Television has always been like some two-headed beast to me: one head benevolent and smart, the other terrifying and just plain old stupid.
In the beginning there were four networks: ABC, CBS, Dumont and NBC. And while there were local public stations they weren’t bound together by a network until the early 70’s. Dumont died in the late 40’s or early 50’s. Competition amongst the Big Three was fierce. The very best writers, producers, directors and actors were invited into the homes of millions of people every day and the quality was very high.
The infancy of television was at the same time as my infancy so we grew up together. However, I do remember some things from the early days like The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, and The Ed Sullivan Show. Captain Kangrooo and Soupy Sales were the biggest daily hits of my childhood. As a matter of fact, Captain Kangaroo was such a big deal and friend to me that the day they announced his death, I wept.
When I entered high school and college television played less a part in my life, although all through college I tried to never miss Dick Cavett every night. I was busy living my life, so there wasn’t much time for TV, and videotape and DVD recorders had not been invented yet. If you missed something you wanted to see, you hoped it would show up sometime in the summer when there was nothing on but reruns.
Even when video recorders did come out, my main interest was playing movies…I didn’t tape too much on-the-air material. But there was a pleasure in time-shifting; tape last night’s programs and watch them at a more convenient time, fast-forwarding through the commercials.
Then came cable television, preaching to all who would listen the coming advantages of 500 channels of programming to choose from. It sounded like paradise then, but that head of the monster came to life, and now we have 500 channels of very poor television. The beast is insatiable…it takes a lot of programs to fill all the time, and in the expansion, the Big Three have lost massive numbers of viewers due to the vast variety of what is being broadcast elsewhere. But just how good is it?
I do believe there are several good programs still on the air (these are my choices and this is my column, so you are free to disagree with me). To me, the very best program on TV today is CBS Sunday Morning. It is very civilized and high quality. I watch every segment with interest, and I like the way they portray people. There have been some celebrities featured that I had very little interest in until I saw a profile on them on Sunday Morning and was able to see and get to know their true persona.
Next, I like 60 Minutes. Like Sunday Morning it is a highly civilized and quality informative piece of TV that holds your interest. The way they shoot people so closely in interviews, you can see the ticks and twitches, and I feel that through the years I have been better able to identify people whether they are lying or telling the truth.
When it’s on I really like the adventure and human-nature of The Amazing Race. There is no question in my mind that it the very best of the reality programs. There is little wonder it wins in both the ratings and so many awards.
I have been a fan of David Letterman’s late-night show ever since it first appeared on NBC. This was the best use of recording a program and time-shifting it so I didn’t have to stay up until after midnight to watch it, until it moved to CBS. But I still record it every night, and I doubt have missed more than 25 shows through the 25-plus years he has had a regular after-hours program.
I have always had a fascination about how products are made, so I have enjoyed short series like How it’s Made, Factory Floor, and Ultimate Factories, usually on the Discovery channel.
But that pretty much does it. If I have some time to waste I will watch a game show called Cash Cab. The questions are trivia and general knowledge and are frequently difficult. It’s kind of fun to see if I can get the answer before the people in the New York City taxi do.
As networks go, PBS really does have some real quality programming, but even it has been dumbed down. There is also value in some of the networks dedicated to showing films of all eras.
It was announced Monday of last week that Nadya Suleman, the infamous Octo-Mom is getting a reality show soon, and Paris Hilton (will someone please tell her that her 15-minutes of fame were up a long time ago) is trying to get a new show but it has been reported she is making too many demands. Oh, please dear God, spare me from this torment.
Some of the current programming has me totally befuddled and confused. Why would I want to watch a show about the daily life of some bad boy that encourages his questionable behavior, or a has been, or woman who wants to go to bed with a rock star? So much of it revolves around the premise of who can be the biggest jerk.
With 500 channels I guess you have to fill the time up with something, but so much of it is inane material that appeals to the lowest common denominator of the viewing public. If what we see on the thing in the room that looks back at us with one giant eye is a reflection of us as a society, then we are in more trouble than I thought. The expansion of TV from what it once was diluted all that great talent from just a few places that has to be spread over a much wider field. When that happens, then what’s left is a hollow shell. I don’t believe television has ever really reached its potential, and with the way it’s going now, it probably never will. Thank God for recorders that allow us to view only what we want to watch, at a time and a place most convenient for us, and be able to filter out all the rest of the dregs and fodder.
This is why so many of my friends and acquaintances tell me they have taken up read again. As so many of them have said, “So many channels, so little that’s worth watching.”
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