Who sets the TV agenda?
July 18, 2007 7:23 AM   Subscribe

Do propaganda shows like 'The Unit' and 'Threat Matrix' (and, I presume, '24', though I've not watched it) get US gov't funding, or are they just a private attempt to cash in on war-on-terra panic?
posted by pompomtom to Media & Arts (27 answers total)
I don't know about those specific shows, but the US Government will lend military hardware and personnel to war movies, as long as the public relations folks think it portrays the US military in a posiive light. I remember a while back, they wouldn't help Clint Eastwood on his movie Heartbreak Ridge, because there was too much cussing.

But, no, they do not get government funding. They get plenty from advertisers, because they are popular enough to get big money for commercial time.
posted by The Deej at 7:30 AM on July 18, 2007

Do you genuinely believe these programs to be propaganda? Honestly? I have watched every episode of The Unit and believe it to be nothing of the sort. I am fairly media savvy (that's British understatement there btw) and I honestly can't see it. Maybe if you pointed out something like Black Hawk Down, made with the assistance of the US military then I could see it. It's not exactly a glamourous depiction of US military might crushing the pathetic rejects of Brownpersonistan. If you watch it you'll see the effect that constant deployment puts on the families, you'll also see characters displaying remorse for killing and put into the position of harming innocents etc.

24 on the other hand is a big pile of wobbling shite. YMMV. YFSS*.

*Your Favourite Show Sucks.
posted by longbaugh at 7:31 AM on July 18, 2007

Or presumably (at least with 24) not one of those choices, but reflective of the creator's own brand of patriotism.
posted by artifarce at 7:33 AM on July 18, 2007

I can't speak to funding, but I'm not sure I agree with the premise of the question. In The Unit they have recently had a story that involved a peace activist who I thought helped to humanize the issue of war.

I also recall a storyline where a WWII Soldier had written a letter to his love. The soldiers discovered the woman and the only survivor of the soldiers unit. When they started reading the love letter to the woman they read the nickname, and the sole survivor (also a man) said something along the lines of, "That's my nickname!". (The letter was written to him.)

I'm not trying argue that the show is accurate or speak to anything other than my observations. Just an FYI too, I'm left of center. Of course, I'm a TV junkie, and watch them just as entertainment. IMHO "The Unit" is probably one of the better shows on TV right now.
posted by TheDukeofLancaster at 7:36 AM on July 18, 2007

Also, weapons are hired from different sources - not the US military - their weapons aren't set up as blank-firing only. Certainly UH-60 helicopters etc would be military only - but The Unit generally uses UH-1 Hueys. For an extremely good view of a "military" show try "Over There". Honest about what happens to Servicemen and women and the people they interact with.
posted by longbaugh at 7:39 AM on July 18, 2007

Don't have any specifics, but a few years ago there was a Pentagon initiative to do explicitly this- get more involved in funding private-sector entertainment to do exactly what you're talking about.
posted by mkultra at 8:07 AM on July 18, 2007

Response by poster: longbaugh: Tonight is the first time I've seen 'The Unit', which is what prompted the question - with evil brown, smuggled-immigrant person attempting to create a dirty bomb to destroy an entire state. Given all the bullshit that's gone around about radiological bombs, then yes that struck me as more fear-mongering. Alternatively, perhaps it's just a really crap plot device.

'Threat Matrix' seemed to me to be straight out of some psyops unit, and I recall there was a relaxation on the restrictions on US psyops within allied nations in the last year or so. Then there's the use of '24' as examples in that US republican candidate debate, which was just surreal. I'm interested in whether this is a co-ordinated effort, or just any number of idea-starved producers latching on to a perceived zeitgeist.

I don't think it's entirely tinfoil-hat territory to think that the US govt would fund these sort of things... but maybe I'm (demonstrably) wrong. That's why I'm asking.me

(or, to answer your question: 'yes'. I'm just wondering about the motivation)
posted by pompomtom at 8:14 AM on July 18, 2007

24 is not so much government propaganda as a male soap opera. Just replace the tawdry love affairs on General Hospital with bio-chemical attacks and, voila, you have 24.
posted by milarepa at 8:17 AM on July 18, 2007

never attribute to malice what is easily explained by lazy, uncreative, hack writers.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:17 AM on July 18, 2007 [5 favorites]

From the wiki - info about the support that the US Army offered mssrs Scott & Bruckheimer for BHD -

The directors enlisted the help of the US Army, and all Black Hawks and Little Birds used during the filming were from the 160th SOAR, (Special Operations Aviation Regiment) and most of the pilots (such as Keith Jones who delivers a small amount of dialogue during the movie) were involved in the actual battle on 3-4 October 1993. The US Army also supplied the ground vehicles and weapons. Additionally, a platoon of Rangers from Bravo Company, 3/75 Ranger Regiment (the same company that was involved in the events of the movie) were employed to do the fast-roping scenes and act as extras.

US Army (and I suppose to a lesser extent USMC, USAF and Navy) have PR reps who offer to provide support or equipment so long as the men who man them etc are not portrayed as negatively or cowardly etc. Whilst TV shows might display gung-ho HOOAH crap a fair amount I still don't feel that propaganda is a realistic term.

Episodes of the Unit cover the gamut - they will generally be against the brown people (Phillipino, Brazilian, Iranian etc.) because that's where the US military-industrial complex is sent. They've even covered that in a couple of episodes iirc.

p.s. - at least that dirty brown immigrant guy was not a dirty brown muslim bad guy. In fact, he was smuggled in by White Supremacists. Also, he wasn't making a dirty bomb - it was a bog standard ANFO bomb blowing up a train carrying nuclear waste. That's more than enough nitpicking though.
posted by longbaugh at 8:27 AM on July 18, 2007

Then there's the use of '24' as examples in that US republican candidate debate, which was just surreal

Idea-starved producers aren't the only ones that latch on to things -- idea-starved politicians do too.
posted by aramaic at 8:29 AM on July 18, 2007

Almost certainly. The gov't provided large cash incentives for anti-drug messages to be incorporated into TV storylines a few years back.

And that was before "The Day That Everything Changed". In fact, I believe this was one of the stated goals of Poindexter's Total Information Awareness dept.
posted by Optamystic at 8:40 AM on July 18, 2007

Response by poster: longbaugh, he was from Indonesia.. he's hardly likely to be Christian. (not trying to cause an argument - just matching the nitpicking ;-)
posted by pompomtom at 8:41 AM on July 18, 2007

i recall reading that the us government (an army general and the FBI IIRC) and human rights groups went together to talk to the producers of 24 about changing the use of torture in the show. or maybe they actually went to deliver an envelope full of cash ....
posted by probablysteve at 8:41 AM on July 18, 2007

Response by poster: Crap... sometimes I really hate this whole text-only format. Thank you everyone for your input, that's why I'm here. I hope I'm not seeming rude.... but I'm not sure any more.
posted by pompomtom at 8:45 AM on July 18, 2007

There is no government agency that gives out cold hard cash to produce pro-american videos. The military has all sorts of promotional money that gets used in smarter ways like marines commercials or the America's Army videogame. As others have pointed out the pentagon has a military lease program for equipment but they do want editing rights on the script. This is almost as good as writing a check.

24 being used by politicians isnt so odd. It deals with national security issues. National security is a big deal during elections. Do you think law enforcement pays for all those Law and Order shows too?

Sorry but theres no big conspiracy. Just hack writers and hot-button issues.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:49 AM on July 18, 2007

It's not traditional propaganda in the sense that it is a govt-funded programme designed to get across a particular point of view.

24 does, however, naturally reflect the political ideologies of the people who produce and write the shows. For example, Manny Coto is a writer and exec producer of 24, and also had a hand developing the (remarkably unfunny) Half Hours News Show on Fox, which was supposed to be a conservative "Daily Show with Jon Stewart".

I think there was an article posted on metafilter a few months back about the relationship between the producers of 24 and the US military.

So, no, its not government propaganda. But, yes, like everything else in the world, since they are made by people, tv shows have political bias, slant, and viewpoints.
posted by modernnomad at 8:59 AM on July 18, 2007

pompomtom - he was from Indonesia.. he's hardly likely to be Christian.

True - it did however explicitly state that he was a "terrorist for hire"* and not an Islamic extremist - think Carlos the Jackal rather than al-Zawahiri.

*not that I actually reckon there are too many of them in real life...

IANAWFTU - I am not a whore for The Unit. Still recommending Over There if you reckon it's all propaganda - watch the first episode and you're in for a shock straight away.
posted by longbaugh at 9:07 AM on July 18, 2007

Allied forces: The Pentagon gives filmmakers access to hardware and locations in exchange for script input. Where does PR end and censorship begin?

JAG was one show that had a reallyrealyclose relationship with the military. There's also The F.B.I., the classic Quinn-Martin series drawn directly from the FBI files -- with every episode supposedly received J. Edgar Hoover's personal approval. In general, though, I think this only counts as "soft" propaganda in the sense that it doesn't necessarily control the message of the show/movie. It's more a matter of a) the people who are likely to get approval for their projects are already pro-military enough to make a generally pro-military work, and b) vice versa. A strong self-selection bias, in other words.
posted by dhartung at 9:30 AM on July 18, 2007

Leading question much?

The FBI apparently sponsors workshops for TV writers called "FBI 101", in order to get writers to portray the FBI accurately and positively (positively being more important than accurately, I'd guess). I seem to remember that the CIA does the same thing -- works with TV writers to make sure that the agency is portrayed in a positive light -- but I couldn't find a reference. And, of course, there was that whole anti-drug plotline problem that Optamystic linked to above.

I think the US government probably uses the same aggressive PR tactics as every other other large organization in the world today, up to and including payola deals (when they can get away with it). I think it's important to see this in the larger context -- not as a US government conspiracy, but as a large trend towards creepy, manipulative marketing. For a good comparison, see this article about how Microsoft's PR process influences the press.
posted by ourobouros at 9:34 AM on July 18, 2007

Starting out calling them "propaganda shows" leads me to believe that you have a purely scientific interest in this and are not biased at all!

No, nor the gubmint nor Evil Men In Uniforms is not part of the funding package for these shows. Some military shows (and movies) will film on military installations for free: how it is decided who does and who doesn't is well beyond my knowledge.

There's no conspiracy (sorry! I know it's way more thrilling to think that there is!) - there's just a bunch of producers trying to come up with ideas that will make people tune in. It's not as elegant and/or evil as you'd like to believe.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:37 AM on July 18, 2007

Most U.S. government agencies, including the military branches, do P.R., just like any big corporation does. (Actually, slightly less -- they can't prevent their name and image from being used unflatteringly in fiction in the same way a private corporation can.)

I don't think it's really a conspiracy or anything shady; it's pretty much well-known: if you want to do a war movie or "24"-style action show, where you want scenes involving actual military equipment, before you get offered use of the equipment the military gets to look over the script and make sure they're not portrayed in a bad light. If they are, they can't censor it, but they can decline to participate.

I think the overall 'feel' of shows like "24" (which have, lets face it, a pretty obvious streak of borderline-xenophobia in them) isn't because of any tampering by the Government, but representative of the writers and producers who make them, and the audience that they're trying to get watch the show.

"24" was a popular show, particularly in its earlier seasons, because it played directly to fears that average TV-watching people had about terrorism. It's no different than any crappy news program that panders directly to whatever the fear-du-jour is.

Historically I don't think programs like this are unique; go back 20 or more years and you'll see a lot of crappy television that uses generic Eastern European 'Communists' (who all seem to look like they got stamped out at Central Casting) as villains. Or equally generic 'Nazis' or 'Japs.' And before that, probably 'Huns.'

The popular media has a long and undistinguished history of playing on whatever happens to scare the public at the moment in order to make the same old story feel current and new. Ultimately, I think they become interesting cultural artifacts of what our collective bugaboo was at any given time.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:41 AM on July 18, 2007

Brill's Content had a good article on this sort of thing, and my guess is it has increased since then. It really seems like there are more "subtle" military episodes of shows now. For example, Miami Ink visits a military base on the opposite coast to give some service members tattoos. On a show on a channel where every minute of program seems designed to cross-promote something (american choppers now on Miami Ink), I'm pretty sure the military worked out some sort of deal.

For the "there is no conspiracy" people, sure, there isn't. That said, the government is on record as lending military equipment for free to people that portray the military equipment in a positive light. If you're making a movie that involves military equipment, renting it would be extremely expensive, so instead you get things like Michael Bay films.
posted by drezdn at 10:47 AM on July 18, 2007

Why would - or should - the military give free use of expensive locations and equipment to people who are making a movie that portrays them negatively? They're not a filmmaker assistance group.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:54 AM on July 18, 2007

Why would - or should - the military give free use of expensive locations and equipment to people who are making a movie that portrays them negatively?

It's not they should do it. It's that giving a pro-military film use of equipment is equivalent to handing the film makers a check, as it would be incredibly expensive for them to get the military equipment without their help. So in exchange for helping a film, the government gets a say in its content.
posted by drezdn at 11:54 AM on July 18, 2007

New Yorker Article: Politics of the man behind 24. Yuck.
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 12:00 PM on July 18, 2007

For what it is worth, IMDb says:
According to producer/co-writer Dean Devlin, the US military had agreed to support the film by allowing the crew to film at military bases, consulting the actors who have military roles, etc. However, after learning of the Area 51 references in the script, they withdrew their support.
Regarding the movie Independence Day
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 12:00 AM on July 20, 2007

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