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Thursday, August 5, 2010

American Idle: Adventures in TV Land

by Thomas Delapa

If you want to seriously study the sick state of TV in the age of Fox News, reality shows and infomercials, spend a few days semi-conscious in a hospital bed.

Some 50 years ago, Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow controversially declared television to be a “vast wasteland.” That was when TV was limited to three monolithic national networks. Today, Minow’s diagnosis is no less grim, especially with the metastasizing growth of cable channels into a hundred-headed Hydra monster.

Like a reclined, reluctant tourist in Dante’s Hell, I descended into TV land, armed only with a remote control to temporarily zap the devilish dross I bore witness to. While no one can argue that network TV of the fifties was heaven on Earth, at least the networks sought to edify audiences with such notable dramatic series as Playhouse 90 and Studio One. Where have all the quality dramatic shows gone? A nation turns its lonely, bleary eyes to you, HBO.

In a bloodshot reflection of our splintered society, there’s seemingly a cable channel and program for every interest group, bias, demographic, and gender, all ubiquitously interrupted by a rising tide of noisy commercials. One of the original promises of cable was the absence of advertisements, but that pledge has long been canceled, and is unlikely to ever return in re-runs. Against the swamp of commercialism, PBS remains a lonely oasis of arts and educational fare, despite a notable drop in original content. While the History Channel is a source of informative, if sensationalized, factoid films, the Animal Planet has viciously regressed, devolving the nature documentary into when-animals-attack Darwinism.

Of course, there’s no better advertisement for America’s post-Reagan social Darwinism than the reality show, TV’s version of the Roman bread and circuses—hold the bread. In fact, there’s very little that’s “real” about these spectacles, whether the contrived settings, manipulated action or the exhibitionist participants themselves, who are pre-selected for potential on-camera ballistics. Voyeurism and exhibitionism go hand in hand on these (sur)reality shows, exposing our perverse fixation with the biggest winners of the great American game—as well as its biggest losers.

The only news about cable news is how the 24/7 format serves to both magnify and distort whatever news there is, however trivial or lurid, and often to paranoid extremes. With Fox News, MSNBC and the pioneering CNN now in ratings competition, the battle isn’t for old-school journalistic scoops anymore, but how to out-spin the other with the loudest mouths. On the feverishly right-wing Fox, a scary parade of dolled-up blond pundits march in lockstep with Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, et al., dishing out snide, cynical barbs at anything remotely liberal, intellectual or Obaman. This drone of negativity is best exacerbated when accompanied by a simplistic video prop, like the endlessly repeated disaster-cam shot of the gushing BP oil well, bleeding black gunk in the Gulf of Mexico and killing all those poor pelicans. At no point during the catastrophe did any of Fox’s slick commentators remind us of Sarah Palin’s campaign cry to “Drill, baby, drill.”

Crude is only one of the words that come to mind for most of cable-TV. Outside of the “premium” HBO (which produced the superb John Adams mini-series), the erratic AMC (home to the Emmy-winning Mad Men) and Turner Classic Movies, the small screen’s big picture is a blur of re-runs, inane game shows, old movies, cartoons, semi-pornographic music videos, televangelists, infomercials and, of course, an exhaustively wide world of sports and pseudo-sports, including NASCAR, martial-arts cage matches, and high-stakes poker—my bet as the nerdiest of televised non-events. The Bravo channel, which once merited applause for high-brow fare, has even dumbed down, going gaga for a Lady Gaga photo shoot.

Dazed and discontented viewers may well ask who took the “vision” out of television. It’s become our national id, where egos rule. For every great show like The Simpsons, there are a hundred Hell’s Kitchens or Wipeouts. But in an increasingly insular, bored, home-theater society that wants its TV and MTV, nobody today is yelling “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going take this anymore.” Resistance seems programmed to fail. Like Chauncey Gardiner, the numbed voyeur of Being There, Americans like to watch.


Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 8/4/10

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