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A BIG, BEAUTIFUL MEDIUM ABOUT NOTHING

Feb 23, 2004  •  Post A Comment

That no good deed goes unpunished is a truism. It’s also getting to look-in the omnivorous and insatiable 500-channel universe we live in-as if no bad idea goes unproduced.
It’s wonderfully ironic, in a dismal sort of way, that HDTV is coming along just as television runs out of things worth looking at. Browse the prime-time schedule some night and ask yourself if you really want to see this stuff more clearly. And wider, much wider. Widening sounds like a dubious boon, unless you’re talking about football or basketball or anything else done on a large rectangle.
HDTV will be like color TV was and just-plain TV before that; when it’s new, people will be thrilled to see anything on it-trees, birdies, flowers, old National Geographic documentaries. Eventually, the thrill will wear off and we’ll realize we’re pretty much back where we started, except that we can see where the actors’ makeup ends and where their aging, mottled flesh begins. It’ll be a boon to Botox sales in Hollywood, where they must already be pretty good.
Meanwhile as we await the arrival of this latest technological marvel, television seems tentative, halting, at a vague crossroads, in a Bermuda Triangle of its own-pulled one way by the future and another by the past. Fox says the whole idea of a TV season is out of date while other networks talk about killing the sweeps and maybe tinkering with the idea of a 22-week season, opting for a replica of the British model: Do as many episodes as the material can reasonably justify.
But what happens to the syndication business? They can’t run “Seinfeld” reruns forever. Oh wait-yes they can. And apparently will.
Among the most endangered traditional concepts is the whole notion of permanence and the idea that it can any longer be a plausible goal. The great shows of the past ran 20, 30 years, numbers that seem impossible now, except for the daily franchises-morning shows and late shows-and the soaps. You have to wonder whether any future sitcom will challenge the long runs of “Frasier” and “Friends”-and those are old shows. New hit sitcoms are the hen’s teeth of the medium, though the networks pretend they have hits by lowering the bar down, down, down until a 10 share is a bonanza.
Occasional shows will get Super Bowl-size audiences, but only if we’re talking about the audience in the stadium, not the one watching at home on TV.
Cable is full of examples that prove permanence is no longer a workable concept. Not only do shows come and go at a dizzying pace, but networks might just reformat themselves overnight. You could go to sleep to the Furniture Repair Channel and wake to find it’s now the Kinky-Winky Network.
CNBC could stand for “Changing NBC” after all the programming and personnel alterations it’s gone through. Dennis Miller’s new series for the niche network-only nobody knows what niche it is-has existed for only about a month but already looks, as they say in that funny FedEx commercial, doomed! Irreverent old pro Steve Friedman has been called in to perform emergency surgery. Frankenstein needs a new brain.
Miller’s is kind of a news program and kind of a comedy program and fails at both. Is CNBC a news channel or a chat channel? The status practically changes hour to hour. Its daytime schedule is solid, of course; nighttime is the hazardous inner city where drive-by cancellations are rampant.
As someone old enough to remember when HBO began and wasn’t yet a 24-hour operation, I recall rather fondly the network’s Saturday morning programming: Jolly old records of band music played without interruption until noon, when the network signed on. It was nice. It was pleasant. So why not give up on the thankless task of reinventing CNBC and bring back that band music? It might get a 1 rating, which would be better than Miller does.
Miller’s is a news show produced by the entertainment division, but it’s probably too late to worry about the blurring of that line. Such closely observed values, once the laws of TV, have proved sadly temporal too. As the election nears, candidates will find that silly appearances with David Letterman and Jay Leno are just as mandatory, if not more so, than serious debates. Democracy at work.
At CNBC’s close corporate neighbor MSNBC, roads are similarly bumpy. On Monday night Erik Sorenson was on Linda Ellerbee’s report for Trio, “Feeding the Beast: The 24-Hour News Revolution,” and identified as president of MSNBC. By the next morning he no longer held that title. Rick Kaplan had been summoned back from the netherworld to come up with yet another new identity for the network, which has long since passed the multiple personalities in “The Three Faces of Eve.”
Television has assumed the helter-skelter, wildly transitory nature of radio and, appropriately, it’s growing less and less visual; the big cable networks have been taken over by talking heads, a category that includes shouting heads and blithering heads. It will be thrilling indeed when these heads are made clearer and wider by HDTV. But it probably won’t improve the quality of the blither.
And television, which used to be called radio with pictures when every American home still contained echoes from the old Philco console that piped out entertainment and information, will now be called-what? Radio with pictures you don’t need to look at? Yes, dear friends, we live in changing times, to coin a phrase. But I don’t want to live in changing times. I want to live in changed times. I want all the shaking-out to end so we can see what the hell kind of a system we’ve got.
Maybe times will never stop changing again.