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:
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