Monday, January 10, 2011

Transfixed by TV

I was 10 years old when the Old Man finally broke down and bought the
family its first TV set.

We wheeled it into the living room, hooked up the rabbit ears,
plugged it in and proceeded to gaze, slack jawed and wide eyed, at
anything and everything that appeared on the screen.

From “Time for Beanie” and “Space Patrol” to Jackie Gleason and Steve
Allen, from Alfred Hitchcock to “Playhouse 90,” from Ed Sullivan to
“Your Hit Parade”, we were transfixed.

Harry Owens and His Royal Hawaiians?. We watched it. Spike Jones?.
Absolutely. “I’ve Got a Secret” and “What’s My Line?” We were there.

Sports? I was in heaven. There was major league baseball, never seen
before in these parts. College and professional football, and, for
comic relief, roller derby and wrestling. The Gillette Cavalcade of
Sports, a fancy name for boxing, was a Friday night tradition.

Even then, the staples were doctors (“Dr. Kildare,” “Ben Casey”),
lawyers (“Perry Mason,” “The Defenders”) and cops (“Dragnet,” “Naked

American Idol? We had “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” which was the
same show without the voting. We weren’t very interactive in those

Reality shows? We had the mother of them all: “Candid Camera.”

I thought about all this the other day when I read the latest data on
American viewing habits as measured by the Nielsen Company, which has
been mapping the vast wasteland for more than a half century.

How much, I wondered, have things really changed since the 1950s?
Oh sure, we watch our shows on whiz-bang high def technical marvels
that gobble up wall space while doubling our utility bill.

And TV’s portrayal of America no longer consists of suburb dwelling
white people whose families are headed by kindly all-knowing fathers
with unlimited amounts of good advice and disposable income.

But some things remain the same. The Nielsen folks found that our
addiction to TV remains just as strong as it was in the early days.
In fact, Americans watched more television than ever in 2010. Total
viewing of broadcast networks and basic cable channels rose about 1
percent for the year, to an average of 34 hours per person per week.

Interestingly enough, Nielsen said that the most popular new offering
on television this year was “Hawaii Five-O,”) a remake of a
40-year-old cop show. Homicides and hulas, it seems, never get old.

Over the years, TV has seen more evolution than innovation.
Drama was a staple of early television. But whereas early offerings
were basically theatrical productions staged in a TV studio, today’s
presentations have broken old structural and narrative rules by
becoming serialized.

It isn’t “Death of a Salesman” but it isn’t bad.

Reality TV, born of economic necessity, evolved from simple game
shows to today’s endless parade of mind numbing silliness that has a
lock on prime time while filling the ranks of valet parking
attendants and waiters with unemployed actors.

As the New York Times reported recently, “Historians may someday note
with wonder that by the end of 2010, at least six cable television
shows were about auctioneers and pawnbrokers. And all were considered
successes by their respective channels.”

By far the biggest change in the television landscape is sports.
While it began as a weekend diversion (early TV execs believed
weekday viewers were mostly women so they began broadcasting sports
on weekends to attract male viewers), it has grown to a billion
dollar monster that dominates the landscape.

There’s not a minute in the day when there isn’t a sporting event
being broadcast. And the viewers lap it up.

Of the top 10 most viewed programs in 2010 as measured by Nielsen, 8
were football games. Even the best-liked commercial was a Snickers
spot featuring Betty White being tackled in a football game.
Who would have predicted it?

In the future, we may be getting our television broadcasts fed over
the Internet. And probably in 3-D.

But I’m betting there will still large helpings of sports and reality
shows. And lots of cops, lawyers and doctors.

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