The Fall of Television

I grew up in the age of “Must See TV.” Thursday night at 7p.m. my family would turn on NBC and watch solid, well-written television: Frasier, Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, ER.  Any night of the week you could watch a well-written (or worth watching) program on TV. Gilmore Girls, The West Wing, Northern Exposure: smart, well-written, intelligent, witty.

That was when broadcast ruled the world. Cable existed. HBO and Showtime existed. But, the broadcast networks ruled the world of television. They had more viewers. They won more awards. And then it collapsed. Reality TV replaced good television in the blink of an eye. Shows like Survivor, American Idol, The Bachelor(and The Bachelorette), and Fear Factor became staples in the home. Unscripted television. Television about crazy people doing stupid things. Programs about “real people” finding “real love” and programs about changing the way you look. Dancing competition shows and singing competition shows. Shows about doing things you’re scared of and shows about losing weight. Every network has at least one. Every network has multiple programs on at least once, and more often than not twice, a week.

Good scripted television has all but disappeared from the broadcast networks. There are shows on TV. Shows I watch. But, they’re not necessarily good shows. They’re space fillers. They’re guilty pleasures. They’re shows that were good six years ago, but have since become cliché, but people still watch, because there is nothing else on (unless you want to pay extra money for HBO or Showtime).

I never thought I’d become the person who sits down to the television and immediately flips to a reality television show. The realization makes me more than a little concerned that my intelligence has depleted. Am I so lazy I no longer want to be forced to think while I watch TV? Or is there nothing else to watch? For my own sanity I’ll go with the latter. Because, the truth is the programs on at the same time as a show like The Voice or Dance Moms are even more mind-numbing. How many detective shows or medical shows or comedy shows (that aren’t even funny) can one watch in an evening? Other than the characters is there really any difference between CSI and NCIS? If there is I haven’t been able to tell. The shows are entertaining if you like that sort of show, but if you’re indifferent to watching cop dramas than it’s really just another cop drama.

As reality television becomes more and more a part of our culture and more and more a part of weeknight television, it seems almost inevitable that in the not so distant future broadcast television will be just reality television.  Should I embrace the change? Should I take the leap and become a subscriber to the major cable networks? I’m not sure.

There are two (ok three) points I’ve failed to make yet. The first: that broadcast television was created with the idea that anyone could watch it. It was made for the masses. The second: that the irony of this whole situation is that, if asked, I bet the average viewer would say they don’t like reality television, and yet the networks wouldn’t show so much reality television if people didn’t watch. The more you watch something the more likely it is to become a staple of a network. Basically we’re screwing over ourselves. Third and finally: If you look hard enough there are good television shows, they’re just not on every channel every night.



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