My friend Jordan Green likes to say that we’re living in a golden age of television, a claim that is easy to deny but hard to refute. In fact, I think it is the best of times and the worst of times for “the idiot box.” Later this weekend, I’ll write about the good news. Today I’ll write a little about the bad.
For one thing, a lot of spectacular shows have gone off the air in the last few years. Some had great runs — “The West Wing” (1999-2006), “The Sopranos” (1999-2007), “The Shield” (2002-2008), “The Wire” (2002-2008), and “Battlestar Galactica” (2004-2009). Several others, most notably “Arrested Development” (2003-2006) and “Deadwood” (2004-2006), ended far too soon. I would even add “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” to this list. It had everything going for it — a compelling premise (behind the scenes at an SNL-type sketch comedy show), great writing (Aaron Sorkin), and a stellar cast (Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, D.L. Hughley, Steven Weber, and Nate Corddry, among others). But NBC never gave the show a chance to find its stride. It was cancelled in 2007 after just one season.
Also, undeniably, a lot of rotten TV is being created right now. It’s true we have always had bad television — look no further than “Joanie Loves Chachi” or “Mama’s Family” or “Small Wonder” or “The Jerry Springer Show.” But there is more of it now than ever. There are literally hundreds of cable channels in existence, each with about 9,000 hours of programming to fill per year, competing for market share while drawing from the same broad pool of talent. The law of diminishing returns says we will end up with exactly what we’ve got: a lot more of less — shows that are derivative, vapid, insulting, and stupid, shows that shoot for the lowest common denominator or appeal to the worst in us.
The “best” of the worst of TV is profitable, as in lucrative, without being profitable, as in beneficial. For example, nearly every reality show, up to and including programs about dancing celebrities. The worst of the worst is lucrative while also being harmful. For example, all 24 hours of the 24-hour news networks, especially programming that features one or more of the following: Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity, and, it should go without saying, Glenn Beck, who recently compared me to a Nazi.
To make matters worse, the broadcast networks are navigating their way through a stormy transition era. Viewers are migrating en masse to watch television on the Internet, on smart phones, DVRs, DVDs, and cable on-demand. As the networks hemorrhage money, the temptation increases to look downfield for the Hail Mary, as when NBC moved Jay Leno to prime time, a high-risk maneuver with predictable results, a throw of good money after bad. Leno’s stale monologues were even less funny in prime time, when his audience was wide awake, than they had been at the punchy, drowsy, boozy hour of 11:30 p.m. Ratings tanked and local affiliates complained. NBC moved Leno back to his old slot and marginalized Conan O’Brien, Leno’s successor at The Tonight Show, until O’Brien left the network as a national hero and $45 million richer.
The Leno-O’Brien debacle was the TV industry’s equivalent of a collateralized debt obligation — slicing up, repackaging, and trying to sell an overvalued asset. This time, thankfully, no one was buying. But there is at least one more reason to spend less time watching TV and more time reading poetry (April is National Poetry Month) or, you know, hanging out with your family: the proliferation of franchises like “Law and Order”, “CSI”, and “NCIS”. These shows are the equivalent of fast food chains. They are popular, not because they are good or good for you, but because they are predictable. No matter which location you stop at, you know exactly what you’re going to get. You leave full but not quite satisfied. It is a forgettable experience, even as the franchise shows hog creative energy and gobble up prime real estate on the schedule.
So those are a few reasons why it is the worst of times for television. I’ll be back in a couple days to talk about the best of times.