Monday, May 26, 2008

What's on TV?

A few weeks ago, a blog I read had a post about turning off the TV. The gist of the post was highlighting the fact that Americans watch too much TV (an average of four hours a day, says this blog) and how watching less reclaims that time for other things (like, in this case, de-cluttering your home). Many commenters chimed in with vehement agreement, claiming that TV was "a waste of time" and that there is nothing really worth watching.

While I agree that there is a problem of watching too much TV-- and that there are often better ways to spend time-- I also agree with one commenter who boldly spoke up in defense of television. His argument was that the claim, "There's nothing good on TV" is typical of those who, ironically, don't watch TV (and if you didn't catch the irony: if they don't watch TV, then they won't really know whether there's anything good on, will they?).

His point is a good one: some have argued that we're in something of a "golden age" of television. Cable channels (including premium channels like HBO and Showtime) have invested heavily for the last 10 years or so to gain a place in the primetime and serial TV market. Network TV-- long the dominant play-callers of the industry-- is fighting to maintain even a share of the viewers they once had, who are flying out the door to the cable and premium channels and their programming. This level of competition fell during a fortuitous point (for viewers, at least) in the timeline for the Internet: it was established enough to be a buzz-creator and discussion venue about new shows, but immature enough to not offer a competitive element of its own. So folks could talk about what they liked-- and savvy producers could learn from those discussions-- on the 'Net while returning to the "tube" to watch.

The result is an abundance of creativity and innovation in programming that has been unmatched in any form of media until very recently (more on that in a moment). There are good, engaging serials and dramas (
Lost, 24, Heroes, not to mention the huge successes in the realm of crime dramas, like the CSI: and Law & Order franchises); quirky and clever comedies (The Office appeals to MANY; shows like Rules of Engagement and The New Adventures of Old Christine, though a bit racy, include smart humor instead of simple crass punchlines); and a world of gameshows like we never dreamed when we used to settle for Wheel of Fortune and The Price Is Right (in addition to full-on gameshows, like Deal or No Deal, many of the so-called reality shows are really just elaborate gameshows).

Sure, some "reality" TV is lousy-- but a lot of it is a lot of fun, with emotional, relational, and psychological elements that are surprisingly engrossing (think
Survivor and The Apprentice). Many of the truly successful ones are an elaborate hybrid of The Gong Show and Star Search at a level that we always hoped was possible (maybe on par with The Ed Sullivan Show at times) when we watched those shows faithfully. (I'm thinking American Idol and Last Comic Standing.)

Add to all of that the immense variety of niche programming in the form of
entire channels devoted to things like gardening, history, home improvement, cooking, financial investment, and educational endeavors. "Nothing good on TV"-- have you ever watched the Discovery Channel? You could conceivably watch movies all day long for a week and not watch a repeat-- with a basic satellite subscription. Nostalgic for the old stuff? There are several channels that show re-runs of I Love Lucy and Little House on the Prairie regularly.

As another commenter (on the Unclutterer post) mentions: much of the quality of writing on TV meets or surpasses most of the contemporary fiction for sale, and much of the screenwriting done for film. Americans may watch too much TV, but the snobbish dismissal of TV as a media genre is misplaced.

Watch while you can: I predict that this "golden age" of TV will only last another handful of years. While the 'Net wasn't mature enough to be a competitor as the current TV era was coming of age, it is now: video over Internet is becoming so common as to be passe. Technology in general is "democratizing" media creativity; soon you'll see YouTube filled with independently-produced videos that rival TV in their writing and production. Over the next 5-10 years, video on the Internet will do to TV what blogging has done to printed news; it's not put out of business, but it's certainly not the go-to source for current events that it used to be. Just as every blogger is ostensibly a reporter (if they want to be), soon every amateur videographer will be a producer (if they want to be).

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