Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Too many choices-that’s what one psychological scholar says is a factor in more and more people becoming depressed and confused in today’s society. We have too many choices in superficial and frivolous things like breakfast foods and automobiles and not only television programs but television channels. No wonder we have a chronic communal case of angst in the pangst.
You should pardon the expression.
(It seems we’re always asking you to pardon expressions around here. Sorry-and pardon the expression “pardon the expression,” will you?) The issue at hand is not elegance of expression nor even too many choices, but a related phenom that also contributes to neurosis, frustration and most of all uncertainty. What is it? Conveniently enough, it is uncertainty, which has spread throughout television like “reality” (and there’s an expression that really needs pardoning).
Once television was as dependable as Big Ben or Old Faithful or hot air in Washington. Some of us can remember an era when a chime sounded precisely and unerringly on the hour and a live announcer said, “This is the CBS Television Network.” Now, to cite a couple of examples, Turner’s TBS or GE’s NBC will start shows a minute before the hour to get a jump on the competition and confuse the hell out of the audience. And Lord knows “60 Minutes” has never lasted exactly “60 Minutes.”
Few things are reliable anymore, including whether that certain new show will air Friday night as scheduled. Networks now commit a sin they would never have dreamed of committing as few as 10 years ago: changing a schedule after TV Guide has gone to press. Ladies and gentlemen, proof positive that nothing is sacred.

Cable TV is to blame, of course. It’s to blame for so much that is bad and not quite so much that is good. When it started, it was run by fast-buck wheeler-dealers whose interest in television went no further than dollars and cents. They might as well have been in the aluminum siding business or peddling weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. They were in cable only because it was rumored to be the latest thing in money-printing machines.
None of the finer standards that had been established over decades by conscientious broadcasters (and there were some, and still are) mattered to the new cable hustlers, including that quaint and precious practice of limiting commercial breaks to, say, two minutes. O, droll notion! Down-you should again pardon the expression-the toilet it goes. All bets are off and many civilized limits are off too.
Very little is safe and dependable, including a station’s format. In this regard, TV has become radio. The soft-rock-of-the-early-’80s format isn’t working? Bang, it’s gone, and Monday morning starts heavy-metal-of-the-late-’90s with a wham and a bam but without so much as a thank you, ma’am. Take Game Show Network-it was going to be a network of, logically enough, nothing but game shows, old as well as new. Now the management of GSN or whatever it ends up calling itself is getting restless, and a big fat upheaval is imminent.
The outrage of outrages in the dirty double-cross department is, of course, the cold-blooded switcheroo of what was once American Movie Classics and is now “AMC-TV for Movie People,” whatever the hell that means. Gone are the uninterrupted genuine classics of American cinema, replaced with more contemporary junk aimed at boomers’ babies. When in doubt, they have an Elvis Presley, James Bond or Three Stooges festival.
It was a political move with ulterior fiscal motives, but some of us still cheered when Time Warner Cable announced it was dropping AMC from its systems because the overnight format flip-flop amounted to a breach of contract. “We are confident we will win in the courts,” a smug AMC spokesman told the New York Daily News.
The desires and welfare of the viewers are never mentioned-though, sad truth be told, AMC’s ratings actually went up when it started showing lousier movies and butchering them. Over the years, the American public has been weaned off quality TV and conditioned to accept all manner of hapless trash instead. That must be the explanation, or part of it.
So what’s next? Already the History Channel has tossed out most of those stuffy old serious historical documentaries so it can air original productions like “The History of the Bikini” instead. MTV abandons music videos for smutty original programming, then at any moment may suddenly go back to music videos again. Court TV was going to show nothing but trials and now shows very few of them, filling the hours instead with reruns of fictional cases from the files of Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” shows.
Maybe this trend, like most bad ones, will invade broadcast networks too. CBS might suddenly decide to revert to its stix-pix hillbilly posture of the ’60s, while ABC might summon Aaron Spelling and Garry Marshall to make new versions of all those dreadful soaps and pea-brained comedies that once made the network a hit. And NBC might do the wildest turnabout of all and decide to opt for the quality drama and sophisticated comedy of the Grant Tinker & Brandon Tartikoff years. Wouldn’t that spin heads?
Clearly, change for the sake of change is the law of the land-Television Land-these days. You don’t like NBC’s Wednesday night lineup? Not to worry. Next week, it might be Fox’s Friday night lineup. NBC might supersize “Friends” to 46 minutes even as ABC downsizes “NYPD Blue” to 43 minutes minus commercials. One thing can be depended on: the new undependability of American commercial television.