THIRTY-ODD YEARS AGO, MARSHALL McLuhan, the inscrutable media philosopher best remembered today for coining the phrase “global village” and making a droll cameo appearance in Annie Hall, described television as a cool medium. The concept (roughly) is that the true couch potato is not you but your TV set. Okay so far? TV pours forth an endless stream of information and entertainment with passive majesty, and you, lucky you, must wade in and make sense of it. This explanation, I stress, is approximate.
By the time McLuhan died in 1980, at age 69, his reputation had about as much heat as a Pet Rock. Now, though, he’s enjoying a comeback with the online crowd. Indeed, he’s the cover subject of this month’s Wired, the magazine for cybernauts. McLuhan doesn’t make much more sense now than he did in the ’60s, despite a carefully reasoned refresher survey by Gary Wolf, who argues in Wired that Mac would have liked the Internet’s evanescent web of messages and ideas. Well, why not? Cyberspace is a wide-open field primed for a prophet, and McLuhan’s scattershot ideas about media can be flung out there like handfuls of seed.
But poor television! Who will save it? The networks today are battered and baffled by technological change, corporate takeovers and the shifting sands of audience interest. I don’t think a prophet will avail here. What is needed is someone in the now, a dynamo, a Joan of Arc. In short, actress and Home Shopping Network saleswoman Connie Stevens.
I recently watched Stevens as she hawked her line of Forever Spring beauty products on HSN. (Since 1989, Stevens has grossed an average $25 million in sales annually on HSN.) Unlike Jeanne La Pucelle who strapped on armor, Stevens has stripped down. On her segment she eschews plot, script and production values. Yet she has sacrificed none of the twinkly (if, at age 57, slightly puffy) cuddliness that made her a star back in the early ’60s on the TV series Hawaiian Eye. And she’s interactive, chatting with phone-in customers about the sexy benefits of Forever Spring (and smoothly smiling past one caller’s disconcerting autobiographical detail about having a recent partial hysterectomy).
So, let’s consider: Her message is direct, pinpoint-specific, anything but passive. That, in McLuhan terms, makes Stevens a hot star in a cool medium. No? All hail, Connie!