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How the U.S. Supreme Court killed the TV networks

OK, granted, they're not dead yet. But in my recurring role as the Cassandra of the Santa Cruz—She Who Can See the Future, but to Whom No One Listens—I am here to tell you that this election year will go a long way toward finishing off ABC, CBS and NBC, and it'll be the Supremes' fault. This is because of something called the Citizens United decision.

Let's review: Citizens United is a political-action committee, otherwise known as an anonymous, evil, anti-democracy fat-cat cabal. It won a landmark case before the court in January 2010 arguing that corporations are people, and money is speech, and, therefore, the First Amendment precludes any limits on spending for political advertising by PACs.

If you think this makes no sense, you're not alone. Many observers feel that the justices need to carefully review the meaning of "corporations," "people," "money" and "speech," and the usual sense of the verb "to be."

As a number of flaming radicals (such as John McCain) contend, the Citizens United decision is not only stupid; it's a catastrophe. Thanks to our esteemed justices, the floods of money that have made wall-to-wall negative advertising a national curse are now veritable tsunamis of cash—towering tidal waves of pelf that have already generated hysterical new inundations of slander, insinuation and sarcastic voiceover in the early primary states.

This has implications, I suppose, for the outcome of the 2012 elections. Or it would, if the Republican Party was not currently tearing itself into bloody shreds while alienating every sensible person within hearing distance. In just the last few weeks, the geniuses in charge have clinched the party's loss of the votes of everyone who thinks poor women need mammograms, everyone who thinks people should decide for themselves how many children they have, and everyone who feels public schools have value. (Hey, guys? That's a lot of people!) Now they're working on alienating everyone who thinks Medicare and Social Security are basically OK ideas.

In other words, the GOP has locked up the support of pro-cancer, pro-teen-pregnancy, illiteracy-positive males who kind of like the idea of sick old people begging in the street—not what you'd call a dominant bloc, except in a few areas of Sudan and the Congo. (I think it would be super-awesome if anti-government enthusiasts would immediately emigrate to these areas. How cool would it be if everyone who hates the idea of taxes and the rule of law got out there and enjoyed survival-of-the-fittest anarchy firsthand?! Let's all take a moment to dream.)

So I'm not that concerned about the future of the United States. What I am worried about is the future of the big three TV networks. I grew up in front of the TV, and in spite of the fact that I haven't watched them much for years, I feel a lingering fondness for the networks and for antique habits of television viewing. It's a nostalgia that has to do with Sea Hunt, Rocky and Bullwinkle, the moon landings, Watergate and staying up late watching old movies with my mother.

Here's what worries me: The same dynamic that's killing the U.S. Postal Service and daily newspapers is doing the same for the networks. The post office lost our loyalty when actual communication shifted to the Internet, and first-class mail became rare. And we stopped loving the morning paper when it became hard to locate the news—not to mention the comics—among the full-page ads for hearing aids and weight-loss pills. Content has to outweigh advertising, or we simply turn elsewhere.

The networks have entered a similar death-spiral of content erosion and ever-more-intrusive shilling, now poised to rapidly accelerate due to the money pouring into political ads. So far this year, ad spending by outside political groups is up 1,600 percent compared to 2008, according to one source. Which can only mean that watching TV is going to be 1,600 times more awful.

More people will pop for TiVo, or wait for the DVD, or start cruising the Internet for their shows, or decide to pay a buck or two to get episodes streamed from Amazon—or just forget about the networks altogether, and find other sources of entertainment that remain free of the lizard-brain hellscape that is modern political advertising.

Now brought to you, bigger and better than ever before, by your United States Supreme Court.

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