singing and dancing talents. Mary Tyler Moore is becoming the Lina Lamont of television; like that determinedly oblivious character in "Singin' in the Rain" she is starting to take her own press releases as gospel.
In the meantime, the public seems more and more demanding of superduds, superhits to divert us from the night-to-night tedium of mainstream TV. And pretty soon, the big bombolas begin to be as attractive as the smasheroos. The phrase "go for it" really means, "If you're going to bomb, bomb big. Bomb H."
The ads that networks place in magazines for new shows have to be submitted weeks in advance, so it is common to place ads for "the new hit comedy" even before the show is on the air; the theory is, if you say it's a hit, it's a hit. In movie ads now, it is common to find among the gushing quotes that promise a spine-tingling or heartwarming or funnybone-fracturing joyride, a quote or two from a gossip columnist that simply says the movie is "a hit."
There is an almost inevitable next step to this kind of thing in the wake of Failure Shock, and that is that flops in all media will be ballyhooed with the same gusto that hits are, on the grounds that anything is better than Mr. In-between. So we'll see ads like this: "Don't miss it -- The Big New Turkey that everybody's talking about!" This might be just the ticket for saving "Supertrain."
"Black's white today, and day's night today," Cole Porter wrote a few decades ago. Do's don't today and flop's hit today -- and if Porter were alive, as Samuel Goldwyn might have said, he'd be spinning in his grave.