Shortly after US bombs started dropping on Baghdad in late March 2003, Tim Goodman, the San Francisco Chronicle's television critic, quoted Paul Saffo, a "technology forecaster," who predicted that "It's just a matter of time before we have the War Channel." It took nearly twenty months, but an enterprising network has finally warmed to the idea: Recognizing that the war against terrorism is, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it over a year ago, a "long, hard slog," Discovery Communications International (DCI) will give the American public a front row seat by re-launching its six-year-old Discovery Wings Channel as the Military Channel.
Saffo, who runs the Institute for the Future, an independent, nonprofit research firm in Menlo Park, California, made his prediction as the war had just gotten underway and the public -- seeing little else other than glowing reports from reporters embedded with the troops -- tuned in to the 24/7 cable television news networks in large numbers. War fever spread with each report of US troops moving ever closer to Baghdad. The possibility that Saddam Hussein might be captured or killed on live television was intoxicating. The cable television news networks were poised for some big real-time actualities and before too long the Pentagon put on a show. While it wasn't live shots of Hussein being dragged through the city's streets, the toppling of his statue fit the bill. (Never mind that the photo op, like many things to come, was entirely staged.)
Goodman -- writing with tongue firmly embedded in cheek -- reported that Saffo believed that "there's a natural group of journalists who are 'war groupies' willing to go anywhere to cover war." Throw in "international reporters who are getting their proverbial feet wet in Iraq and foreign correspondents who are learning how to use new technology more smoothly, you've got a group ripe to be cherry-picked by someone like... Rupert Murdoch, maybe?"
Well, it isn't Murdoch who is going to try and cash in on war and its spinoffs; it's the good folks at DCI. According to a MediaChannel.org report by Rory O'Connor, DCI is a "media behemoth" with some "60 networks representing 19 entertainment brands" in its stable including TLC, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Discovery Health Channel, Discovery Kids, and, in partnership with the New York Times, the Discovery Times Channel.
"By covering all aspects of the military and the people who define it, we will extend the Discovery brand, create a service that appeals to our existing viewers and attract new viewers and sponsors," said Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks US, who called military-related issues "a topic of fascination and relevance in our world."
What does Campbell mean by "covering all aspects of the military," and who does he consider to be "the people who define it"? The first indicators are not particularly encouraging. According to a Reuters/Hollywood Reporter story, up until now, Discovery Wings "has focused exclusively on aviation and related subjects," but "as part of its Military makeover," the network has already "formed partnerships with the USO, the National D-Day Museum and the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation to develop programming for the channel as well as educational campaigns and public service announcements."
If the Military Channel would offer viewers a "fair and balanced" picture of war, it would contribute immeasurably to a better understanding of war, its causes and consequences.
For example, imagine being able to see, as in they report and you decide, two detailed presentations of the recent US leveling of the city of Fallujah. On December 5, the Washington Post's Thomas E. Ricks reported that these polar presentations -- "two photo-rich summaries of the battle of Fallujah -- one produced by the US military in Iraq, the other by an anonymous American blogger" have been "battling it out over the Internet for viewers."
The military's presentation -- found at the web site of Soldiers for the Truth -- "depicts the fight for Fallujah as a liberation of a city from the insurgents," Ricks reports. The 59-page Microsoft PowerPoint presentation titled, "Telling the Fallujah Story to the World," was produced by top public affairs officers at the US military headquarters in Baghdad and is part of a new round of efforts to win support for the war.
"Iraq in Pictures" is the name of the web log that's posting "far more graphic wire service and other photos, and tends to point the finger of blame for civilian suffering at the military."
While the Military Channel's programming schedule has yet to be determined, there will likely be the standard stuff -- old newsreels from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War and some up-to-date reports from Iraq.
Imagine, if you will, the programming possibilities: Debates, symposiums, discussions with leading war historians and scholars; in-depth discussions of the strategies of war; interviews with military veterans; discussions of the plight of veterans; live coverage of combatants' funerals; coverage of war crimes tribunals; profiles of war profiteers and new weapons systems.
Unfortunately, instead of high-minded programming, the Military Channel is likely to fill its schedule with war movies, advertisements for war-related video games, an hour on new war toys, cooking shows with recipes culled from grizzled battlefield veterans, post-war makeovers, the Army-Navy game, and recruitment pitches galore. From weapons to wardrobe accessories, the marketing opportunities are enormous.
Scheduled to debut on January 10, the Military Channel will lead with two seemingly non-controversial premieres: "Delta Company," a two-hour special "chronicl[ing] the route taken by the Delta Company's 1st Tank Battalion last year as it pushed toward Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom," and "Task Force Red Dog," an hour-long special about the Marine Corps reservists "who were called on to establish a base deep in the mountains of Afghanistan as the US military launched its hunt for Osama bin Laden and Taliban leaders in late 2001."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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