Wednesday, May 31, 2006

False Idolatry


Chapter 215 of 'What I Hate About Television.'

(Forgive me, but I'm feeling pissy.)

I may have mentioned somewhere that TV and I don't really get along. There are a couple racing series that I record on the DVR, and (as I have previously confessed, like a sinner cowering in the box) I keep a few Law & Order episodes on hand, also on the DVR. But I try to make a point to watch specific things as a deliberate act of choice, and I will not as a matter of principle watch programming real-time or troll among the network fare when I have nothing else to do. I will occasionally flip through the channel guide looking for a movie to record, and even this brief experience is like an hour spent in the golden shower of a visit to Wal-Mart--I always wish I could dip myself in some kind of sanitizer afterward. I feel, by an overwhelming margin, that were television as it is currently constituted to suddenly vanish the loss of the little bit of quality network TV programming would be a small price to pay to be freed of the endless hours of inane and harmful garbage that went away at the same time. I would personally sacrifice the one for the other with glee and a clear conscience. I am always flabbergasted by people who have the TV on 24/7 in the background when they're not really watching, which seems to me tantamount to keeping an open sewer running through one's living room--and I'm convinced the practice is nearly as dangerous to children as that would be. In fact, I've long been convinced that TV as an electronic babysitter is actively harmful without the strictest monitoring.

At work--where I am now, sitting in the Air Services Center--there's a TV in most every room, always tuned to one of the big networks. It's usually the baldly partisan Fox News channel--helping protect conservatives everywhere from the insidious influx of inconvenient "fact-based" news coverage--but sometimes we find ourselves being kept company by one of the other networks. The last hour or so it's been the signally insipid Regis and Kelly, (they're not really my friends; in fact, they don't give a shit about me) followed now by what appears to be a version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? God. What's next? Televised Texas Executions? Or maybe Lifestyles of the Botoxed and Liposucked? (It strikes me as I type this that neither of my sarcastic little titles is any worse than programming that already exists.)

These days, the source of my despair is American Idol. It's especially difficult to escape that show lately, with former winners and near-winners being played on the radio or being seen in record store displays, and with all manner of other media coverage of the show, in a kind of runaway nuclear meltdown of TV feedback that is spreading its poison fallout far and wide, contaminating the furthest reaches of society. Even for someone like me who has his head in the pop culture sand, one can hardly keep from knowing the judges and the general thrust of the show, and even the names of some of the final contestants. It's hard not to hate this ubiquity when the subject matter is so banal and mediocre. But what else could we expect from a show driven by the votes of a network television audience? From what seeps through my protective barrier, it seems the votes always go to the cheesy spectacle and empty fireworks that, apparently, get to stand in, in TV land, for any kind of true musicality. This is what gets the votes; this is what the voting audience will pay for in a CD store. What has always had an artistic thrust is thus homogenized by trailer park vote. Art by popular decree. The only elevation or sublimity is that of big-dollar television production values.

I just think we should run away from this, screaming, as quickly as possible.

This is all driven by forces far removed from the search for quality or a quest for learning, which is something that seems to uniformly escape our collective consciousness. Television is all about advertising. It's all about dollars, huge dollars coughed up for access to a potential audience of millions. The rest of it is window dressing to get you into the store, the sweet fruit which is really about spreading the seed. These dollars in turn make a relatively small group of media movers & shakers immensely wealthy. It's all about them. This show, like the rest of network prime time fare, is the product of a team of strategists who are trying, in a fierce competition with the other networks, to come up with the magic formula that will capture the largest market share (and, ergo, the most massive advertising revenue).

History demonstrates with almost perfect linearity that this is not a process which births things of lasting quality. Quite the contrary: network television's legacy is one of finding innovative ways to aim lower and inexorably lower. The goal seems to have become one of titillating the dimmest member of a demographically dim audience. That lowest common denominator, around which control of network programming seems to flock like a hellish Council of the Stupid, is depressingly, soul-sappingly low. And they've somehow managed to bring the less-dim portion of the audience on board, keeping them from raising a fuss at the sheer inanity of what oozes from the screen pretty much all the time.

I suppose complete despair is not entirely in order. We have greater and greater choices available through cable and satellite programming, such that the big networks can be bypassed altogether. There's even a good bit of advertising-free programming, stuff for which I will happily pay a bit. And that's a little slice of light in our new dark age, since obviously television is in no danger of the extinction of which I dream. There are good things available, if we can just inspire people to aim a bit higher in their entertainment aspirations.

Or we can just do the unthinkable and simply

turn... it... OFF!


Joshua said...

Ace totally should have won, man.

Oddly enough, I just got back from a nice long walk outside with one of my friends, and we were talking about this exact topic. It started with us observing how many people wear headphones on a walk, and what we thought that must mean, psychologically. We then shifted to television, and how on this very fine day in a lake town, so few people were on the streets that they MUST be at home, air conditioned and watching.

Now, I admit to watching a few shows on TV. I am more amovie guy, but Carly and I watch Family Guy every night before bed, and I watch any NBA team I can catch. But the big point is television, we decided, steals time, where as movies probably do not. The latter is scheduled: you work a movie in when you have downtime. The former is droning: there is always SOMETHING you could be watching.

I know I probably had a point to this post, God knows I forgot it already. Anyway, right on point again, Bil.

wunelle said...

I too am a movie guy, though Susan thinks they belong more properly with television than with theatre (in which category I would place them). But I suppose a good many of the arguments about the commercialism of television can be made of many new movies. Coincidentally or not, I do find that I have less and less patience for modern blockbuster-type movies (say, Mission Impossible III), and maybe this is why--they feel formulaic, designed by large, psychologically-savvy corporations to capture the ticket-buying public's interest.

I think movies at their best are about storytelling, which is a huge part of what we are. Right or wrong, I can only see TV as exploiting this side of us to make money, where movies are still--somewhere, in some genres--artistically-driven. I cannot (to use a recent post) believe that "Gosford Park" is someone's get-rich scheme.

Maybe I'm hopelessly naive.

Jeffy said...

Once again I find myself nodding 'yes' to every one of your sentences. I too loathe most of what is on television, but I find myself inadvertantly exposed to much of it. There is some good mixed in with the bad, and just trying to catch those good bits exposes you to some of the bad. Also, you have to try things out to see what they are, and all too often you find that you've wasted an hour only to find that what you were checking out was total crap. Luckily, most of the crap is so bad that you can tell in the first few minutes (or even from the promos).

The really hard part for me is making myself pay for the flow of crap. At the moment I only get TV over the air - no fancy cable or satellite for me. I've never been able to convince myself that the content is worth the cost (cable is outrageously expensive for what you get - at least in the early days it had no ads, and so seemed to be worth the expense). Now, however, I find that more of the stuff that might be of interest is on cable, and so I keep heading back to the Dish web site and considering getting a Dish. It is a tough sell, considering the small amount of content that I am actually interested in and the fact that you have to buy it all to get anything good.

I think that my take on the sorry state of TV is even more depressing than yours: Given how good the networks are at producing content that gets the maximum number of eyeballs glued to the sets, it seems that the crap we see is EXACTLY what the American public truly wants. What a sad commentary on the American public.

I am not sure that movies are in a much different class. There are a LOT of total piles of crap at the multiplex. It is just that with movies it is possible to make a decent profit by hitting a small percentage of the total audience, so it does work to make a movie that will not have mass appeal. I think that it is due to the payment system - with movies people pay directly for the show they want, so a show that has some appeal can make a profit - with TV being paid for with ads there is a big push to get maximum viewership, and so there is no market for shows that don't grab a large audience - playing to the lowest common denominator is what pays.

wunelle said...

When I read your comment, I realized how skewed my take on movies generally is: I can think of 100 movies that I love (as opposed to two or three TV shows), which makes me think the odds are better. But of course there are a buzillion movies, and the ones I like are not typically in the mainstream. Looked at as a group--thinking of all the shit at the video store I would never consider renting--I think my numbers are not correct! And yet there is, as you say, the business of targeting a movie for a specific, dues-paying audience, which enables niches to be economically viable.

I'm trying to look more into podcasts, since I think radio drama is the perfect storytelling medium. And without high production costs, it really can be about the story and not about the production & distribution house profits.

I dropped cable when I learned it started costing $80 a month for me to watch Formula One. Too damn much. We tried imposing on people (who had cable) to record the races for me, but it was just too much trouble to put others thru. So I'm willing to pay $40 (satellite fee) a month to see this race series, which I cannot get anywhere else, and we typically cancel the satellite in the off-season.

Still, it feels like a betrayal of my principles to watch TV at all, let alone to pay for it.

Joshua said...

About TV: Two points; one, Carly works for the cable company (as a net tech), so we get all the channels for free, making the few shows I watch worth every penny. Two; I think Jeffy's assessment of Movies v TV might not be entirely accurate.
"I think that it is due to the payment system - with movies people pay directly for the show they want, so a show that has some appeal can make a profit - with TV being paid for with ads there is a big push to get maximum viewership, and so there is no market for shows that don't grab a large audience"
I think that is probably true of network television, where the largest amount of neilsons hang out at one or two shows a day, during primetime. Certainly I would agree that is why "news" shows are so screwed up. But cable, which is gaining a foothold in the market each year, has SO MANY choices even the highest rated shows are sharing time with many many others. So it is quite possible, and likely, to create niche television. A good example would be "The Daily Show". When Comedy Central started it, and Craig Kilborn was the host, it had a decent, but not great audience. Without changing the format, it grew, and adding a new host made it grow more. Now they actually have guests on that matter, and they still maintain the audience that brought them there. All that being said, there share is probably still below a 3: which is GREAT for cable, but just average for network TV. So it might be considered a niche. In fact, the whole Comedy Central network might be considered a niche.

Those crap movies, I think, are also exactly what the American Public wants, by and large. The niche movies are what keep readers of this blog going to movies. (Although there is crossover, as I have watched more thana few blockbusters, and some good movies actually get people in the seats--"Davinci Code")

I still have to think the appeal of movies, as opposed to TV, is that one is planned time, and the other is stolen time. At least, for me, that's what it seems to be.

wunelle said...

I agree with the "planned time" thing, and I try to make every watching experience (be it movie or TV or sports or whatever) of this type. The DVR enables this by letting you decide in advance what you think is worth watching (using a video guide or past history or whatever) and then planning the whole thing out.

Actually, if I'm going to troll, I'm much more inclined to go to the theater and pick what appears to be a good movie over the guaranteed debasing of a couple random hours of television.

The advantages of cable that you talk about make me wonder why ANYONE watches the networks at all--cable / satellite is in a huge majority of homes. Maybe we should conclude that network TV reflects perfectly the viewing preferences of people without cable; that seems more believable (and less depressing) than thinking our whole culture is THAT stupid.

Dzesika said...

I cannot stop laughing at your phrase 'golden shower of a visit to Wal-Mart'.

But you're right about the television stuff. It's nice to hear someone say that sort of thing for a change ...

wunelle said...

It seems there are two distinct camps here, tho: the ones like me, who are about 3% of the population and thought of as being a bit silly and fanatical, and the other 97% who say "I don't really watch much TV anyway, except for this and this and this and this."

I took some classes in college where TV usage was discussed, and virtually everyone--myself included, I'm sure--underestimates how much they watch by pretty significant proportions. Kids, especially, were found to spend an AVERAGE of 8 hours in the presence of a squawking television. Given that I virtually never see portrayed there the world I think I live in, it's a legitimate question to ask what learning is taking place at this flickering altar.

I'm afraid I would go on and on and on even further if I don't stop myself!

Anonymous said...


"I am always flabbergasted by people who have the TV on 24/7 in the background when they're not really watching, which seems to me tantamount to keeping an open sewer running through one's living room"

Snort, snort. Hehehe. Gasp. Whew!

As you're aware, I haven't had television since about 1996. Thank Zeus. But, as you've pointed out in the past, it does tend to make me a snob when it comes to others' viewing habits. I find little value in it and and have little toleration for those who do. I can become quickly addicted to it again when watching in motel rooms. And I simply HATE myself for it.

Here's something to take care of those irritating televisions in airports and bars and the like:

Alex Random

wunelle said...

Now there's a remote that's worth the price! a.k.a. the "Rural America Stroke Induction Device."

Jeffy said...

I agree that folks generally over estimate their TV viewing time by a large margin (other than you who can report numbers that are virtually zero and therefore are easy to count).

And you are correct that for the most part it is toxic to small children. No matter how 'educational' a show claims to be there is really no reason why a small child (under 3 or so) ought to be watching it. Once a child is old enough that she can actually learn something rather than just basking in the moving images I do think that some educational TV has some value.

Advertisements are really something to keep away from the kids, since children have no way to differentiate between the show and the ad. Plus, kids are very quick to believe what they see on TV, and so do not watch ads with any scepticism, and can therefore easily be swayed by advertisers. While children are young ad-free public TV is all a they should be exposed to, but some of that in moderation is probably not a bad thing. Then advertisements have to be introduced at a time when the kids can appreciate just what they are, since that is a lesson that has to be learned sometime in this society.

As for adults, TV just soaks up time that can almost always be spent in a better way.

woolf said...

I'm not sure which 'camp' I'd put myself in...I would agree that there's a lot of crap out there and certain shows are unbelieveably stupid yet people watch them like junkies, but, to be honest, god awful honest, I like TV in a 'that's my nutso aunt from Toledo--she's weird but I love her' sort of way.

CrustyCaptain said...

I believe that there is already a "Lifestyles of the Botoxed and Liposucked". It is called Dr. 90210, go figure! Not that I have watched it, merely seen it on the channel guide and was intrigued enough to hit the 'info' button. That was enough for me.

I definately agree with you about the toxic crap you find on TV. Especially for children. I was curious once about all the 'broo-ha-ha' created about the Teletubies. So I decided to watch an episode to see what all the 'ruckus' was about.

First I feel that I must point out that I can NOT see how anyone can conclude that one of the teletubuies is gay. The teletbies have to be the weirdest asexual creatures I have ever seen.

Besides that, after a few minutes of watching the show, I was strcuk mind-numbingly dumb. I felt like I was just sitting there paralyzed with drool sliding down my chin. My God, what are our children watching? It was almost like brainwashing, which was such a distrubing thought to me, that it broke through my trance-like state and I immediately turned off the TV.

Aside from all that, I believe that I must also defend some of the television content out there. I pay extra for the cable channels that include the Discovery Channels and History Channels and a few others of a similar nature. Most of the content on these channels I find facinating and they allow me to explore a variety of subjects that I find interesting and wish to know more about. It can even inspire new interest in a topic I would not have ordinarily have been interested in.

I am also guilty of watch a few dramas on the big networks. I do love a good mystery or puzzle to solve. Even if the circumstances surrounding the mystery are completely unrealistic and make the story a little cheesy. What CSI invesitgators actually do interrogations etc... However I do like following the science they use in the scrpit to solve a puzzle. I am still a fan of Magnum PI. I do love trying to solve the mystery before they do and it helps that Tom Selleck is a complete hottie! And of course, there is Law and Order. Some of the show is a little unrealistic, but I still love trying to solve the murder and following the 'Law' in order to get the conviction.

I also love a good movie. One that actually has a good story to tell. It is sad to see that most of the movies made over the last few years have been silly remakes of classic movies. They even have gone so far as to butcher classic story lines in favor of the technological marvels of special effects. Sometimes TV is the only place to go inorder to indulge myself with a good ole' classic movie where great actors acted upon great scripts with a story that would keep you glued to the silver screen.

I beleive that television is similar to the 'Force'. It can either be used for Good or Evil - 'the dark side'. TV has such a great potential for good, that it is disheartening to see it turn to 'the dark side'. It is creating a generation of couch potatoes and TV junkies - people whose main topic of conversation over the water cooler is what happened last night on 'Survivor'.

So I think I'll stick to my Discovery Channels, classic movies and few dramas and leave the rest of TV for those who wish to numb their minds and drool for a while every night before bed. Which I think might actually be the point for some people, sometimes.