It’s no secret that NBC hates Donald Trump, and the network’s October 1, 2016 11:30 PM slot was devoted to a Saturday Night Live season 42 opener that underscored that fact for anyone who wasn’t quite clear about it. Right out of SNL’s 2008 political satire playbook, Season 42 of Saturday Night Live was televised to record-breaking audiences. The show premiere averaged a 5.8 household rating, with a 15 share in the Nielsen metered markets, which translates to over 18 million actual viewers. This is up 29 percent from last year’s Miley Cyrus-fronted opener. Some expected the viewership numbers to be high due to the anticipation of the new SNL season and the new cast members, but it was the leading sketch, the Trump-Clinton presidential debate starring Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon as the protagonists, and Michael Che as the hapless moderator, Lester Holt, that was the big draw for the show’s huge season opening ratings.
SNL Tries Its Ham Hand At Political Satire
The presidential debates have long been fodder for the Not Ready For Primetime Players, and not since the skewering of Sarah Palin in 2008 has a candidate been so mercilessly attacked on the show as Baldwin did to Trump on Saturday night. Instead of delivering a comical return on the ridiculous nature of the upcoming election, a raw reflection of the bizarre debates with the two least liked presidential candidates ever, and satire about the deeply flawed political process, Lorne Michaels and Alec Baldwin set to take down Donald Trump in whatever way they could. Although it was just a sketch of personal attacks on Trump, the reality is that Trump himself is actually funnier than anything that Baldwin or McKinnon delivered from the low-brow script. What was the point if it failed to hit the comedy spot? With both of Comedy Central’s mainstays of political satire (Stephen Colbert’s former show The Colbert Report and John Stewart’s The Daily Show) missing from the TV dial this political season, there is a void for this kind of political comedy, but it appears that SNL is not up to the job. Has SNL lost the plot of political satire, or did it never actually have it?
In the SNL sketch, Clinton had it relatively easy. Gone were all of Clinton’s indiscretions, the deleted classified emails and the Benghazi investigations. Gone was her lying to Congress, the general public and the FBI misstatements. Also missing was the corruption in the DNC nomination process that killed any chance Bernie Sanders ever had; even the Edward Snowden missives were missing. Even the health questions about Clinton that have lingered for years and recently rose to prominence following her bout with pneumonia were gone. Even her character flaws of staying with her philandering husband were all missing. It was all roses for Clinton, as SNL kept to softball jokes about her mannerisms and zeroed in on Trump with harsh accusations – including everything from cocaine use to corruption and misogyny. Tax evasion and lack of intelligence were the order of this hatchet job. Even Trump’s children were attacked, similar to how Melania Trump was attacked the end of SNL’s last season. References to Hillary’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton, were nowhere to be found, while Trump was spared no quarter during the relentless onslaught of accusations, amidAlec Baldwin’s and Kate McKinnon’s amusing impersonations and dead-pan deliveries. But jokes aside, the SNL vitriol towards Trump was palpable, and on Sunday morning, many media types woke up asking: did they go too far? Is it appropriate for NBC to produce comedy TV shows that look more like free TV commercials for Hillary Clinton? Especially as she has already budgeted twice as much campaign money for TV ads than Trump, and she shouldn’t really need the help. She is certainly not running on campaign finance reform, so she appears to be the worst offender in this regard, spending advertising dollars with abandon.
SNL’s viewership reach is undeniable, as underscored by recent studies that show that 14% of the US population still believe that Sarah Palin actually said, “I can see Russia from my house,” which was actually a famous line from the 2008 season premiere of Saturday Night Live, in which Tina Fey and Amy Poehler appeared in an SNL sketch portraying Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. In the sketch, Fey spoofed Governor Palin’s remarks from the presidential nomination process, and delivered a spot-on impression of Palin that forever damaged her credibility as a politician. Palin did try to get in front of the mess by appearing on SNL as herself on the October 18, 2008 episode, but the damage was already done – so much so, that Snopes had to write a myth buster page aiming to dispel the rumor that she made such a quote – but it was an uphill battle. People know what they saw, and many still believe that it was Palin.
NBC is broadcast on the public TV frequencies, so it has long been accepted that the channel must strive to remain fairly objective on political matters. SNL tried to redress the initial sketch imbalance on the season opener with other sketches, later in the show, which touched on some of Clinton’s issues, but the Trump attack was already in, and got its few cheap laughs and big ratings at the top of the show where most of the viewership lies, setting the stage for Monday morning’s water cooler conversations. Viewers were left with little to no recollection of the later, much blander sketches, which SNL seems to produce endlessly.
Questions are also arising over the Trump skewering, related to the bad blood between NBC and Trump over the Celebrity Apprentice TV show, which is partly owned and executive produced by Trump. NBC has now shot a whole series of the show with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who lacks any real business credibility. The shows are scheduled to be broadcast after the election in January, apparently in order to avoid bumping up Trump’s election numbers. With NBC now declaring favorites for the highest political office in the nation, it seems that ethics expected by a network or broadcast TV station fallen away. NBC can now do whatever it wants with the public airwaves, with no accountability for content, or even an appearance of fairness.
Comparison Between The Trump Movement and Britain’s Brexit Vote
With Trump now being attacked by most media outlets, the whole movement of Trump is starting to look a lot like Britain’s Brexit. In a very similar way, the Brexit movement was opposed by every British media outlet and every major celebrity in the UK – even Obama weighed in, with his opinion for the UK to stay in Europe. But the British politicians were too busy congratulating themselves to notice that they had been taking the wrong temperature of the British public, and failed to spot the the huge groundswell of support for Brexit that ultimately led to a “yes” vote, and ultimately to Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation. An action that the US has not seen since Nixon just happened in the UK; Theresa May is now the British PM, and the UK will leave the EU in February 2017, with the winds of change in their sails.
With its overall dwindling viewership numbers, this shot in the arm for SNL is just what the NBC doctor ordered, but SNL has only three more episodes before the presidential election is over, so their opportunity to leverage the political satire of the presidential election is waning. After that, the SNL numbers are expected to sink to new lows, as the show really hasn’t been funny for years. This season, there are three fresh faces, as a number of the past years’ comedians were replaced with improv talents, who Lorne Michaels hopes will pivot the show’s fortunes. However, media pundits bet on this as a failed strategy, unless they can find their own Eddie Murphy, who saved the not-so-funny show from extinction in 1980. Without Murphy, the show would have been dust. It’s unlikely that Murphy will come back and do it again.
Lorne Michaels, SNL, NBC and the political campaigns for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump declined to comment on this story.
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