Let me begin by saying something that might sound totally fatuous to some people. Here goes. As times and circumstances change, so do various fields of human activity.
Wow, that’s deep. Good job, Ruggero.
Well, anyway, no matter how productive or lucrative a field was when it first hatched, when the conditions that brought it to life evolve or devolve, it must either adapt or vanish.
Abandoning the idea of the “philosopher’s stone” (a legendary substance supposedly capable of turning inexpensive metals into gold), alchemy blended itself into ordinary chemistry. Astrology separated itself as far as possible from astronomy when the latter, due mostly to the invention of the telescope, became thoroughly materialistic, discarding the spiritual aspect of the Universe’s structure as something it had no use for. And so forth. (The new “philosopher’s stone,” a.k.a. “alternative fuels,” is really a combination of two ideas: turning trash into energy and launching a perpetual motion machine (the kind that produces more energy than it uses, another dream inherited from medieval inventors). Ideas change their appearance, but hardly ever their essence).
Television as we know it (not the tube itself, but rather the broadcasting industry) dates back to the 1950’s, when the main purpose of advertising was to announce products rather than splice their brand names onto the human psyche. We have come a long way since then. Only a few products can be advertised in prime time today. Cars; pharmaceuticals (including dental products and shampoo, i.e. stuff you buy at the drugstore); junk food; new movies; cell phones, lawyer services; and insurance. Gone from your evening TV experience are department stores, appliances, coffee, music, and painting collections. Ah, the time when you could catch a commercial touting a huge sale on Manet or Sargent originals! Those were the days.
But I digress.
Even back in the 1950’s, some folks cynically suggested that television was an advertising medium, and that the actual programming served only to fill the gaps between commercials. That was not true back than; nor is it true today. The reason television performs fellatio is far more prosaic, alas.
The current model for TV broadcasting consists of two layers of pseudo-advertising, and nothing else. The first layer, i.e. the actual programming (shows, concerts, movies, news) serves to get the viewer’s attention. The second layer, the “commercials,” does not actually try to sell anything (in prime time, they run up to eight car ads an hour – how many cars can an average viewer possibly buy in the course of just one day, goodness – how often does he or she actually buy a car? Once in two or three or five years? At four hours of TV per day, and a brand-new car every three years (quite a stretch) – that comes out to 35,040 (thirty-five thousand and forty) car ads between purchases!). Rather, the “commercial” layer tries (successfully so, we must admit) to keep viewers’ minds in car-buying mode all the time.
The studios pay for the shows, and the advertisers pay the studios. The actual viewer is kept out of the loop.
This may be a wonderful (and witty) solution for providing free entertainment for the public, only there is no such thing as free lunch (case in point: the philosopher’s stone enterprise and perpetual motion research still have to yield any results). The studios have no choice but to bring the overall quality of the programming to the lowest common denominator in order to get as many folks as possible to watch TV. The model has no provision for the specialized interests of some viewers, niche programming, demographic-oriented programming. A show that could potentially attract fewer than a million viewers (roughly speaking) gets rejected more or less automatically.
Cable was expected to balance out the “dumb-down” factor by making the viewer pay actual money for the packages he or she purchased. The model used by cable television, however, differs but little from traditional TV. The viewer pays a ridiculously small monthly sum and is served a whole bunch of channels featuring shows that are not of the viewer’s choosing. The quality is only marginally better than that of the big networks. As an acquaintance of mine once put it, “There’s 500 channels and nothing to watch.”
The crux of the matter is that both models are essentially anti-free-enterprise and, in the final count, stubbornly and aggressively un-American. Which is a shame, of course, since modern technology can easily make television a truly wonderful source of quality entertainment for everyone, and not just the “masses.” Yes, there is a way to make TV perform fellatio less, and do some quality work for the good of the American people.
What I’m going to say now may sound nearly unthinkable, and even ridiculous, to some taxpayers and voters out there. It is nevertheless true.
Here goes. It is the Federal Government’s job to rescue television from the clutches of corporate-sponsored, watered-down socialism.
Remember that like land, air, and water, airtime belongs to the nation, and not just a few faceless corporate entities. Remember also that public space (and airtime certainly qualifies as public space) is subject to government regulation. No one should tell anyone how to run a business; and yet legitimate businesses are run in accordance with laws, and laws are made by the Legislative Branch.
False advertisement is an actionable offence, and yet this law is openly disdained by the current TV model. The networks claim they provide knowledge (the news and History Channel) and entertainment (everything else), while in reality they provide nothing apart from advertising. Our technologically advanced epoch, so different from the 1950’s, calls for a new Federal law that would effectively ban companies from generating income by selling anything other than their own product.
Clothing companies sell clothes; farmers sell produce; landlords sell living and office space. TV pretends to sell knowledge and entertainment to the viewer, whereas it really is in the business of selling public airtime to a handful of corporations.
TV performs fellatio because it is impossibly, insufferably, criminally boring.
TV is boring because the current model of television programming is not conducive to making entertaining broadcasts.
The current model is not conducive to making television entertaining because it is rooted in an epoch that from today’s point of view seems prehistoric; because that model was fallacious to begin with when it was first hatched; because it fails to take any advantage of the superlative, unprecedented technological means available today. Palm reading is more technologically advanced than television, for goodness’ sake.
Suppose you were a farmer, growing strawberries and spinach. Suddenly a middleman comes over to you to buy out, or even just claim, your field and crops, with the idea of turning it over to a corporation specializing in genetically modified corn. You have no say in the matter; as a consolation, you are allowed to visit the field for free any time you like.
But, you might ask, how would the networks make money if they weren’t allowed to air commercials?
Simple. The American way, that’s how. Create a product; announce it; hope and pray that someone would buy it; and charge for it when they do.
As a matter of fact, the model already exists, even though it could use a lot of improvement. It is called pay-per-view.
The way it looks, the only way to bring television up to date achieve this would be to ban all advertising from it, forever. Consider that cigarette commercials were banned because they endangered public health. All advertising on TV should be banned because advertising-sponsored “shows” are a hazard to the public psyche. The current model has had its day, and it is time to toss it into the dusty, malodorous pile of historical trash.
What would television be like, with advertising banned? Who knows. Some heavy-duty deregulation would probably be in order. Anti-trust laws (the latest signed by George W. Bush in 2002) would have to be applied to it. Limits would have to be set on how much public airtime a company can get – three hours? Four hours? And electronic tracking system (meters) would have to be installed (a TV set would become much like a cell phone, and simpler than the current pay-per-view format – get an account, pay for how much you watch, pay only for what you watch on a show by show basis; no bulk discounts). The revenues would then be electronically distributed among the appropriate providers of content.
Competition (real competition) would do the rest.
The debilitating, mind-numbing effect the current model has on the population would be eliminated forever. Remember your favorite show – sitcom, talk show, news, whatever – that you sometimes feel a bit guilty watching, thinking there must be better, more constructive ways of spending your time, and paying for the mildly stimulating, soft content with having to endure the boredom and annoyance of “commercial” interruptions. Imaging that instead of boredom and annoyance you had to use real money. No more ads. The show goes on, uninterrupted. How much would you pay for it – the one show you watch three or five times a week? Three dollars a pop? Five dollars? Five hours of TV a day, every day, would then amount to $168, or thereabouts, a week. No one in their right mind would pay that kind of money to just watch TV as we know it, or any kind of TV for that matter. Parents would instantly find a thousand infallible ways of keeping their children away from the tube. Strict TV budgeting would enforce itself in every household (with the exception of very wealthy households which, even today, are not sufficiently numerous to make any difference in the matter). The ratings (the real ratings, measured in actual dollars rather than fuzzy numbers extrapolated from flimsy telephonic polls) would start falling so fast and so hard that studios would have to start finding ways to improve their product dramatically in order to be able to stay in business. The precious three or four hours of TV a week would have to become worth the viewer’s while. (The studios would discover real quick that American audiences are by far not as dumb as everybody used to think).
So – no free TV of any kind?
What about PBS?
Look. Some kind of nominal fee would have to be paid by the viewer, even when the studio does not want to charge him – remember your cell phone?
All right, here’s a problem. Some big companies might definitely figure out a way to do some subtle product placement in exchange for “donations” or even “investment.” What do we do about that? That’s pretty simple, actually. That’s why we have the FCC.
Bars would be first to benefit from the change. They always do. Changes drive people to drink. Apart from that, some bars would probably enjoy a measure of success for a while. They would pay viewer’s fees, and their TV’s would stay on, and some folks who used to pop in once a month would now flock to them every night just to save on the television bill. They would come over to watch some TV. Or so they would think. Nobody ever watches TV in a bar, unless there is an important game on. Instead of watching, people would start socializing, and that’s a good thing. The old community concept would return.
Or, some folks could drop by each other’s places and chip in to watch – a game, maybe. Not a movie, though. The idea of broadcasting movies on TV is so obviously archaic, one can’t help but wonder why even the current model still includes flicks – what with the proliferation of DVD’s and downloadable movie files.
Now suppose you’re the chief executive of one of the TV studios. The electronic meters are installed in every TV-owning household; the new law is in effect as of today. You’re in charge – your salary and career depend on the success of your studio. What would you do?
First, you would probably have to call a conference. The two dozen most important studio men and women would sit around the long polished table and talk. After about an hour, you would fire every person who has been guilty of saying, “I don’t know what we’re going to do now. I have no idea where this is going, it’s just is terrible.” Oldtimers cannot adapt. It has nothing to do with their age – some oldtimers are barely in their twenties. They should only be kept on when no decisions, creative or otherwise, have to be made anymore. You would only need decisive people around you.
Some would jokingly suggest that if the studio were to go on, it would have to look seriously into porn. Fire those too. You don’t need folks who make bad jokes, and the joke is certainly a bad one. TV is not meant for porn. DVD players and the Web are meant for porn. Everybody knows that.
You’d ask around, you’d rack your brains for days, and then a moment would come when someone, some hitherto unknown and unnoticed entity, suddenly comes up to you, saying that the one unique feature television has is the live broadcast. DVD players and the Internet manage pre-recorded shows a lot better than television.
That would be your edge. The live broadcast.
Sports – that’s a no-brainer. “Here we are live in Phoenix, and the game is just about to begin, folks.” What else? News? News go live only in emergencies; otherwise, the Web is far better equipped than TV to deliver news.
What is the one thing out there that is very much like sports and yet not like it at all? What has live action that loses a measure of its value when you only get to watch a recording? Live theatre. Of course. If Hollywood can get millions of people to stand on lines eagerly, hoping to catch that new release, so can theatre.
Live broadcasts. That’s the key. Nothing taped, or edited. Real actors performing real shows. Viewers watching and rooting for them, or against them (“She was great tonight, even though she mixed up some of the lines.” “They should get rid of that moron, he’s no actor.” “That theatre should start getting better plays. The actors are too talented to perform the crap I saw last night.” Repertory theatres, performing four or five different shows a week, and no performance is like the previous one – what a great idea!
You would need to find a lot of good theatrical performances, though – and besides, since we’re talking about live broadcasts, theatres do not perform in the morning, do they?
That depends. Morning in New York is show time in Sydney. Scouts would have to go on the road, following leads, seeking out sensational shows in all kinds of theatres, from historically famous to downright obscure – in order to earn their bread. Theatrical companies would have to clean up their act and start looking for good plays instead of subsidies. “Broadcasting live from Bradley’s Playhouse in Austin, Texas!” “A new sensational play by such-and-such, and we’re live in Pierre, South Dakota!” “Chicago’s New Plush Globe presents this striking new production of an old classic!” “Live this Friday night in Glasgow!”
And so forth.
Studios would have to get used to the idea that very few shows can get them millions of viewers. A boxing match or, for now, a star performer’s solo concert – that’s about it. Apart from those, only free television can get a hundred thousand or more people to watch a program at the same time – because it’s free. Truly commercial television would not be able to do that. Ten thousand viewers per show would have to be considered a success.
Ten thousand? At five or six dollars each? What about the expenses? All that equipment, all those crews? That costs money! Fifty or sixty grand – that’s no budget at all.
Yes, it is. There is no reason why, with today’s technologies, the size of a studio crew (including the scouts looking for broadcast material) should exceed twenty souls. If the kind of equipment that would make this possible does not yet exist, then it’s time someone designed it. Some ten-year-olds out there broadcast from their homes, through the Web, to the entire world these days, for goodness’ sake.
But what about all those television employees, the crews of today’s studios, the executives, the marketing departments, and on and on? They would have to find other jobs, or perform fellatio.
What about all the equipment and infrastructure already in place? It would have to be scrapped. LP’s and 8-tracks were, and no one even noticed.
“Hey, did you catch that play from that Kansas theatre last night? Everybody’s talking about it, you know.”
“No, I missed it.”
“I’ve got a recording. You want it?”
“It’s not the same. Aw, all right. Thanks.”
What about the handful of corporations who can still afford to advertise on TV today? They would have to re-introduce themselves to the idea of free enterprise, which is to say they would have to learn how to compete by making their products better than their rivals’, that’s all: no more television hypnosis, no more substituting colorful mesmerizing ads for hard work and invention. Go ahead and compete. That’s the American way, fellow. Either that, or perform fellatio.
Suppose a day came when, despite the scouts’ efforts, nothing half-way good could be found to fill in the time slot? What then?
Fall back on sports.
Not enough games!
Oh, come on. That’s nonsense. Of course it would be idiotic to show Lithuanian basketball or Cuban baseball in these United States, but what about English, German, Italian and Brazilian soccer? Russian hockey?
I can hear someone, some burly man with a beer belly, saying, “We have our own culture, and Italian soccer isn’t part of it. And there aren’t enough theatres in the country to fill an entire day of TV programming.”
True, but that’s because a very large part of our cultural repository is currently clogged with free or semi-free (i.e. subsidized, a.k.a. Socialist) television. As soon as the trash is squared away, this nation’s capacity for genuine culture just might surprise the rest of the world. And there would be new theatre companies springing up around the country every week, competing for the scouts’ attention.