Tuned In

American Idol Beats American Viral

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Tuesday’s overnight Nielsens are in, and it turns out that four times as many people would rather hear Taylor Hicks bleat his lungs out with a torturous version of Elvis’ "In the Ghetto" than watch people cough their lungs out while suffering the torturous symptoms of avian flu. ABC’s exploitative made-for-TV movie Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America managed only a 6 share — or a mere 6% of all TVs in use — compared with a typical 25 share for American Idol.

Fatal Contact was, unarguably, a noxious petri dish of disaster-movie cliches, whose chief contribution to scientific understanding is that, should you ever be exposed to human-to-human avian flu, you will be warned by a swelling of creepy soundtrack music. So it’s hard to feel bad for it on artistic grounds. And yet it’s sort of sad, in a way, that the movie, bad as it was, wasn’t able to generate a mass audience. Time was, this was what TV was for: a big, scary special on a big scary issue might be over-the-top and fearmongering, but it least it would generate some kind of national conversation, even if it was simply over how unrealistic its depiction was. (The Day After, the gold standard for this kind of Very Important Telepic, is much more important in retrospect as an event and a Cold War milestone than as an actual piece of storytelling–its nuclear-apocalypse contemporaries Threads and Testament were both better movies.)

A couple decades ago, Fatal Contact would have had a prominent soapbox simply because of the fact of its existence. Today, the idea that a network would pump out a quickie, exploitative special on a hot-button subject is so natural, and the viewing public so cynical about it, that we can’t be bothered to pay attention. Either that, or Americans are actually starting to pay attention to TV critics’ reviews.

Yeah, I’m going to stick with can’t-be-bothered.