August 26, 2006

Silly-season linguifying?

Though the journalistic silly season may give rise to even-worse-than-average science reporting, at least there are some redeeming qualities. As recently noted by Matthew Yglesias guest-blogging on Talking Points Memo, the good news for reporters is that "editors tend to be on vacation, so you can get a little goofy." The example Yglesias gives is the sardonic conclusion to an otherwise unremarkable article in the Aug. 25 New York Times about the marketing campaign launched by "the CW," the network formed out of the merger between UPN and WB:

"We had a challenge," said Mr. Haskins, the CW marketing executive, "in that we had to put under one roof programming from UPN and WB and make it feel like one network."
The solution, Mr. Haskins said, was to focus on what the predecessor networks had in common, which was their younger viewers, "and create an environment that was relatable to their lives."
Someday, there will be an article about television in which no executive uses the word "relatable," industry jargon for something with which viewers are supposed to identify or connect. Alas, this is not that article.

On the surface, this little dig at TV executives seems to be a clear case of reportorial linguification. But it turns out that this claim about the prevalence of the word relatable has much more grounding in reality than other instances of linguifying we've examined here (see links at the end of this post).

Television executives really do love calling their shows "relatable," and reporters at the Times and elsewhere dutifully quote them using the word time and time again. In fact, just a day before the story about the CW, the Times carried an article about MTV's Video Music Awards, in which network president Christina Norman was quoted as saying:

"They love the onstage performance moment, but also that unguarded moment, that moment they run into somebody backstage who they haven't seen in a long time or that they don't want to see that night. That's the kind of stuff that makes them more relatable."

A Nexis search on the New York Times archive finds the R-word being used in network-speak way back on June 20, 1982, in a quote from a press release for the syndicated series "Couples" (an early entry in the genre of "reality programming"):

"The real difficulties, conflicts and problems of married, dating, living-together and divorced couples rival any type of fictional format for personal and relatable drama."

And that was just the beginning. Here is a selection of quotes from TV executives and producers in the Times archive, all ringing the chimes of relatability:

  • ''We want this to be relatable, and we want the drama to be honest and hard hitting. It was very important to me to present this working-class drama with as much flair and style as possible.'' (NBC programming executive Perry Simon about "Dream Street," 4/9/89)
  • "You need to have something that's relatable. The best case involves everyday people, somebody like your next-door neighbor doing something unexpected." (Ruth Slawson, NBC senior vice president for movies, 6/15/92)
  • "We all decided the show would be more relatable if it took place in the suburbs." (Producer Rob Burnett about "Everybody Loves Raymond," 12/1/96)
  • "I hope a lot of teen-agers watch it because there are a lot of relatable things going on that could make an impact on them." (Lindy DeKoven, NBC senior vice president for movies, 2/3/97)
  • "It has the combination of being a relatable show -- we all experience these situations -- yet it's a bizarre, off-center point of view like 'Seinfeld.'" (CBS entertainment president Leslie Moonves about "Everybody Loves Raymond," 2/1/98)
  • "These characters are all completely relatable. The only difference between Tony Soprano and me is that he's a mob boss." (Chris Albrecht, HBO president of original programming, about "The Sopranos," 2/3/99)
  • "He's as hip and relatable today as he was years ago." (Julie Weitz, TNT executive vice president of original programming, about "James Dean: An Invented Life," 7/19/00)
  • "That's the big difference between those older shows and the ones you see today. Writers today make a huge effort to make their shows relatable to their audience." (Suzanne Daniels, WB entertainment president, 9/17/00)
  • "People are fascinated by relationships. I think these shows will be very relatable." (Fox executive Mike Darnell, about romantic reality programming, 10/16/00)
  • "The Osbournes to me are a hugely relatable family, and they're famous and a little crazy, but human and identifiable." (Warren Littlefield, former NBC chief programmer, now an independent producer, about "The Osbournes," 5/19/02)
  • "It's, you know, dealing with kids living in the suburbs. You know, I think this is an incredibly relatable area for many people." (Jeff Zucker, NBC entertainment president, about "Hidden Hills," 7/25/02)
  • "In my own head as I was writing the pilot, I wanted an average Joe, and there's something very relatable about John." (Producer Tracy Gamble, about John Ritter on "8 Simple Rules," 9/15/02)
  • "The show is about what everybody does to everybody constantly. You know if your gardener is hot. You know if your bank teller is hot. You know if the guy at the gas station is hot. You know if your kid's kindergarten teacher is hot. It's a relatable, universal concept." (Producer Mike Fleiss, about "Are You Hot?" 2/23/03)
  • "The character is so relatable." (Producer Gina Matthews, about "Jake 2.0," 9/14/03)
  • "Their riches-to-rags story is a "relatable fear." (Producer Mitchell Hurwitz, about "Arrested Development," 11/9/03)
  • "We need to change the perception in the general public from the idea that this is a sprawling ensemble of eccentric characters to the truth, which is that it is actually a very relatable show about a family.'' (David Nevins, president of Imagine Television, about "Arrested Development," 8/1/04)
  • 'There is absolutely nothing about this show relatable to my story, in fairness.'' (CBS chairman Les Moonves, about "How I Met Your Mother," 9/11/05)
  • "The actual surgery itself is remarkable. These are also highly relatable stories about people's lives.'' (Jay Renfroe, principal at Renegade 83 Entertainment, about "Miracle," 1/17/06)
  • "She's totally relatable, and you empathize with her, and you like her and want to be friends with her.'' (Producer Chris Alberghini, about Tori Spelling on ''So Notorious," 3/30/06)

Whew! And that doesn't even cover the word's usage by TV writers or actors mimicking executive jargon, let alone its diffusion into related fields such as advertising, film production, or book publishing. Clearly "relatability" is some sort of litmus test for the execs: the success of a show like "Everybody Loves Raymond" is attributed to viewers' ability to "relate" to the protagonist. Conversely, if a show like "Arrested Development" is faring poorly in the ratings, then audiences aren't appreciating how relatable the characters really are. And the whole "reality TV" trend is predicated on the notion that real people are more relatable than actors playing roles and are therefore inherently more interesting to the average viewer.

("Relatability" seems to be a peculiarly American hangup. For instance, much of the best British television comedy has relied on fiercely unrelatable characters, a tradition running from "Fawlty Towers" to "Blackadder" to "I'm Alan Partridge" to the original version of "The Office.")

So to return to the linguifying claim made in the Times, it's a clear exaggeration that there isn't a single article about television "in which no executive uses the word 'relatable.'" Despite the fact that this is a patently false assertion, it at least has a grain of truth to it, unlike so many other linguifications. And it strikes me as a perfectly acceptable way to spice up a bland article about television network marketing — especially when vacationing editors aren't around to question its appropriateness.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at August 26, 2006 03:23 PM