Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Television is Broken

Once more, it's that fateful time of year when the major TV networks are preparing to announce their new programming lineups for the Fall season. As a number of my favorite shows sit tentatively perched “on the bubble,” as they say—facing the Logan's Run-style crap shoot between renewal and oblivion—it seems an appropriate time to ask:

What the hell is wrong with the networks? Why is it that they just don't seem to 'get it'?

This outstanding 3-part article from The Futon Critic explains the elements that go into a network's decision-making process, so I'm not going to re-hash that here. I know that speaking for myself, I am increasingly frustrated by the continuing abandonment of quality scripted series in favor of the reality TV series du jour.

I make no secret of my disdain for reality TV—I think it exploits the most base aspects of human behavior, and retards the evolution of human morality and decency for the entertainment of chicklet brains. Despite this animosity, however, I can see why the networks continue to abandon scripted series for reality TV offerings: they're cheap and profitable. Remember the 80's, when every other show was either a game show or a sitcom? Same thing. Why have to spend big bucks on fancy sets, location shooting, screenwriters, and actors' salaries when you can throw up a cheap set and recruit eager participants from the viewing public for nothing? From a purely business perspective--and let's not forget, the networks are businesses that need to earn revenue to survive just like any other--it makes perfect sense. On paper, at least.

In reality, though--pardon the pun--this practice is ultimately short-sighted, for three reasons.

First, every new series needs time to find its stride. It takes time and practice for actors and writers to really nail down characters and find the rhythm of the show. This is difficult enough to do during an entire first season, and damn near impossible in just a handful of episodes. Expecting a show to earn its keep by being an immediate hit right out of the gate is completely unrealistic, and yet, this is what the networks are doing more and more often. Some of the most popular and enduring programs in recent television history (like “Family Guy” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) would never have survived to become part of the American lexicon had they been subjected to the selection practices of today.

Second, by killing these shows "in the crib" (after just a few episodes), the networks actually encourage the very behavior that virtually ensures the failure of most new series. A growing number of people now take a "wait and see" attitude with fledgling shows, preferring to wait until a new series has established itself more firmly with a second season, rather than risk becoming attached to a new show only to have it pulled immediately. This results in a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy for the networks: people don't watch a show for fear that it'll fail in the ratings and be pulled, so the show fails in the ratings and gets pulled because people aren't watching it. It's madness, and it's a recipe for failure.

Third, just like the game shows and sitcoms mentioned above, reality TV will eventually run its course. People will get burned out on it. One day, the networks will go to rub the reality TV lamp for the umpteenth time, only the genie will not appear to grant their wishes, leaving them in a serious jam.

We saw a similar scenario unfold in the 80's, as the advent of cable TV nearly decimated the networks. The message couldn't have been more clear: people were burned out, they wanted more sophisticated programming, and were willing to pay to get it. We are on the cusp of a similar revolution with regard to the Internet and online content.

More and more artists are realizing the tremendous power and flexibility of publishing content online. As broadband access becomes ubiquitous, the Internet is becoming the place to go for artists of all stripes to share their creations with not only the viewing audience of a given network, but the entire world. If the networks don't abandon the archaic business model under which they currently operate and evolve one that embraces all media, the like newspapers before them, they will ultimately be doomed. It's just too bad that a lot of great shows will meet their end until then.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Nielsens Suck

In a recent podcast interview with, actor Brian Austin Green from "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" comments on the obsolescence of the Nielsen rating system. Just like his performance on TSCC, he nails it perfectly. This is a segment from that interview:

Let Madonna Adopt the World

Recently, Madonna was once again playing the charitable tourist in some south African shithole and, like any good tourist, decided to take home a souvenir—-a Malawian child. Not only did the mega-rich superstar tear herself away from Rodeo Drive and fly halfway around the world to throw a ton of cabbage into the corrupt sinkhole that passes for a local economy in Malawi, she also bestowed the ultimate blessing on one of their young: a chance to exchange a life of breathtaking poverty and suffering for one of unparalleled privilege as one of Madonna's growing multicultural brood.

Rather than be ecstatic about this, the government of this vacation hot spot is practically treating her like she is the captain of the Amistad, there to cart off a boatload of locals in chains. The audacity and stupidity of this is beyond measure. A child is better off just about anywhere except Malawi. Even if Madge was taking the kid for slave labor, a slave at Madonna's place would have a higher quality of life than anyone in Malawi, including the exalted Joseph Chigona, Registrar of the High Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal (the local yokel who is supposed to decide this case May 4). You know how I know? I checked. Like most everyone, I didn't have the first clue where the fuck Malawi was, so I looked it up. Let me share with you what I learned from Wikipedia about the beautiful Republic of Malawi:

“Malawi is among the world's least developed and most densely populated countries. The economy is heavily based in agriculture, with a largely rural population. The Malawian government depends heavily on outside aid to meet development needs, although this need (and the aid offered) has decreased since 2000. The Malawian government faces challenges in growing the economy, improving education, health care and environmental protection, and becoming financially independent. Malawi has several programs developed since 2005 that focus on these issues, and the country's outlook appears to be improving, with improvements in economic growth, education and healthcare seen in 2007 and 2008.

Malawi has a low life expectancy and high infant mortality. There is a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, which is a drain on the labor force and government expenditures, and is expected to have a significant impact on gross domestic product (GDP) by 2010.”

Enough said? Yes, little Mercy James Ciccone will probably be raised by nannies and servants who are also from foreign nations. She'll eventually be photographed by paparazzi getting hammered and doing embarrassing things in public. She might even leak night vision tapes of herself doing embarrassing things in private (a la Paris Hilton). And Madge will, no doubt, have filled her little empty skull with a bunch of goofy Kabbalah nonsense. In short, she'll be just like every other asshole child of some famous celebrity.

What she will also be is alive. She will never want for food, medicine, clothing or shelter. She will have around-the-clock access to the very best protection, medical care, and education that money can buy. She won't die needlessly of some totally preventable childhood disease, waste away from HIV/AIDS, or starve to death in some muddy shanty. That sounds like one hell of a bargain to me, and I can imagine a whole lot of poverty-stricken souls around the world who would pray to win that lottery ticket. I say let Madonna adopt the entire country of Malawi if she wants. It might undo some of the suffering she inflicted on the world with that “SEX” book.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Answering The Duke

In recent months, I've had this one thought that keeps creeping into my mind. (And yes, I have others in between, smartasses.) If John Wayne--the Duke, Cowboy of Cowboys--somehow returned among the living, he would probably have a lot of questions. Chiefly (to my mind, anyway), I think he would ask:

"What the HELL happened here?"

Now, while the Duke would no doubt be awed by laptop computers, plasma TVs and the iPhone, the above question would not be in reference to all of the marvelous technological advances that have appeared since his death in 1979. This question is about bigger, more fundamental things--namely, the overall social underpinnings of the United States, the country he so loved. How would you answer his query? My answer goes something like this.

Well, sir, as you know, when you left us in 1979, the country was just starting to settle down and regain its footing after two very contentious, tumultuous decades. The ripples from the social and political upheaval that marked those times are being felt to this day, with ramifications both good and bad.

One of these is a phenomenon that some have dubbed, "the femenization of America." Now, by "femeniztion," I don't mean men are all running around dressed in drag. Well, okay, some are, but those folks were doing that already behind closed doors. I am referring to our overall values as a nation, a landmark shift in the American cultural zeitgeist toward the feminine mindset.

Let me be the first to say that I don't view this as an entirely bad thing, not by a long shot. For one thing, a man in Hollywood can be named Marion, and no one would bat an eyelash. Maybe this is 20/20 hindsight, but men needed a little bit of softening around the edges. We have learned to listen better (a little), value our partners more outside of the home and the bedroom, and express ourselves with something other than our fists. I think this is a good thing, I think it has made the country stronger, and as the man who once said, "I won't be wronged, I won't be insulted, and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them," I think you might agree.

Not all of these changes have been positive, however. In my opinion, adopting a more femenized mindset has also been downright detrimental to our values and our strength as a nation. Compassion has become more important than justice. Feelings have become more important than truth. Safety has become more important than fun. Preserving fairness has become more important than achieving results. Notions of right and wrong, good and bad, have been supplanted by the overriding mandate to make nice and get along with others.

The foreseeable consequences of this flawed thinking are self-evident. A social fabric woven of such defective thinking is about as stable and durable as a wet paper towel. Now that you've returned to us, Mr. Wayne, maybe you can encourage the cultural pendulum to swing the other direction a bit--enough to shake us out of this milieu of muddled thinking, but not so far that we lose the good that we've done. If anyone can do it, sir, it's you.

How would YOU answer the Duke's question?