Dialing in a Bland TV Landscape

Jun 2, 2003  •  Post A Comment

So television’s going to be more like radio now. Gosh, that’s swell. Let’s have a little dancing in the streets, because this is no small accomplishment-finding a means to make TV worse, I mean. It’s a helluva way to regulate our national medium, but then the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t regulate much anymore, it deregulates. It’s the DFCC.

Radio is ahead of television in one important area: squeezing as many commercial minutes as possible into an hour of airtime. Radio is an embarrassment of pitches. So is TV, but there’s always work to be done, research to be conducted, the endless quest to find more ways to embed more ads, even if you have to tuck ’em into nooks and crannies of the screen or electronically speed up the program content, thereby shrinking it by a few more precious seconds.

Amble down the old radio dial and you get a discouraging glimpse of television’s possible future once FCC Chairman Michael Powell gets his way, as all indicators say he will, and media ownership rules are relaxed to the point of zip. Let’s see now-you got your hard rock, you got your semi-hard rock, you got your alternative rock, you got your alternative-to-alternative rock, you got your alternative to alternative-alternative rock, you got seven country-Western stations, seven Hispanic stations, seven oldies stations-oh, and if you’re very very lucky and live in a really enormous urban megaloctoplex, one classical station.

Also, way down at the far left end of the dial, coincidentally enough (or not), a lonely little public radio station, where three or four times a year all programming is suspended for the round-the-clock listener abuse of fund raising. Our federal government, which is largely responsible for the benumbing sameness of radio’s palette, supports public broadcasting less and less, as if on a mission to eliminate one more choice for listeners, one way to escape the commercial cacophony.

In the quickie interviews that potentate Powell has granted in recent days, he robotically declared that the rules restricting concentration of ownership predate such developments as cable TV, satellite TV and the Internet. Yes, the Internet. Somehow the rise of the Internet means there’s no longer a need for diversity in television. Powell isn’t the sort to let elementary logic cloud his ideological obsessiveness.

If he’s going to include the Internet as justification for killing the rules, he might as well include Game Boys, PlayStations and X-Boxes. And DVDs and maybe even plasma screens; after all, viewers now have many more pixels to choose from than they used to.

Sudden format changes

America doesn’t want or need television that resembles radio more than it already does. Telltale signs abound even now-overnight format changes being one of them. It seems like ages ago that TNN was The Nashville Network, but it was only a couple of years. Then on an impulse the network’s identity was jettisoned by the corporate owner and TNN became a lot like USA, aimed at young, urban, easily amused and seemingly unemployed males. Now it’s undergoing another hasty transformation to become Spike TV-yes, “Spike,” apparently in honor of what is hoped will happen to the ratings. Elsewhere on the dial, the nearly overnight metamorphosis of AMC from a cheering source of uninterrupted and uncut classic movies into a junk shop of cruddy stuff from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s was, as has been noted here before, one of the dirtiest double-crosses in cable history.

I can still remember an AMC spokeswoman confidently assuring me that the newly instituted commercial breaks would be limited to one dainty little intermission per film. Well, not quite. It turns out they are limited to one intermission per, say, 10-minute block. The films are so chopped up, they bring to mind Johnny Carson as Art Fern hosting Tea-Time Movie, which was nine-tenths commercial spiels and one-tenth unintelligible footage.

But the moving finger writes, and having writ, makes a distasteful gesture-right in the public’s face.

And now, as Walter Cronkite used to say, I would like to inject a personal note. To raise money for college when I was in late adolescence (which I hope to graduate from any year now), I worked at the local radio station in my hometown. Most of the energy there was directed toward the AM side, with commercials jammed in mercilessly between records. The FM side was so neglected, producing little revenue as it did, that I and a few like-minded pals at the station could goof around with it, experiment (too lofty a term, really) and try to be wacky or original in our own humble ways.

We could just invent shows and formats on a whim, and when I got the Sunday shift, I decided to do an hour at 3 p.m. called Music for a Lazy Afternoon. Except for Tony Bennett’s recording of Lazy Afternoon at the opening (a Bobby Hackett instrumental of the song was the close), there were no vocals programmed, no words at all-only instrumentals of a peaceful, euphoric sort. Not elevator music but light classics plus lush pop. To open the show, I always told listeners that we wouldn’t be offended if they were asleep before it ended. In fact, we’d be flattered.

OK, not a great idea, but something a little different.

For years afterward I was plagued by dreams of being on duty at the station and not having any records on the turntable or commercials on tape-essentially a variation on the actor’s dream of being onstage and not knowing lines. So one year during a trip home I included a visit to the station, hoping to banish the dream. I banished a dream in more ways than one. The FM side was neglected no more; it had been turned profitable in the intervening years, mainly by completely automating. Huge reel-to-reel tapes of bland music prepackaged elsewhere by a national syndicator turned slowly, occasionally stopping for the mechanical insertion of commercials. The whole operation, AM and FM, had been taken over by a big corporation with no local ties and no local interest other than selling local advertising.

For me, it was a sad epiphany-and a symbol of what was happening to radio across the country. You can imagine how eagerly I look forward now to having it happen to television. The old recurring dream did indeed go away, but a nightmare replaced it.