A combination of earlier magazine work and new blog posts

Confessions of Trash-TV Junkies

People who barely know us think they can figure us out. While only one name gets on the front of our books, we work as a team. We cover the gamut from Nazi fugitives to nasty Hong Kong heroin syndicates to the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., to what was really happening behind the scenes leading up to 9/11. Many of you have heard of our just published Secrets of the Kingdom: The -Inside Story of the Secret Saudi-U.S. Connection. It exposes how Saudi Arabia is wired with a self-destructive grid, including radioactive dirty bombs, ensuring gas will zoom to $10 a gallon if America ever lets the royal family, the House of Saud, fall from power.

So people assume we are a couple of intellectual eggheads. Doing The New York Times crosswords must be our idea of an exciting afternoon. And relaxation must be browsing through The New Yorker, reading poetry, wandering through art exhibitions, and planning vacations about archaeological digs.

Wrong. We enjoy serious pursuits or we wouldn’t do them. But top choice for downtime is often television. And we’re not talking PBS or the History Channel. We mean serious trash. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of our faves. Yes, Buffy. And we love The 0.C., CSI, Gilmore Girls, House, Lost and Desperate Housewives. Our house has a TiVo and another high-definition DVR capable of recording two shows at once. So we can watch one while recording three. We use TiVo to watch TV on our own schedule. Breakfast could be with The Sopranos. The Today Show might not be watched until right before we go to sleep (an overbubbly Katie Couric is for us a good sleeping tonic, a bit like Ritalin for overactive kids).

We were mildly depressed for a few weeks after some recent cancellations-Angel, Dead Like Me and Point Pleasant. And back in the day, who didn’t have a bad week after Melrose Place was axed?

A Presidential news conference causes great stress. It means all shows are pushed back by some undetermined time, and not even the brilliance of TiVo can figure out when George Bush finishes and Lost starts.

When we lived in Manhattan, intellectual snobs sniffed, “Oh, I can’t believe you watch so much television. I’m so surprised.” Some did not own TVs. Others said they didn’t have the time, as if somehow all we did was sit in bed, watch television and eat Pop-Tarts. But invariably, if we mentioned we just saw Paris Hilton on SNL, they would say, “Well, I saw that. I turned on the TV and was flipping from a documentary on Discovery to PBS when I happened across it.”

These are the same people who slow up the Publix checkouts because they are surreptitiously reading the tabloid headlines. It was clear they somehow felt that admitting they watched popular culture diminished their worth. It’s the curse of people in closets.

Many of you probably know a closeted television watcher.

So how excited do you think we were when we recently opened up the Sunday New York Times Magazine-an appropriately egghead way to spend a weekend morning-and discovered a new book argues that instead of being the boob tube, watching popular shows actually makes you smarter? Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, cogently argues that even “the most debased forms of mass diversion-video games and violent television and juvenile sitcoms-turn out to be nutritional after all.”

According to Johnson, “We’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards. Presumably the ‘masses’ want dumb, simple pleasures.” He demonstrates that old shows such as Starsky and Hutch or Dragnet follow one or two lead characters, have a single plot line and reach a decisive conclusion at each show’s end. In contrast, today’s TV hits like 24, Alias and even The Simpsons involve many more characters and multiple plot lines, and extend the story week to week. The Sopranos, for instance, routinely follows a dozen plot threads and has at least 20 characters. Since, Johnson says, “popular television has never been harder to follow,” it creates what he calls the Sleeper Curve, “the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down.”

So, armed with our new “television actually makes you smarter” thesis, we talked to some of South Beach’s movers and shakers to see what they are watching. “I love The Simpsons,” says the Beach’s hot DJ transplanted Israeli Oren Nizri. Luckily for Oren, it is one of Johnson’s top seven shows for boosting I.Q.

“The best thing on television right now is E’s recreation of the Michael Jackson trial,” award-winning British actor and Beach resident Rupert Everett told us at a recent birthday soiree. That combines reality TV and entertainment, a double winner for Johnson. Way to go, Rupert.

Jennie Yip, owner of South Beach’s Miss Yip Chinese Cafe, had no television for eight years in Manhattan. ‘Friends was a hit then, and I didn’t even know about the show,” she told us. “I met David Schwimmer and he told me he was on a hit TV show and I didn’t know what he was talking about. The next day I picked up US Weekly and realized who he was!” Now, in South Beach, she has moved to the tube for eclectic shows from Larry King (“depends on the guest”) and The Apprentice to Letterman and Everybody Loves Raymond (“my favorite show when I am flying”).

Matt MacDonald, one of Miami’s top interior designers (think J. Lo and P. Diddy, among other big- name celebs), is not embarrassed he loves television. “Everyone is trying to be more intellectual than they are,” he told us. “They are trying to be something they aren’t, so many people think it’s cool to say they don’t watch much television. But it is how I wind down: I lie in bed with my two Dalmatians and just want my TV.”

He loves Desperate Housewives and Lost. And for Matt, Sex and the City is “four gay guys. I could see all my friends in there.” In his house, American Idol is a “religious event.” Even some of his clients, such as Sarah Cruz, the wife of baseball star Jose Cruz, Jr., call him after that show and say, “Can you believe that? Who is going next?”

Matt, along with many others, is addicted to TiVo. He is still kicking himself over the time 10 years ago that one of his clients, business tycoon Barry Diller, predicted “the future of television would be like TiVo, everything would be integrated with television and the computer. ‘It will be like the fax or the cell phone,’ he told me. ‘You won’t be able to live without it.’” If he had listened to Diller then and invested in early startup companies, Matt would be retired on his own South Seas island.

Miami P.R. agent Amy Zakarin-think Ian Schrager, Casa Casuarina, The Related Group-is also an addict. “A TV is in every room,” she says. “I was raised this way. It is in my genes. We like to watch a lot of junk, and we don’t think of it as trash.”

Since she often works from her home, the television goes on in the morning with The Today Show and stays in the background for the rest of the day, cycling through The View, Oprah and similar fare. 1 love gossip and insider celebrity news, fashion, culture, all the lifestyle shows.” But by the evening, Amy is ready for serious viewing. “I don’t watch any academic media.” She “loves” 20/20, Primetime Live and Dateline: ‘They give me news with entertainment-perfect.

“My real life is reality TV,” she adds, so she sometimes tunes in to “fave shows like The Bachelor and The Apprentice.’ She stays away from crime and medical dramas- “they stress me out”- and owns the entire DVD collection of Sex and the City (9 can watch it over and over again”).

Late at night, she sets her television’s timer to 90 minutes, gets her mixed-breed Labrador, Coco, and snuggles in for a late-night talk. show. She goes to sleep with the TV blaring. According to author Johnson, Amy will be Einstein before long.

Even 20somethings find television relaxing. Alina Sanchez, general manager of The Shack Board Shop, South Beach’s only legitimate surf shop, manages to juggle her career, marriage and raising two young daughters. “Eight to 10 at night is disconnection time,” she told us recently at her store at Collins and First. “TV lets me unwind.” She relaxes with One Tree Hill, The 0.C, Kevin Hill, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and even Nanny 911. “Believe it or not,” she says, “I’ve actually picked up some tips for parenting from the Nanny show. TV lets me relax. That time is my own, just with my shows and no responsibilities. I love it!”

John Fernandez, a South Beach building manager and executive with Miami Management, just turned 25. “I celebrated by watching One Tree he says. “TV lets me chill out and get away from the stress of running a large South Beach condo.”

Seems to us, from our unofficial polling, that a lot of South Beachers are getting smarter just by flipping on their television and assimilating popular culture. Works for us. We would tell you more, but sorry, we have to run – 24 is starting.