Friday, September 13, 2013


There was a time in my life (ages 6-15) when the most exciting day of the year was the arrival of the "Fall Preview" issue of TV Guide. No matter how lousy my home or school lives were, I could always hold out hope that a new primetime schedule would somehow change my life for the better. There seemed to be enough cancellations each year to make room for programs that finally, finally were going to prove Newton Minnow's "vast wasteland" comment a lie. That most of the cancelled programs had premiered only the season before made no difference. This time the geniuses who ran the three networks (Three! It seems charming now) were going to earn their salary, and that absolutely no series would get the ax. It never occurred to me that if this miracle were to happen, the "Fall Preview" issue -- my Bible, Torah, Koran and Great Expectations rolled into one -- would be moot.

This would be like a current network series
Gérard Depardieu, Michael Caine and
George Clooney.  Hey, I smell a movie franchise!
Yet even at a young age I knew something was very wrong in Televisionland. Because within six weeks of the premieres I would realize things were no better than they were before. Why, I would wonder, can't every show be as funny as Dick Van Dyke? Or Why is it that the few critically-acclaimed shows -- That Was The Week That Was, Run For Your Life, The Rogues -- get cancelled so quickly?  It didn't take long to realize that most people who watched TV were bottom feeders. Even I Spy -- a series with both a high pedigree and something of a following -- ran only three years. Gilligan's Island outlasted it by one year. It would have run much longer (I believe it was consistently in the Top 10) if the people running CBS hadn't been so embarrassed by it. (Yes, there was a time when networks were embarrassed by their product.) Gilligan's Island was constantly moved around the schedule, with the hope that people would finally give up on it. Yet like a pack of well-trained hunting dogs, viewers always found its prey. Finally tiring of the critics' nasty comments, the network nuked the island for no reason other than shame.
This guy went to Harvard.

Shame. Has any commercial network felt anything remotely like that in the years since? Jeff Zucker, NBC's former boy wonder, admitted in so many words that pride had no place at the peacock network. For the first time, a network head stated that he didn't care about ratings -- for him, it was all about the profit. And the quickest way to make a profit was to produce cheap "reality" programming where you didn't have to pay unnecessary people like actors and writers. Talk about your dreams coming true -- in no time, NBC was in sixth place behind Univision, the Spanish-language network. The Tao of Zucker had worked. NBC was making money while becoming a bottom-feeder itself. (He's currently working his magic at CNN, which is receiving ratings roughly a quarter of Fox News'. Atta boy, Jeff. Keep up the good work and you'll be behind MSNBC in no time!)

But can Carson Daly place a candle
atop a cake without knocking it over?
Still, Zucker's legacy remains at NBC. Concerned that the news isn't real enough, Today will now feature DJ and television "personality" Carson Daly -- the J. Fred Muggs of the 21st century -- reading Twitter and Facebook postings aloud just so you don't have to. In addition, he'll be video-chatting with viewers. Daly's net worth is said to be $15-million. Remember that the next time you're reading stuff online and talking with your friends on the phone.

If you've ever wondered how far "reality" programming would devolve, all you need to do is read a piece published earlier this week on the Deadline:Hollywood site: 

Bravo Media has greenlighted limited half-hour unscripted series The People’s Couch to air Sundays at 11:30 PM on October 6, October 13 and October 20. Based on the UK show, Gogglebox, The People’s Couch features real people watching and commenting on popular shows and news from the past week. The series will focus on the Fall television season by showcasing avid TV watchers in their homes, as they laugh, cry, talk, gasp, and scream at their TVs watching the network’s new and returning shows.  
Man, does this look like appointment-television.

To put it another way, people at home will watch a TV show about people watching TV at home. This isn't meta. This is uber-meta. Meta-meta. You can be sure that if it's successful -- and if The Biggest Loser, a series about fat people losing weight is a hit, why wouldn't this be? -- the initial three-episode run will expand in the spring for 13 episodes, followed by a 26-week pick-up in the fall. 

Continuing with the Deadline:Hollywood piece, The People’s Couch is a funny, unfiltered comment on America’s current TV viewing habits,” said Bravo’s VP development Lara Spotts. "Funny"? I'd go with "sad." And as for "unfiltered" -- that's why we have a Brita water filter: so we don't have to consume the gunk. 

Bravo, if you haven't guessed, is owned by NBC. We have seen the wasteland and it is in living color, HD and stereo sound.


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