When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
This was from Minnow's speech, "Television and the Public Interest." In it, Minnow argued that as the public airwaves were turned over to the broadcast networks (valuable radio spectrum), they had a public interest to provide a common culture that produced a broad, middle class sensibility with limits on what was acceptable and that the American public deserved better than what it got.
If Television was a "vast wasteland" in Minnow's time (1961, when he gave the speech), it is far worse today. The stupid game shows (this time on prime-time), unbelievable families (ABC's "Modern Family" and "Desperate Housewives") are still with us. But blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, are all pretty rare. "Miami Vice" had more memorable scenes of violence than what is seen today, which is mostly female-oriented boundary pushing in sex and relationships. CBS's "the Good Wife" plans a boundary pushing oral sex scene that along with various depictions of sex since the early 1990's, would have been impossible in Minnow's day.
Western bad men and Western Good Guys are of course, gone and long gone, from Television. As are private eyes and gangsters. Commercials now for Viagra and Extenze and Flow-Max push and then destroy the boundaries of good taste:
Minnow's wasteland now looks like, if not paradise, then a nice neighborhood fallen into ghetto despair. [Minnow's last name was used as the "S.S. Minnow" by TV producer Sherwood Schwartz in "Gilligan's Island."] Where you can see this effect the most, is the lack of any enthusiasm by anyone for the new Fall TV season.
It used to be, that TV networks would pump their Fall schedules in fairly massive publicity campaigns. As recently as five years ago, supermarket parking spaces were painted over with words "reserving" them for "Desperate Housewives," and supermarkets and drugstores had fairly massive displays for the vampire TV show "Moonlight" with Alex O'Loughlin and "Lost." Even eggs would have TV show markings in a bid to gain viewer attention. Newspapers would routinely pick winners and losers, with TV critics urging viewers to tune into particularly well made or entertaining shows. Early fall would feature a Friday night given over to previews of coming shows, with most shows debuting in the second or third week of September.
Now, pre-season NFL games are awash in previews for shows very few of the predominantly male viewership will watch. "Chase" or "Undercovers" or "Outsourced" will appeal to the football watching crowd? Really? It seems NBC can't even find advertisers this Summer, and is reduced to running its own promos.
Gone too, are the practice of the "Summer Burn-off," where TV shows that filled their 13, or 22-24 episodes, but were canceled, end up running during the Summer. Where those that loved the show could watch, and tape (and illicitly trade tapes) of a show that just did not catch on. Now the "Summer Burn-off" has been replaced by the DVD release, to recapture whatever revenues, which is perhaps more viewer friendly but has less spirit and sense of fun.
TV at its best could create tremendous excitement. Think of how many catch phrases, and sayings, from Television entered popular culture: "Dyn-o-mite!" "Whatcho Talking About Willis?" "Heeyyyyyy!" (with two thumbs up), "Not that there's anything wrong with that," or "Master of his own domain." It did so because Television had the one thing that movies, for all their bigger budgets, lacked.
Television had time, time to explore the comedy of characters and situations. Time to explore the dramatic possibilities and characters in dramas fully. Sometimes, as with say, "Wiseguy," there was only a season of possibilities, and everything else was treading water. Sometimes, as with "the A-Team," every episode was the same, but like comfort food, mashed potatoes and gravy for the mind. Sometimes the extra time, created something magical, as with "Babylon 5" or "Seinfeld" or "Miami Vice." From "the "Summer of George!" to "And so it begins," and "Where in the Bahamas?" the phrases and images from moving slowly enough to build to the moment remain affectionately in the memory of those who followed them.
A movie has only two hours, at the most, to tell its story. There is no way, that even "Il Postino," a very masterful film, could present the power of time and place in the way that both "Northern Exposure" and "Twin Peaks" could for Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, respectively. A TV series has the ability to run say, 5 minutes of wordless action, in "MTV cops" with "Miami Vice," overlaid by the latest 1980's hit, because there's plenty of time. Nearly 17 hours for a 22-hour episode run, even more if a series runs to a full 24 episodes, which lamentably only "24" and the Star Trek series have done in recent years.
Time, and time responsive to the seasons, is what makes Television special. Even a serious show like "Life" had a Thanksgiving themed show, while "Chuck" had one also on "Black Friday" (the shopping day after Thanksgiving that puts most retail operations in the "Black") and Christmas and Halloween. Making the characters on TV experiencing seasonal time in the same way the audience does (a nice trick to produce emotional bonding, and it works). Only the release of the action films "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon" during the holiday season allowed for that emotional bonding, almost no other film series has even attempted that TV-derived trick.
Comedies, with more limited budgets and a need to compete with more choices, tend to play the seasonal game more than dramas. Indeed episodes centered around Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Valentine's Day, and to a lesser extent Easter, have mirrored the real-life actions of viewers getting together with friends and family to celebrate.
All of which made the anticipation of the Fall Season, well special. Which shows would be actually, good? What new things were coming in returning shows? After the slow season of TV repeats in the Summer, new entertainment choices would abound, like the food available in the market before global shipments of refrigerated air-freight obliterated seasons in a never-ending sameness.
Now, only Football, with the NFL commercial celebrating the opening of the Season, has managed to generate any real excitement. It is not just NBC, no one really cares about the new shows from CBS, or ABC, or FOX, or CW. Why would they?
The sad sameness of "Dancing With The Stars" to "America's Got Talent" and the rest of the boring, reality-show idiocy, from "Jersey Shore" to "Real Housewives" make Summer fare indistinguishable from that of the Fall, Winter, and Spring. While everything exists in a vacuum, where there is no time, or awareness of time. For the reality shows, or the audience with them. Like a Vegas Casino, devoid of windows and clocks. Without time, either the evolution of characters and situations, or repetitions of comfort food for the mind, or even just mirroring the time-experience of the audience, Television became nothing special.
And far more of a wasteland than in Minnow's day.