News and South Park
Cactuses cause cancer. Pies promote prejudice. Lemurs like lasers. Ok not really. But if these were headlines on the evening news, you would probably keep listening. News programs have some of the biggest responsibilities in terms of keeping the citizens of the country and world informed. These programs are supposed to reflect our societies deepest interests 24/7, but many prominent news programs today function more as tabloids and gossip channels, rather than intellectual sources of information. In addition to this, these programs also have to satisfy America’s thirst for rumors and possibilities by constantly updating their stories and keeping Americans in the loop. The South Park episode “Quest for Ratings” reflects this culture, and by mocking the formula of many popular news programs, gives reasons to why we need to re-sort our priorities of what the news should really be about.
The episode begins with the South Park boys’ showing their Super School News program similar to the way news is “supposed” to be done. School economics, sports, weather, and celebrities are all talked about in the program. However, when their news program is constantly being beaten by their rival Craig’s show about animals close up with a wide lens, the boys have to take drastic measures to increase their ratings. By understanding the audience and catering to their newfound interests, the boys shape their show to now include animals with the Panda Bear Madness Minute. They also include sexier stories about the Raisens girls’ new outfits to appeal to the sixth graders, and keep the audience wanting to know more after hinting that the school could explode from a dangerous gas leak. The news program also changes its name to The Sexy Action News Program to have more mass appeal. The constant pressures of having to one-up Craig’s show eventually forces the boys to do cough syrup, where they actually find a real news story to end with, but the “Quest For Ratings” episode as a whole offers much criticism to the functionality of the American society and the news brought to them.
In Anne Helen Petersen’s Entertainment Tonight article, she talks about Financial Interest and Syndication rules. “By limiting the amount of programing that each network could produce for itself, they freed a portion of primetime from network control” (Petersen 236). In this episode, South Park’s AV Club is the network, and Craig and the boys’ shows are what they are paying to run in their primetime slots. The pressures from the network, the audience, and the money to be made all become factors for deciding what goes into these shows during these primetime slots. The episode even addresses the push and pull battle of giving the audience what they want vs. giving the audience what they need when Jimmy tells Stan “F-f-fellas, I have a serious problem with where our news program is going. We’re dumbing down the school”. To which Stan responds, “No the school is already dumb. We’re just making it more appealing to students.”
When reading between the lines of “Quest For Ratings”, the episode also sheds light on some topics that aren’t as easy to talk about in the News Room. For instance, all the boys have their real hair replaced with “News Hair” that is bigger, more groomed, and gelled up, mirroring a majority of news anchors that have to dress and look a certain way to play the part of bringing in the news. However looks aren’t enough in the News Room. A scene between Eric and Token in “Quest For Ratings” takes place where Eric asks Token to change his voice to sound more like a white news anchor. “People love SEEING African Americans in the news, not hearing them. That’s why all African American news people learn to talk white. Token if you were to hide your natural tone with a more Caucasian dialect, I think it would really help our ratings.” While these words do come from a cartoon fourth grader, they do make the viewer think and reflect upon the real news world and the type of mold that most news people have to fit and maintain to satisfy their audiences.
Jeffrey Jones article on Fox and Friends illustrates the flaws of shows like Fox and Friends and compares their approach to stories to a high school homeroom, and being targeted to a specific audience. “The show is designed to thrust the viewer into the world of common-sense groupthink, complete with all the rumors, smears, and innuendos with a lack of rational discourse” (Jones). The Sexy Action News of South Park operates very similarly, bringing up rumors of children having flaws, and mocking them for their behavior. “Third grader Pete Feldman pees while sitting down like a girl. Sally Turner stuffs her bra, and Clyde Donavon has only one testicle. Hahaha one testicle! What an asshole.” While these are strictly stories about children this does relate to the idea of Fox and Friends making up stories that aren’t really stories, like the Barrack Obama paperclip and flip flop incident, and the “War On Christmas”. Both of these programs “other” anybody outside of their community, and do everything they can to make them the odd man out.
Newsrooms should be considered a library of knowledge that’s full of diverse ideas and perspectives on worldly issues. However, today’s newsrooms function much like the newsroom in South Park’s “Quest for Ratings”. Lunchroom gossip and community conceptions flood the thought process and end up making their way onto the screen. Newsrooms must learn to face their responsibilities of delivering more diverse and opinionated stories, or continue to be mocked by shows like South Park. However, as consumers of the news and media outputs, there are responsibilities on us as well to raise the bar of “quality news”, and reframe these programs to give us more of what we need, not what we want.
Petersen, Anne. "Entertainment Tonight: Tabloid News." N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.
Jones, Jeffery. "Fox and Friends: Political Talk." N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.
"Quest For Ratings." N.p., 2008. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.