The Wall Street Journal
By Steve Liesman
June 6, 2023
so different 20 years ago.
The year is 2003, the month is June, and Matt Taibbi–a little-known
columnist for a doomed New York weekly called New York Press–is
upset. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has handed down an historic
3-2 decision that paves the way for what the upstart reporter perceives to be
the monopolization of nearly all the country’s media.
decision eased old restrictions that prevented major corporations from owning
television stations and daily newspapers in the same markets. It also raised
the limit of maximum household access by television broadcasters to 45 percent,
making it possible for large media conglomerates to dream of a day when control
over public information would be confined to just a few powerful insiders.
a self-described "typical alternative media malcontent," the decision
spells the beginning of the end of what was to be a spectacularly mediocre career.
he realize that the decision has set into motion a series of events that would
land him, twenty years later, in control of a single television station that
would make a mockery of the old Nielsen ratings system, frequently attracting
the attention of up to 97 percent of America’s viewing households.
to Taibbi, the story of the Guillotine Channel begins just one week after the
FCC decision. He was attending a Nets-Spurs NBA final match-up with NBC reporter
Mike Taibbi–the man he believed at the time to be his father.
was in the second quarter, and I knew something was wrong, because Mike’s
head really wasn’t in the game," Taibbi, now 53, recalls. "I
was on my way to get some nachos when he told me to sit back down. ‘Matt,’
he said, ‘I have something to tell you. I’m not your real father.’
was stunned. I looked at him, and I was like, ‘What?’ And he said,
‘Look, I’m sorry. And the truth is, I don’t even like
basketball.’ Then he shook his head, got up, and just left me there. That
was the longest game I’d ever seen."
his head. "I don’t even remember who won."
following a lengthy investigation of adoption records, Taibbi made the explosive
discovery that his birth father was none other than Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch.
His mother? Imelda Marcos. According to Taibbi, the two had dabbled in Satanism
together in the late 60s, resulting in a secret pregnancy and a hushed-up birth.
the revelation, the younger Taibbi suffered a complete nervous breakdown and
remained institutionalized for much of the next six years, drifting in and out
of catatonia and fugue states while physicians struggled for a cure.
as they say, is history. Taibbi eventually gained the strength he needed to
confront Murdoch, and–to the surprise of everyone–he was ultimately
accepted into the Murdoch family. The media giant grew close to his estranged
son in his final years of failing health, when the latter tended to Murdoch.
played this game called ‘Hide the oxygen,’" recalls Taibbi. "Dad
would give me this plaintive look from his bed, and that would be my signal
to rip off his mask and hide the tank. Then I’d hide somewhere in the penthouse
and wait for him to find the buzzer to call the butler. When it was all over,
I’d hug him. It was wonderful."
In his last
days, Murdoch changed the succession of his company fortune, thrusting the older
Taibbi ahead of the previously anointed heir, Lachlan Murdoch. In 2013, Taibbi
assumed full control of News Corp, which then reached some 68 percent of American
sent shock waves through the industry. Advertisers responded diffidently to
Taibbi’s Nero-esque early programming decisions, which, as most citizens
will recall, included the use of his news networks to promote a failed presidential
bid by a police horse as well as the reality show, Survivor: AIDS. In
response, industry insiders quickly circled the wagons, pressuring banks to
call in News Corp loans and influence Washington to recall News Corp satellite
licenses. The word was out in the boardrooms of America: Taibbi had to go.
It was then
that Taibbi hit upon the masterstroke of his career, engineering an escape from
his predicament that would leave him the most powerful man in America for a
generation to come.
an unusual buyout with his competitors: In exchange for his complete interests
in News Corp, Taibbi asked for an apparent pittance.
asked for a single cable channel with a permanent license, one million dollars,
a staff of ten and an old Buick Electra," he recalls, grinning. "Plus
a little paperwork."
was a buyout contract to be signed by each and every one of the employees of
News Corp, General Electric, Viacom, Disney, Time/Warner, Paramount and the
New York Times company. Buried in the contract was a small clause that made
each employee pledge "full and enthusiastic" cooperation in any future
reality programming Taibbi might launch.
had every single media employee in the country crowd into an airplane hangar
in St. Louis to sign the contract," recalls FAIR founder and media critic
Jeff Cohen. "It took weeks."
signatures collected, Taibbi launched the Guillotine Channel. For the premiere,
Taibbi assigned ten crack Russian mobster employees to arrest Fox News chief
Roger Ailes, drive him to the TGC studios in Burbank and, using a restored 18th-century
French guillotine, chop off his head on live television. The privilege of releasing
the rope was awarded to an Hispanic single mother in Los Angeles, whose application
was chosen via a televised lottery. Due to the buyout contract, the entire arrangement
was completely legal.
was an overnight success. Advance response for the second televised event was
so enormous that Taibbi arranged to have the beheading of aging talk-show legend
Bill O’Reilly aired on a pay-per-view basis. Some 165 million Americans
paid $119 to watch the historic broadcast, which featured uproarious live commentary
by prisoners at the supermax prison facility in Wallens Ridge, VA.
programming innovations increased ratings still further. "I’m not
sure who came up with the idea of dressing up the victims in French aristocratic
costumes, but that was clearly a key element of our early success," Taibbi
sight of Michael Eisner wearing that wig and that pancake makeup, being dragged
to the stage in a silver brocade waistcoat… That was clearly a landmark
moment in the history of American television. I usually let the viewers do the
work, but for that one, I got to apply the mole."
Guillotine Channel is by far the most popular network on television, and plans
are underway to launch a series of spin-off channels, including Guillotine 2
and Guillotine Family. In the last quarter, profits of TGC corporation
were estimated at $4 billion a day.
insiders are quick to note the irony of its success.
argument for deregulation 20 years ago was that, regardless of access, the networks
still had to attract viewers," says Ari Glomberg of the American Enterprise
Institute. "The idea was that the preferences of the viewing public would
act as the natural check on the power of the media companies, instead
of government regulation."
laughs. "The companies never foresaw that their behavior would make America
hate them so much that something like Guillotine could come along and wipe them
out with a single frequency. It turns out the market really does work."