PRINT November 1995


a New Contract with America

BY THE TIME A JURY of his peers declared O.J. Simpson not guilty last month, his long-running “first”(?) trial had cost California taxpayers upwards of $8.3 million while generating programming so astonishingly popular it supported several cable channels for most of 1995. The afternoon soaps, meanwhile, lost more than a million households since the beginning of the trial.

Talk about your state-subsidized art. More than a trial-of-the-century event or a sociosemiotic sign fest, the O.J . show was a cultural dynamo—spinning off all manner of new stars, celebs, and entrepreneurs, not to mention a host of best-sellers, T-shirts, softcore porn films, bumper stickers, and Routledge anthologies. What’s astonishing, given the trial’s Hollywood location, is that cash-strapped California never attempted to privatize the event—particularly in consideration of its potential sequels, and Menendez II, the follow-up to Court TV’s first blockbuster.

It’s clearly time for America to negotiate a new contract with itself, presumably to be handled by Mike Ovitz:

1. The American People shall be empowered to assign exclusive cable and television rights to any and all criminal proceedings. Further, acting on behalf of all participants, the American People shall receive, in perpetuity, 10 percent of all royalties derived from any subsequent movies, books, and paid interviews referring to the criminal proceedings in any way. The American People shall further reserve the right to license all ancillary products and, at the conclusion of the trial, retain exclusive rights to sell any and all evidence as collectibles.

Note: In a society of victims, crime belongs to the people. Let federal agents start acting like agents.

2. The American People shall retain the right to assign exclusive cable and television rights to any and all national elections. In order to maximize profits, it may prove feasible to structure the season in terms of a spring primary “regular season” and fall election “play-offs.” (The Democrats and Republicans would be free, of course, to cut their own network deals for their respective conventions.) The possibility of the president signing an exclusive deal with a particular network, much as certain former government officials have done, should also be explored. Moreover, as with criminal trials, the American People shall receive in perpetuity 10 percent of all royalties derived from any subsequent movies, books, and paid interviews—before taxes.

Note: To secure this source of revenue, it is crucial to encourage greater citizen-viewer interest in C-Span. Congressional proceedings would be enlivened by requiring senators and representatives to suit up in team uniforms before taking the floor. While selling advertising time during the proceedings might be considered a distraction, politicians should be required to embellish their team uniforms with the signatures or corporate logos of major sponsors. (This will also be required of all guests of Nightline.)

Moreover, the reported National Rifle Association involvement in the planning of last summer’s House subcommittee hearings on Waco suggests another avenue for exploration—namely, providing for the corporate underwriting of congressional investigations. Television rights shall, of course, be retained by the American People—which may find it advantageous to merge particular hearings with daytime television talk shows, drafting Ricki Lake, for example, to chair Senate hearings into teenage adherents of satanic sex cults.

Some social engineering is unavoidable, even in a fully privatized environment. Additional steps should be taken to nourish the nation’s talent pool and ensure an unbroken parade of stars. On an experimental basis, I would propose merging Head Start with the National Endowment for the Arts while making all welfare payments dependent upon the recipient’s entertainment value. (This, of course, is the premise of the Talent Family’s recent New York production, One Woman Shoe.) Skeptics should keep in mind that the most dependable spectacles tend to be such underclass specialties as lurid sex crimes, motherhood dramas, urban insurrections, and terrorist conspiracies.

Failure to negotiate this contract has already resulted in the loss of untold revenues. (The budget might nearly have been balanced already if the American People had sold the rights to its history to the makers of Forrest Gump.) Thus, it is time to:

3. Establish the American flag as a registered trademark.

Note: It is crucial to assign this license to Walt Disney. Not only can Disney be depended upon to develop new ways of merchandising this currently underleveraged asset but, given the famed diligence of the Disney legal team, there should be no further need for a constitutional amendment to protect against flag desecration. Indeed, we should look into the possibility of licensing the Bill of Rights (or at least the First Amendment) to Disney.

Other potential registered brand names include the words “American,” “U.S.A.,” “freedom,” and “Christian.” Finally, we should arrange a plebiscite for a new, singable national anthem, with royalties due from each presporting event performance: Forget “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Try “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.