American Television - Not so hot for being a global leader. Can't we do better?
Since I've been in such a grumpy mood lately I might as well take a whack at my most cherished and perhaps the most deserved whipping boy of all whipping boys, American Television. If ever there was an example that supported that old (paraphrased) adage, 'Bigger is not always Better', it would be American Television.
Now, before I start flogging away, I want to freely admit that I'm shooting drowsy fish in a barrel. This criticism is in NO way heavy lifting. But I'm feeling lazy and as I've said, I'm grumpy, so I want to rag on someone or something that doesn't take a lot of thought or effort. And, as I happened to be watching television the other night (please, don't tell anyone) it struck me that I should comment on what should have been a feast for viewers, but what we got were scraps, warm-ups. leftovers and a few old stale recipes reworked to appear fresh and new. How sad. And what makes all this even worse is if you consider the assets that are available to American producers. I mean we are it when it comes to television - there's no one that even comes close to us. We invented the damn thing, the rest of the world follows us. So is this the best we can do?
However as bad as it may be, and it's pretty bad; the real question is who's to blame. As much as I enjoy ragging on the establishment I'm having trouble laying this on their doorstep. I think we can all agree that it's easier to sell things people want to buy, rather than to convince them to buy something we want to sell... and that's exactly what television does. It gives us what we want. If we wanted Grand Opera or serious international news or even thought provoking well acted dramas, that's exactly what we would get. The networks (cable and broadcast) are in the business of giving us what we want, not what they or anyone else thinks would be good for us. There is a reason MacDonald's' doesn't serve tofu burgers and alfalfa sprout salads - No one wants them.
Why isn't Masterpiece Theater on network television? Why is NOVA on PBS rather than Fox? How many people care about the makeup of the Universe when they can watch some New Jersey Housewives acting like middle-age tramps, snarling at one anther while they spray their hair and butcher the English Language. Or how about some young guy juggling a chain saw and three milk bottles while chanting some rap anthem and mugging to the audience. "Vote for me, please.... Aren't I entertaining you here and keeping your mind off any and all things that require you to think? Man, I'm working hard here, I need your vote so I can come back next week and do something even more inane."
What television does really well is sell product and services. That is where the money comes from otherwise everything on the air or cable is PBS, and even they have been forced to accept advertising funding to stay afloat.
So having thought this around in a circle I come to the conclusion that we are getting exactly what we want and what we deserve. This is like you or me walking into a huge restaurant with a menu the size of the Oxford English Dictionary and being told that we can have anything we want. Do we order a meal made for us by a classically trained chef from the freshest ingredients or de we order a cheeseburger and a side of fries? Nine times out of ten we go for the cheeseburger. Hey, nothing wrong with cheeseburgers, anyone that knows me knows that I like cheeseburgers a lot.... Actually I like them a lot more than I should and that's like us and television. We all seem to like cheeseburger shows. They're easy to watch and they're tasty. The variety is minimal but we don't seem to mind that there are three CSI shows running along with two NCIS shows and God knows how many Law and Orders. Television works on the principal that if we like one cheeseburger we're bound to like two or three more as long as we add a pickle or an extra slice of ersatz cheese.
Now this might be more palatable but I ask you, how many real Crime Scene Investigators go to a crime scene with a gun strapped around their waist? How many crime laboratories are cast in a deep, dark blue neon light that creates more of a Gentleman's Club (Oxymoron?) atmosphere than a place where science, rather than a lap dance is being performed? How many Crime Scene Investigators look like their jeans (all black of course) were spray painted on? Geeeeeze, I have nothing against attractive women but do they all need to look so.... well, attractive. Aren't there any homely, or at least plain young women that want to be Crime Scene Investigators? I guess not. And those little flashlights! How can they walk into a nearly pitch black room where a gruesome crime was committed with no light but from a little, tiny, pinpoint flashlight. Aren't they afraid they'll step on something like a finger or some other body part they didn't see because they're walking around in the dark. Can't they afford big flashlights?
So I will return to my earlier question, 'Is this really the best we can do?'
The answer unfortunately is, yes I think it is. As long as we want, actually demand, cheeseburgers there is no imaginable reason for anyone to give us Prime Rib. Sure, once in awhile we want to enjoy something that was perfectly prepared and enriches us. Those offerings are out there and we can have them, only, not very many of us want them as a steady diet. So, if you are an advertiser and want to sell a car, a soft drink, a dish soap or a brand of beer, you don't place your advertisements on a travelogue or a nature show, you want America's Got Talent, The Closer, or Big Brother.....
On occasion there comes a show or two that can crossover and deliver something that shines and sparkles despite being able to reach a mass audience. These offerings although rare, should show us that we can require quality programming that doesn't need to be dry or overly high-brow. Until we learn to expect diversity and a modicum of thoughtfulness in programs and demand more than a pair of tight jeans and a pretty face mouthing lines from a hackneyed script that relies more on saucy body parts, both from the victims and the investigators, then we are doomed to be pleasantly entertained by the same old fare we've been wolfing down for decades.
There is nothing wrong with being entertained and perhaps that is what television was made for.... We make silly and unbelievable characters for our kids in cartoons and that's how cartoons should be... But we don't stay kids forever and while we may still enjoy watching cartoons when we get older, shouldn't we want to mix our cartoons up with some adult programming once-in-a-while?
Well having stated the obvious for a few pages I think I'll stop before I really write something that's really stupid. Trouble with writing is you can't say I was misquoted or "That's not at all what I said!" That's why politicians don't write very much....
Having lived or worked in a large number of other countries, I will close by admitting that despite our short comings, we do television better than anyone else by miles and miles. And yet we are such underachievers and I wish we could look away from the glitter and demand the real deal.... And the truth is they will give us anything that we want... That's what they're there for.
Anyway, tonight I will recheck my listings and see if there is anything I can watch without getting mad or falling asleep. I will cross my fingers.