Cable Land Confidential
NEW BEDLAM A Novel
By Bill Flanagan
The Penguin Press; 342pp; $24.95
The Good A biting and hilarious satire of the high-pressure TV business.
The Bad Lots of the material is insidey--but that's really no big obstacle.
The Bottom Line Rich characterization and lively writing make this an enjoyable read.
The first thing you need to know about the novel New Bedlam is that its author, Bill Flanagan, travels the world as a top executive for MTV Networks and is also the monotone-voiced music commentator on CBS (CBS ) News Sunday Morning. Both are pretty sweet gigs. The second thing you need to know is that Flanagan apparently doesn't really care about that. For he has written a biting and hilarious satire of the pressure-filled TV business, with a bevy of rich characters—eccentric, egotistical, and some practically insane—whose real-life counterparts must surely have inspired Flanagan to spoof the industry that feeds him.
The star of New Bedlam is Bobby Kahn, a hard-charging programming executive for a major broadcast network. Kahn made his career by spotting a daytime game show called I'll Eat Anything! and putting it in prime time. It became a summer-replacement phenomenon and cemented Kahn's reputation as a genius. "The more pundits howled about a new low in America's public discourse, the bigger the ratings grew," writes Flanagan.
But Kahn, we learn in the first pages, is now being canned as the fall guy in a reality-show scandal. He rushes to save face before the network publicly announces his departure. Hoping to land a job that will look as if he dictated the terms—a business turnaround in fast-growing cable, perhaps—Kahn finds his way to New Bedlam, a fictional town in Flanagan's native Rhode Island. His new employer: King Cable, a bit player with franchises in several New England states. Kahn is hired to bring new life to King's three fledgling channels, each of which is supervised by a different offspring of cable patriarch Dominic King. A malicious curmudgeon (after sleeping with a rival's wife who later reunites with her husband, he "wished he'd had gonorrhea so he could have passed it along to them"), Dom made a fortune running garages, used-car dealerships, and car washes throughout New England before he began buying up local cable franchises at the dawn of subscription TV. As Flanagan takes the reader deep into Dom's stubborn mind, you can't help but think how much the character's ambitions mirror those of real-life media moguls, including Flanagan's own boss, Sumner Redstone, the octogenarian chairman of MTV parent Viacom (VIA ), who was running movie theaters before getting into cable TV. There's also a resemblance to other cable patriarchs, including Chuck Dolan of Cablevision (CVC ) (is his son Jimmy the model for Dom's contentious son Kenny?), John Rigas, formerly of Adelphia (he ran his business from the New Bedlamesque backwater of Coudersport, Pa.), and Comcast (CMCSA ) founder Ralph Roberts (he was selling belts and suspenders when he bought his first cable franchise in the early 1960s).
The three King channels that Kahn must fix include Eureka, which strives way too hard to be a high-minded arts channel; BoomerBox, a sitcom rerun channel; and the Comic Book Channel, which is fixated on superheroes. The scenes involving Eureka offer some of New Bedlam's biggest guffaws.
At one point, Kahn learns that Eureka has aired a show about old curtains in Sunday prime time. He calls a meeting and lambastes the channel's staff: "Well, folks...in all my time in television that is the first prime time show on any channel I have ever seen achieve a total zero. Not a rounded zero. Not zero point zero two four. I chased this down. Tapestries: A History of Old Curtains achieved the rarely seen perfect box of eggs—zero point zero zero zero. If anybody left their TV on to keep the cat company and that thing came on, the cat got up and changed the channel."
Tapestries is just the first of many surprises awaiting Kahn as he tries to navigate family politics and the subtle and not-so-subtle goings-on at King Cable. (One King employee passes gas in meetings as a form of passive-aggressive protest.) Not unlike the frenetic pace of a TV executive trying to stay competitive, New Bedlam is a quick read composed of short, lively chapters. That may have something to do with Flanagan's having written the book at airports and hotels while on the fly for his TV day job.
Lots of New Bedlam's material is insidey, but you don't have to be a Variety subscriber to be drawn in. Fun interludes include quirky characters who hatch schemes to steal old Indian bones, clean out the family's scummy pond with bacteria-eating carp, and attempt to drown a raccoon that had been eating Kenny King's precious comic book collection. And who knows? Flanagan's jab at his own business could even boost his career. Maybe some hotshot programmer in the mold of Bobby Kahn will read New Bedlam and see it as a weekly TV show—on cable, of course.
By Tom Lowry