The Ruminator: Cable’s promise unfulfilled

Mar 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

I want to take you back to the 1970s, when we first heard about the new frontier in television: Cable TV. Oh, it started with such noble intentions. There was even talk of commercial-free TV. CBS and William Paley talked about the arts and came up with what may still be the best, most ambitious TV project ever: CBS Cable. It lasted five minutes and lost a gazillion dollars. Ted Turner acted like Marshall McLuhan and talked about linking countries. Sports of all kinds, such as soccer’s World Cup, would be brought to you from start to finish. That was then.
Past and present
This is now. Cable TV averages more commercials than broadcast TV, and because it has so much inventory and the viewership levels are so low, most programming seems to scream, “Call in for this special offer of 700 pounds of orange cleaner for $29.95.” Lifetime is numero uno in the cable universe, but more people on average watch WNBC-TV in New York during prime time.
The Ruminator has already talked about the junk news on MSNBC, CNN and the Fox News Channel. When Greta Van Susteren’s facelift got her the cover of People, you’d think America might have actually known what she looked like in the `before’ picture.
Now let’s get to the real outrage of cable 2002. It’s become a dumping ground. Repurpose? More like repugnant. It’s one thing to see “Law & Order” or “CSI” running in prime cable time on A&E or TNN. But now, after losing “Law & Order,” A&E is going to rerun ABC’s daytime gabfest “The View” at 7 p.m. and again in late-night. That’s right-Wednesday night you can catch Meredith, Star, Lisa, Joy and Barbara chatting about what happened on Tuesday. How’s that for great Must See TV? And we can’t just worry about “The View,” because we now know NBC is getting ready to regurgitate-oops, excuse me, repurpose-Conan O’Brien’s show on Comedy Central. Carson Daly’s late-night NBC effort almost did not happen earlier this year because the network wanted it to be ah, repurposed on “E!” which led to a one-day contract dispute with “TRL’s” main man.
For the three of us who watch MSNBC at a certain hour, there’s the suffering through a radio show shot with three cameras as Don Imus shows why he has a face for radio. And there all we see is repurposed material. Even before the “Today” show’s third hour is over, Chris Jansing is showing Matt and Katie’s interviews done minutes before on NBC’s morning show. No wonder curling at the Olympics gave MSNBC its best ratings of the year.
Where, oh where, is the FCC?
Yes, cable does do some original programming, But honestly, would Lifetime be so popular today without reruns of “The Golden Girls”? And the list goes on: Take Court TV or myriad other cable networks-they’ve made a name for themselves mainly using the names of network reruns and castoffs. And Viacom has made TNN a player by getting cable’s No. 1 highbrow attraction-WWF wrestling-as its prime ratings grabber. The executives who run Lifetime, Court TV, TNN and the rest of the entertainment channels on cable TV have nothing to apologize for. They are in the business of making money.
But where is the Federal Communications Commission? Broadcasting and cable TV are now basically unregulated businesses. There are no demands. Thus has gone the onetime nobility of cable’s promise. Even HBO, a premium commercial-free service featuring some very bold shows and even better made-for-HBO movies, seems to soil itself with all those sex programs it shows aimed at only one thing-getting viewers.
We all know our TV war chant, courtesy of Bruce Springsteen: 500 stations and nothing to watch. Part of the reason is cable TV has failed to offer anything to see, and as the financial squeeze continues to strangle broadcast TV, the question is where will cable get its future “Golden Girls” and “Law & Orders”? Maybe it will repurpose some really old shows from 20 and 30 years ago. Oh, I forgot, Nick at Night and TV Land are already doing just that.
Thank the Lord for TiVo and the WWF. Hey, FCC chief Michael Powell, do you ever watch this stuff? I guess not. In the ’60s, one of your predecessors, Newton Minow, called TV a “Vast wasteland.” Imagine what old Newt thinks of cable 2002.