The Future of Television

I hate to say this, but television has been a major part of my life.  I like to picture myself as a well-read bookworm, but on average I’ve spent more time glued to the boob tube than flipping pages.  And I’m quite sure I’ve spent more time being totally attentive to the television than I have been to my friends, or even my wife and family.  But hey, my wife has no reason to get in a snit when she reads this remark because she watches three times more television than I do.  I should be jealous.

Television is mental masturbation.  Television is a great date for the lonely.  Television makes a boring life exciting.  Television can bring people together, like how American Idol gets so many people talking to each other during their nine to five days, but on the other hand, 200 cable channels tends to isolate us all into tiny special interest groups.  However, television at it’s best, can be artistic and create memorable characters that are featured prominently in our mind’s album of cherished memories.

Think about it.  How many stories can you tell about your family and friends each year at the Christmas dinner table?  And how many stories can you tell about your favorite video friends and family.  I can remember more about Dobie Gillis or Joel Fleischman than many of my cousins.  It’s sad, but true.

Television is changing, and pundits are worried about the future of television, like a recent article in Time Magazine, “Jay Leno Is the Future of TV.  Seriously.”   NBC finds creating five new shows for the final hour of primetime so expense that it’s giving the whole Monday to Friday week in that time slot to Jay Leno.  I find that rather sad, because that’s five possible shows that won’t live in our future memories.  That’s five cast of characters that the lonely of America in 2009-2010 won’t get to fall in love with.  That’s five chances NBC is giving up at creating a memorable show that will go down in TV history.

Strangely enough, NBC and myself have both chosen to go retro this new Fall Season.  They see the new Jay Leno show as an old fashion variety show, and I would applaud that if it’s true, but if it’s just a new timeslot for Jay Walking, I’m going to be greatly disappointed.  I’ve never really cared that much for the late night talk shows – famous people aren’t famously interesting.  Celebrities are only fascinating when they play great characters.  ER or Law & Order are vastly more valuable to popular culture than pretty faces pitching their latest projects.  Hell, I’d even prefer watching Lipstick Jungle or Medium to seeing a soon to be forgotten movie star struggle to be personally captivating between “Let’s take a break” interruptions of late night televised chit-chats.

Me, I’m going retro by ditching cable TV and my DVR.  I’ll have to watch my favorite shows when they are on and with all their glorious commercials.  Who knows, maybe high definition has improved the ads.  My new working hypothesis that I’m testing, is real time is the way God intended people to watch television.  Okay, I am going to cheat some, and watch TV like the Devil, time-shifted on DVD.  If there’s nothing to watch in primetime real time, I’m going to whip out Netflix and watch TV shows from once upon a time.  What will happen if NBC and the other networks give up on producing dramas and comedies?  I won’t have anything to watch in future years on Netflix.

When it comes to television I love nothing better than a new show that gets me excited for next week’s episode.  The 2009-2010 television lineup shows little promise to being a promising TV season, but I’ve got The Big Bang Theory and Lost to look forward to each week.  The most appealing new shows that I will tune into to see on the opening weeks are Cougar Town, FlashForward, The Forgotten and The Good Wife.  I don’t know if any of these shows will be DVD worthy in the future, but I’ve got to hope.  Shows like Northern Exposure, Star Trek and Lost were wonderfully unexpected surprises.  And once in a decade, we’ll get a show like Freaks and Geeks, and feel like Frank Capra directed Clarence the Angel to bless us with something special.

Television, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect, especially in the world of Art.  Future scholars will pen vast academic libraries about the novels and films of the twentieth century, and shelves of books on music.  But how much intellectual cud chewing will be spent on TV?

If you scan the grid on your cable TV, and contemplate each listing you see, ask whether or not it will get the DVD treatment, or even be repeated even once in future years?  Most of the shows on television are like the shows from the early days of TV, when stations televised just about any kind of crap to fill the time slot and sell commercials.  For every half-hour of Leave it to Beaver there’d be eons of time spent on fishing, wrestling, talent parties, or local hopefuls hoping the road to stardom begins by talking to hand-puppets.  Do you see any of those shows on DVD for sale at Target?

Television really is a vast wasteland, and we’re all thirsty travelers hoping to find an hour of video oasis.  TV is really only worth watching if it’s also worthy of reprinting on DVD.   Anything not DVD-worthy is either news, sports, games, reality, talk and other ephemeral broadcasts that will be forgotten soon after the next show starts.  And because of the zillion cable channels, with their divided audiences and tiny revenue, it gets harder and harder for future television producers to afford to create memorable, DVD-worthy shows.  The best TV shows created today are from HBO and ShowTime, networks that have the gold filled purses to be patrons of TV Art.

The future of television appears to be the Home and Garden Network, or The Food Network, or even The Comedy Channel and The Cartoon Network.  If these new venues for the American mind ever produce a hit that shows up on Netflix I might give them a try, but I don’t think it’s likely.  And I don’t expect everyone to be like me.  There are hordes of people turning away from cable TV, but I doubt it’s a popular groundswell.  I wish it would be.  If all the money, time and talent spent on producing 200+ channels of television were spent on just 12 networks, television would be written about as much as renaissance Florence.

JWH – 9/7/9

4 thoughts on “The Future of Television”

  1. I’ve had the free digital option for about 3 months now and the only thing I’ve missed so far is not being able to watch Monday Night Football. And if I really want to get that fix I can always go over to a friend’s house. I’m looking forward to the return of Fringe and House, but that is pretty much the extent of my ‘real time’ television watching. My love of television via DVD has grown exponentially over the last year. We’ve spent the summer watching all the available seasons of How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang theory, Foyle’s War, Hornblower…episodes of Brisco County Jr., Poirot, All Creatures Great and Small, Ballykiss Angel, The IT Crowd…

    Right now we are rewatching Firefly. I love viewing television in this manner.

    I actually wish American TV would adopt a more British approach, making a lot of short season shows. They seem to have the ability to do shows with short runs and high production values that are dramatic, funny, etc. You care about the characters, enjoy the show, and yet are not tied down to 22 or more episodes that wax and wane in quality.

    I don’t hold out much hope for the Leno show. Seeing the guest list and commercials for the first show, last night, made it look like the same old Leno.

  2. i have to say that i hardly watch tv i used to but then now i think whats the point of wasting your time on watching tv there is really no point. now i think getting your homework is really important.!!!!

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