You’ve probably seen “Illusion of Choice,” a 2011 infographic detailing how six media conglomerates “control a staggering 90% of what we read, watch, or listen to.” (The entities named are GE, News Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS.) Another “Illusion of Choice” infographic from last year documents how “ten huge corporations control the production of almost everything the average person buys.” Are these webs of corporate connection kooky conspiracy theories or genuine cause for alarm? Do the correlations between business entities cause political currents that undermine democracy and media independence? It’s not particularly controversial to think so given the amount of money corporations spend on lobbying and political campaigns. It’s not even particularly controversial to say so, at least for those of us who aren’t employed by, say, Viacom, Time Warner, GE, etc.
But pointing fingers at the corporatocracy may have not gone over so well for famed comedy writer Robert Smigel in 1998 when his recurring animated “Saturday TV Funhouse” segment produced the “Conspiracy Theory Rock” bit above for Saturday Night Live. A parody of the beloved Schoolhouse Rock educational ‘toons of the 70s, “Conspiracy Theory Rock” features a disheveled gentleman—a stereotype of the outsider crackpot—leading a sing-along about the machinations of the “Media-opoly.” Figured as greedy octopi (reminiscent of Matt Taibbi’s “vampire squid”), the media giants here, including GE, Westinghouse, Fox, and Disney, devour the smaller guys—the traditional networks—and “use them to say whatever they please and put down the opinions of anyone who disagrees.” The segment may have raised the ire of GE, who own NBC. It aired once with the original episode but was subsequently pulled from the show in syndication, though it’s been included in subsequent DVD compilations of “Saturday TV Funhouse.”
Now “Conspiracy Theory Rock” is circulating online—amplified by a Marc Maron tweet—as a “banned” clip, a misleading description that feeds right into the story of conspiracy. Editing a sketch from a syndicated comedy show, after all, is not tantamount to banning it. While the short piece makes the usual compelling case against corporate rule, it does so in a tongue-in-cheek way that allows for the possibility that some of these allegations are tenuous exaggerations. Our unwashed presenter, for example, ends the segment mumbling an incoherent non sequitur about Lorne Michaels and Marion Barry attending the same high school. For his part, Michaels has said the segment was cut because it “wasn’t funny.” He’s got a point—it isn’t—but it’s hard to believe it didn’t raise other objections from network executives. It wouldn’t be the first time the show has been accused of censoring a political sketch.