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Buy This Network Some Christmas Shoes

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A new cable channel aimed at showing real American life between the East and West coasts is planned for launch next year, its top executive said.

"We think that Middle America has fantastic stories to tell, and we're going to go out there and get them," said Doron Gorshein, chairman and chief executive officer of The America Channel.

The channel, to be formally announced Monday, is aimed at filling a void created by television's tendency to focus on life in New York and Los Angeles, Gorshein said.

So I read this story, and the first thing I thought of was "The Christmas Shoes," a song I've heard only while driving the mid-Atlantic coast during the holiday season.

For those who haven't heard the song "The Christmas Shoes," here's a synopsis: some appalling dullard is standing in line at the store, bemoaning the twin burdens of having loved ones to shop for during the holidays and the financial wherewithal to purchase gifts, when some grubby urchin has the temerity to interrupt his sullen snit with a request: "Mister, would you buy these shoes?" After going into near-pornographic detail about the state of the child's disheveled appearance and the shock his request has caused our narrator, our songster takes us into a repeat of the request -- the shoes need to be bought for the child's mama, as she's going to Jesus tonight and He's evidently adopted "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service" in the years since soldiers gambled for His garments -- and the narrator throws down a few bucks so the soon-to-be-bereaved child can scamper off to his mother's deathbed with tasteful pumps in hand.

The narrator then tells us how throwing a few bucks at the kid has made him see the true meaning of Christmas, a meaning which apparently has nothing to do with being moved to address anything like the poverty some families face after massive medical costs, or the grief children face after a parent dies. No -- the meaning of Christmas comes down to this: isn't it fortuitous that this solvent, socially-enriched person had some deprived child to remind him how good he has it? Thank you, filthy little soon-to-be-half-orphaned boy!

I once tried explaining this to my dad and got a surprisingly chilly response. Dad and his fellow military veterans, all of whom worked for the Marines devising non-lethal weapons with which to choke, pummel and subdue rioters -- were apparently moved to tears by the song. Rather than chalking this behavior up to a massively-delayed symptom of PTSD, I foolishly attempted to make my case again.

Dad ended the matter by grumbling about how a "cynical left-coast elitist" like me wouldn't understand the appeal of the song.

He was right: in the three years since we had that conversation, "The Christmas Shoes" has been adapted as a book and a made-for-TV movie starring Rob Lowe, two ventures that evidently testify as to the appeal of the song. I am still baffled by the Christmas Shoes phenomenon, and my only consolation is to snicker "Mister, will you buy these shoes?" whenever I run into something that defies all laws of reason or aesthetics. Chalk it up to my elitism.

So now there's going to be The America Channel, since the huddled masses are yearning for content that speaks to them. At least, that's what the 600 people surveyed in an effort to lend this effort something of a populist credential thought; according to the article, 58 percent said TV doesn't reflect the real America. I question whether the opinions of 348 people reflect the real America as well -- wouldn't it have made sense to survey more of these actual real people for whom the channel is being launched and see if this opinion is in any way accurate? Or am I being cynical again?

In any event, spurred on by the 63 percent of respondents who want to know more about people's everyday lives, the channel is going to the trouble and expense ($65 million in financing) of developing shows like American Stories, which is purported to celebrate the accomplishments of ordinary people. Left unreported is whether these are ordinary accomplishments like managing to pick up the dry cleaning, do the banking and get dinner on the table before Friends is on, or whether these are extraordinary accomplishments which could just as well be featured on any one of the spate of programs littering the TLC, Lifetime and PAX channels. Frankly, it seems like it would be cheaper to give all 378 survey respondents a few thousand bucks so they can travel around and nose into people's everyday lives on their own time.

However, if common sense were to take over and this channel not make it to the air, we'd miss out on the chance to view America From Afar, a show that's not afraid to ask the hard-hitting question, "But enough about me -- what do you think of me?" by reporting on what other countries currently think of America. Although the show could be a fascinating exercise in self-loathing given our current track record with international relations, it doesn't quite negate the already-extant options for finding out what other people think of America like the BBC World News, typically available wherever fine PBS channels are broadcast.

These shows are but two of the glories awaiting the starved TV public as they -- or the 282 people who told the survey takers that little on television "really speaks to me" -- eagerly await The America Channel.

But is it really a channel for all of America? Aren't East Coasties and Left Coasties Americans too, Ann Coulter's "arguments" notwithstanding? And is it really fair or accurate to assume that all of flyover country is some homogeneous mass? Wouldn't people in Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago and St. Louis maybe resent the implication that they're all a bunch of hicks at the mercy of the New York/Los Angeles media cartel? And correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't there a lot of people in showbiz who actually come from Middle America? Wouldn't that background inform their work at some level?

If I were one of these Middle Americans who's evidently being ignored by television, I'd be kind of insulted by the assumption that the E! channel or Friends are not meant for the likes of me. To be told that I should be alienated by any one of the dozen shows about New York cops, Los Angeles beautiful people, or beautiful New York cops in Los Angeles because I can't directly relate more or less implies that I'm not capable of watching fiction for the sake of fiction, which is kind of a slam on my intellect. At least, that's how I'd feel if I were living in, say, Indiana.

Fortunately, I'm a cynical left coast elitist, and thus can mock this whole venture without feeling one tiny bit insulted. In fact, I'd encourage it to go further. What good is the America Channel if it insists on lumping in all of Middle America? Why not recognize and celebrate those regional differences? You could do worse than shows like:

Crazed Southern Belle Makeover: Sure, you're about to be shipped off to a mental hospital for a lobotomy because you won't shut up about that cannibalistic act you saw. But that doesn't mean you can't go out in style!

Yo! Guido: Eight guys and a house in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. They're gonna seriously show those Real World punks what being real is really about. For real, man.

Live From an Undisclosed Location: Corporal Pat Hodges broadcasts from his underground bunker in Idaho, bravely reporting on the joint efforts of the Catholics, Jews and Liberals to bring about The One World Government.

I-80 Restaurant Reviews: An intrepid team of Iowans speeds along the nation's corridor looking for something other than a franchise restaurant on the long stretch of road between Chicago and Cheyenne.

One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State: A children's show teaching tolerance and understanding of people who live in states of a different color.

So long as the focus is America, recognize that regional identity is more geographically intimate than "the American continent, or at least those parts that don't abut an ocean." And cater to it! There's a good chance at least 282 people would watch all of the shows above, and if that many is good enough to bolster the argument for this channel's existence, it should be good enough to justify each show's existence.

Just imagine a full year of programming celebrating all of America and the stories of its ordinary people -- since nothing will be more fascinating than watching the quotidian details of someone else's existence, as those aren't available on any of the roughly eight thousand shows featuring "real" people right now. Imagine hour after hour of people who are just like you, only they're on television and you're not.

Go ahead. Now, mister, will you buy these shoes?


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