What Nader and Oscar have in common

It’s becoming clear that change is more than just a buzzword being batted around by our current crop of presidential candidates. A couple of venerable institutions took hits last week to underscore the point. The Oscars and Ralph Nader both arrived on our television screens and, in both cases, created an effect akin to the proverbial tree falling down in a forest with no one around.

The annual Oscar show was the least-watched in 20 years, down a whopping 21 percent from 2007. Most telling was the fact that younger adults in the 18-49 demo were down by a quarter. To put things in perspective, last month, American Idol drew 1.5 million more viewers than the Oscars.

A number of sweaty-palmed theories were hastily put forward to account for this collective yawn. The movies being honored weren’t popular enough, the writers’ strike had somehow thrown people for a loop, Jon Stewart, supposedly a lifeline to younger viewers, turned out to be too edgy.

But the Oscars weren’t alone. The Grammys didn’t do well, either — which turned out to be a kind of comfort to Gilbert Cates, the 74-year-old producer of the Oscar telecast. Cates said, “If not for the Grammy’s drop, I would be very distressed.”

What Cates’ bifocals failed to see was the possibility that his kind of old-fashioned, speak-and-spell appointment television — the sort that once served as a kind of national cultural glue — has been displaced by technologies like TiVo, niche marketing and a new generation’s more sophisticated visual literacy.

Sure, Cates and his ilk might say, but millions still gather round to watch the Super Bowl. The trouble, as Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times pointed out, was that the Super Bowl broadcast had three things going it for it the Oscars lacked: “inventive state-of-the-art production; a whole second show inside the show — splashy new commercials, which are often more involving than the game itself; and a far more suspenseful fourth quarter.”

As any marketer will tell you, brand loyalty is a vanishing concept. The Oscar brand, once the imprimatur of all things beautiful and glamorous, a pinnacle in America’s dream life, is no longer enough to guarantee a crowd.

If you left out the beautiful and glamorous part, you could say the same thing about Ralph Nader. On the same Sunday that the Oscars were handed out, Nader was making the rounds, announcing that he was running for president again.

Nader, of course, ran first in 2000, getting 2.7 percent of the vote. He ran in 2004 and got 0.3 percent. This trend, apparently, is encouraging to him.

Nader is a bona fide hero, a guy who, throughout his life, has stood up to power, fought for regular folks — and sometimes even won. This, in essence, is the Nader brand. Once again, he was complaining about what he called “the bigotry” of the two-party system in this country. He insisted that winning the election wasn’t everything. As he told Ron Silver, “The best ideas in American history have come from small parties: anti-slavery parties, women’s right to vote, the labor farmer progressive parties in the 19th century. They never won a national election, but aren’t we glad they were there?”

Nader, bless his earnest heart, is a keeper of the New Deal flame — a flame, it must be said, that Bush, Cheney and their gang have done all they could to defame and extinguish. What Nader understands is that if the New Deal riled certain greedy capitalists, it saved American capitalism by spreading wealth rather than concentrating it in the hands of a small, unsustainable class of tycoons.

But as valid as Nader’s history lessons may be, they’re not enough to hold the attention of two generations that have come of age in an America defined by Ronald Reagan — an America, that is, in which the New Deal is no longer an article of faith. And it’s not as though Nader is the only American politician to preach this gospel. Dennis Kucinich brought the same message. You have to wonder why Nader didn’t speak out on Kucinich’s behalf when he had the chance.

Nader’s manner of discourse, like Gil Cates’ Oscar telecast, has seen its day. That’s not to say that either one is, or should be, obsolete. But both, oddly enough, are defined by a certain approach to style specific to other times, places and ways of communicating. For some that may be hard to swallow, the ending of things held dear. But this could also be the point where new beginnings take hold. 


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