“Best Friends Forever”: South Park’s Reaction to the Post-Network
Era News Coverage of the 2005 Teri Schiavo Case
“Best Friends Forever”, a culturally significant episode of the hit animated show South Park, starts off with Eric Cartman eagerly waking up in order to purchase the new Sony PSP gaming device. However, by the time Eric and his mother get to the store, there’s already a massive line. Cartman isn’t able to purchase the device, but his friend Kenny was first in line and bought the device and the game “Heaven vs. Hell”. Kenny becomes submerged in the game, playing constantly, and just as he reaches one of the highest levels, is run over by a truck. Kenny ascends up to the heavens, where he is told the game he was playing is the key to helping heaven defeat hell in the real battle, and Kenny’s death on earth gives him the ability to help save heaven by leading their army. However, soon after he is told his purpose, he disappears from heaven and is put on earth, being kept on life support while in a vegetative state. By being on earth, Kenny is no longer able to help heaven and their endeavors, giving hell the opportunity to win. Soon before Kenny had been revived, Cartman had been told by Kenny’s lawyer that in the event of Kenny’s death, Cartman would receive Kenny’s PSP. Motivated by self-interest, Cartman goes to the Supreme Court and gets a court order to remove Kenny’s life support, unintentionally helping heaven in the process. In reaction, Stan and Kyle try to keep Kenny alive, consequently benefiting hell. Both sides, in order to help achieve their cause go the mass media to influence the decision. The media’s involvement in this struggle is the subject of the episode’s satire.
This episode’s importance is derived from the context in which it was released. In the months leading up to South Park’s March 30th, 2005 premiere of “Best Friends Forever”, the United States was submerged in a contentious debate over Terri Schiavo and whether she should be kept or taken off life support. Rather than attempting to influence the political and media battle, the creators of South Park stood back and let the spectacle unfold, keenly observing the way and methods in which the media was covering this personal story. The episode “Best Friends Forever” creates a story somewhat parallel to the Schiavo case in order to expose, through a variety of techniques including humor, exaggeration, and magnification, and react to the mainstream media’s failure to respectively report on the Schiavo case. This episode points out both the media’s incentive in creating spectacles, how those spectacles take precedence over less profitable but more worthwhile endeavors, and how the media’s selfishness exploited an individual for personal gain. The creators of South Park were frustrated and angry with the media’s coverage and tendencies, and through their episode drew national attention to the mass media’s failures.
The Post Modern Era
In his work, “From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News”, Geoffrey Baym introduces the notion that with the evolution of technology and society, a new relationship between the news and its viewers have emerged. He explains that as time progressed, the news shifted its view of its watchers from “citizens” who should be presented the truth, to “consumers” they needed to attract for economic reasons. This change, caused by a variety of factors including deregulation in the telecommunications area, created a paradigm where instead of telling the news “how it is” to a “reconceptualization of all media as products packages for maximum profit….with news producers now striving to attract, rather than inform audiences”.
The “Post Network Era” that Baym has described unfortunately has significant drawbacks, most notably that the media has transformed itself into a type of spectacle, where individuals are able to see through the staged manufactured nature of...
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