Have a nasty time in the hot tub with Sam and Jackie

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The Independent Online
I arrived in my Boston hotel last week and turned on the television for some diversion while I unpacked. Channel 1's offering was appalling enough to engage me immediately. A preview of the films available on the fee-paying channel, it lasts about 15 minutes and runs all day, every day. Its two presenters are Jackie and Sam - blonde sisters wearing black minis with low fronts, who laugh, gurgle, twinkle and occasionally gyrate suggestively at their viewers as they vivaciously perform their synchronised script. Here are a few examples.

Jackie lists movies. Sam: "What a line-up. Be good to yourself. Relax."

Jackie: "Put the laptop away. Let's go to the movies ... Guys [to a weary- looking jazz combo who are brought into things before and after every trailer], take it away."

Jackie: "Take a look around you, right now. Where are you?"

Sam: "Please note. She did not ask what you are doing right now. Right?"

Jackie: "Right."

Sam: "You're in a beautiful hotel room, stylish fancy faucets, maybe, a plush bathrobe behind the door." Jackie: "And those little shampoo and conditioner doo-dahs in the bathroom."

Sam: "Wherever you are, you're not at home."

Jackie: "This is definitely not Kansas, Toto."

Sam: "And if you're not at home, then you've been working on big meetings, deals."

Jackie: "Big deals."

Sam: "Airports, ticket counters."

Jackie: "Car rentals, maps, traffic jams. So."

Sam: Before you check your voice-mail one more time, take a moment and relax. Do something special for yourself."

Jackie: "We're not talking about channel-surfing either. After a day like you've had - too much work."

Sam: "So loosen your tie, take off your hose, throw away the shoes and get a taste of what's on Q."

Jackie: "For you".

Together: "Right now."

Typical introduction to a trailer. Sam: "How does a guy say no to Sharon Stone?"

Jackie: "How does a woman say no to Sylvester Stallone?"

The pice de rsistance is the viewers' contribution, for Jackie and Sam "like to catch up with you - our guests - right where you live. And find out what you think of these Hollywood hits. It's hot. It's definitely steamy. It's your Hot-Tub Review."

Hot-Tub Review is precisely that. People send in videos of themselves sitting in circular baths discussing their reactions to films. Sample, from New York. Man: "I loved Forrest Gump - [to bathmate] - You liked Forrest Gump?"

Woman: "I loved it. I thought it was among the most important movies of my life."

Man: "You saw it fifteen times."

Woman: "Sixteen times."

Man: "Sorry. I lost count."

They are interrupted by a merry crowd in a hot tub in Oregon who shout and laugh so much simultaneously that I never found out what film they thought they were discussing.

I gave much time to studying this show, for it seemed to me to encapsulate the most grisly aspects of American TV. Greed masquerades as concern and phoniness as sincerity, the content is witless and producers and presenters alike are in a permanent frenzy to keep the attention of their viewers. On most channels, interruptions are not confined to the commercials that intrude every five minutes or so; there have also to be presenters making fatuous interventions. For the concentration span of the average American is so short these days that they cannot be expected to keep their mind on anything for more than a few minutes; their tolerance for a talking head is down to less than 30 seconds.

But if the vacuousness of most programmes is depressing, the talk shows are frightening, for they rely for their appeal on stirring up explosions of rage. They are modern freak shows, but the freaks are social deviants at whom the audience is encouraged to boo and hiss. Those I saw included daughters whose parents are upset by their sleazy/sexy/punk gear, women who think their younger sisters are sex-crazed and a man with 11 kids by seven women ("All my babies' mothers hate me"). I never got to see the moms who romanced their daughters' fiancs, the girls who wanted to be porn queens, the people who were proud of their bad dispositions, the wives who disapproved of their mates' interest in centrefolds or the women who were secretly dating their best friends' sons.

Anyway, I had had enough when a Californian talk-show host, who had just been sacked for advocating sex with minors, came on one of the shows in his underpants and had a screaming match with the entire audience.

Although the stated object of these shows is to encourage understanding and have people kiss and make up, their real purpose is to make everyone as aggressive and loud as possible, because that's what attracts the advertisers. These are gladiatorial encounters in which you blindly support your side. That's why the nation is hooked on the incredibly boring OJ Simpson trial, for every day experts tell them who has won and lost the day's encounters. "Hey, hey, OJ," shout his supporters when the defence lawyer accuses the relevant cop of being racist.

For thinking Americans, there is solace to be found in the public broadcasting service, where they can watch intelligent discussion, British comedy and drama, and excellent educational children's programmes. PBS is financed by charitable foundations, voluntary contributions from viewers, by corporations who in prosperous areas sponsor individual programmes, and by a substantial subsidy from the federal government without which channels in poorer states would almost certainly go out of business. But Newt Gingrich - an academic historian who frets about standards - has PBS in his sights; the first savage cuts have been announced.

Let's hear it from Jackie and Sam: "Hey, hey, Newt, take it away. Ideology rules, OK?"