Television: What has happened?

 

Reality shows have taken over the prime time airways. Is that because the public no longer wants to think? Is it because people want mindless television? Fran Lewis has asked the members of The Write Room Blog to respond. As editor of MJ Magazine, Fran considers this an important issue for discussion, and we agree. Should the media help sedate the populace or challenge us to think and grow?

REALITY PROGRAMS VS FICTION SHOWS ON TV  by Trish Jackson

In recent years reality shows like American Idol, The Voice, Survivor, Amazing Race and several others have taken over the prime time spots on the major TV networks. Like all TV shows, the good ones survive and the bad ones are dropped. But why have they become so popular?

Two words: emotional engagement. This is the primary reason for the popularity of reality shows.  We identify with the participants because they are real people, just like us, as opposed to actors who are playing a role. The emotion we see is real, not contrived. We choose to champion one or more of the contestants and rejoice with them at each small success, cry real tears with them at their downfall and celebrate their triumph when they win. We strategize for them and applaud them when they do the right thing, and scold them when they don’t. We vote for them and our voice counts, while more and more shows invite us, the viewers, to actively get involved using social media. What could be better for a nation of people who love their phones and computers?

It has been suggested that the reason for their popularity is that viewers have gotten lazy and no longer want to use their intelligence in the evenings after a hard day at work. Really? The shows that occupied prime time before were detective stories like CSI, Criminal Minds, and Law and Order; medical shows like House, ER and Bones;  or comedies like Two and a Half Men or Rules of Engagement.

I fail to see how they challenged the mind. Their stories are not real and the emotions the actors display all come from a script.

The truth is clear. We are no longer content with sitting on the sidelines. We want to feel real emotions and we want to interact.

Trish Jackson writes emotive romantic suspense focusing on small towns, country folk and their animals. www.trishjax.com

 

Vintage TV, Reality TV or SOMETHING MORE?  by Fran Lewis

Growing up my mother decided not only what I wore, had to approve my friends after submitting a list of their names, phone numbers and qualifications for why I chose them to be my friend, she even decided what I was allowed to watch on TV. To be honest I really could care less, even now about what I watched then or now so that was one area that did not really matter. Choosing my clothes because I was, not anymore, overweight made me feel at times like a beached whale because stripes and polka dots, well do I need to say more? I weighed over 170 and wearing vertical stripes or polka dots didn’t flatter my full-bottomed figure. Choosing my friends came with a sit down meeting to discuss their characteristics, their grades in school and why I thought she should allow them to come to our micro-mini apartment. The one area that she never touched was what I read. Thank goodness she never went to the library with me or else I never would have read every mystery, classic, or historical novel. She might have chosen something less complicated or easier but I was always really smart, still am, so reading is my thing, Television when she grew up consisted of Soap Operas, Variety shows like Ed Sullivan, The Hit Parade and old movies. I love watching Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn Movies and I really loved TCM or Turner Classic Movies. But, programming has changed with the advent of so many new cable stations and the movies that are being made, not all but most have any real substance, message or theme.

Programs like American Idol, Survivor, Voice, Sing Off, Taste, Restaurant Stakeout and Dancing with The Stars have taken over the airwaves. Let’s not forget The X Factor or America’s Got Talent, which at times are over the top in rating. Talk shows such as The Talk, The View and Dr. Phil are primarily what are on during the afternoon prime time hours. Flipping through the channels during the blizzard the other day I could not find anything to watch, except for the news dealing with the weather, nothing on cable, not even on the history channel, which now includes Pawn Stars as part of its lineup. America votes for the artists or acts they want to remain in each of the above competitions when called upon to cast their votes. Why doesn’t anyone take a count or vote about the kind of programming some of us would like to see brought back. All of the mystery programs or police shows even when the episode is new the end result is the same. Why not take a great novel and turn it into a series or made for TV movie and actually stick to the author’s original plot and not change it? Steve Berry’s The King’s Deception, the late Michael Palmer’s Political Suicide, Daniel Palmer’s Stolen would be great movies. How about Memories from the Asylum by Kenneth Weene or Sebastian by Christoph Fischer? Novels with substance and a message that viewers can really think about what they are watching and know that those creating the programs realize the American public is quite intelligent and needs programs to make them think.

So, even though my mom thought it necessary to control some of what I did or even what I wore, thank goodness it did not spill over to what I read except: she always told me to take notes on every book and keep a log of the plot and much more. I guess that’s why I still do that today when I read and review any book. Vintage TV like The Beverly Hillbillies, My Three Sons, Leave it to Beaver, Marcus Welby that my mom loved, The Ed Sullivan Show or is it Reality TV or do you want more? What would you like to see on television if you could decide and choose the programming for an upcoming season? What’s Your Opinion? This is mine.

Fran Lewis was a Reading and Writing Staff Developer who has three master’s degrees and a PD in Administration and Supervision. Fran is a member of Who’s Who of America’s Teachers, Who’s Who of America’s Professionals. Fran is a book reviewer, author of 11 titles, Talk Show host of Chat Time on Red River Radio and Book Discussion on the World of Ink on Blog Talk Radio. Fran is the editor and creator of a new Emagazine: MJ magazine  for readers, writers, authors, publishers and editors. She created the magazine in memory of her sister Marcia Joyce.

 

Giving up the cable  by Kenneth Weene

My parents bought our first television when I was eight. I loved it. I loved it so much that I even watched test patterns. I also watched some pretty horrible programming. But things got better—much better. There were some wonderful shows like The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Your Show of Shows, Ed Sullivan; and the list goes on. Some have called those years the golden age of television.

Given that early love of television, I was taken aback by the decision my wife and I made recently: to give up our cable service. I had totally surprised myself, but the decision did make sense.

It happened this way. We were in bed and looking for something to watch. Remote in hand, we started the process. There were about eighty channels to surf. Click, click, click. Nothing! Well, to be fair there was a Matlock rerun; but how many times can I watch the same reruns, and Roz was adamantly against it. Sadly, that episode of Matlock was the closest we came to finding a show worth its electrons.

The reasoning that night went something like this. We have Netflix. We have Hulu. We have our computers. Why do we need to spend about $100 a month for this wasteland?

The next day we began the easy process of returning cable boxes.

As I stood in line waiting to turn those boxes in, questions crossed my mind. What had happened? Where had my beloved TV land gone? Who was responsible?

Thinking back on the great years of television, those golden years, I realized that their hallmark had been risk taking. Perhaps because nobody was teaching college classes on how to do it, writers and performers were being spontaneous and creative. Perhaps because nobody was spending a fortune to hire the most famous actors and staff, shows could be given a chance; and failure was an option. Maybe there was more risk taking because there was less competition. With only a few networks, shows had a chance to get an audience and to build over time. After all, a certain portion of the audience would end up watching a new or flailing show by default simply because that channel was the one that came in best via those old rooftop antennae or the rabbit ears perched atop the console.

Today’s television lacks that risk taking. Follow the formula, copy the show that is already successful, and don’t risk alienating anyone have become the standards for making programming decisions.

Besides the decline in risk taking, there is another reason for television’s decline—a reason I think is at the heart of our modern American zeitgeist.  In those bygone days the average person did not expect to be on television. We watched and were entertained by professionals, people whom we saw as different from ourselves. We, the fast numbers of viewers, didn’t have the skills, the technology, or the expectation of being on TV ourselves. That separation of the art from the general public has disappeared. Today, everybody can make a YouTube video. Today, everybody can imagine himself or herself on television. Everyone is waiting to be discovered.

Everybody expects to be a star, which brings us to popularity, the essence of stardom. But what makes somebody popular? What makes them a star? Stars are people who do something the way the average person would do that thing if the average person could do it at all. We love the person with whom we can, in our aspirations, best identify.

Stardom is different from having great talents. People with great talent are unique; often they are often not very popular—consider opera singers, Shakespearean actors, and ballet dancers. Stars get their popularity from average people identifying with them.  As television developed, the average person could not imagine being on Ed Sullivan, but (s)he could imagine screwing up like Lucy. The average person may not have aspired to the comedy of Sid Caesar, but they could surely be a Ralph Cramden or an Ed Norton.

Add that notion of stardom to the availability of technology and you have modern television, which is dominated by people who appear to be like you and me doing what they do, which is misidentified as reality. People believe it is real because they can easily identify with what is going on. Sure, they would do and say the same thing if only the occasion presented itself. What is even better for the average viewer is that (s)he often gets to vote for their favorite performer, which means voting for the person who is most like they imagine themselves to be. Reality TV viewers may not bother to vote for President or Congress, but they do love to vote for the voice, the dancer, or even the chef. who best reminds them of their own aspirations.

For me, the result is a wasteland. Not because I feel superior but because I feel indifferent. I don’t want to be a star so I don’t identify with this star-crossed reality TV industry. As a writer, my goal is to create art. I don’t want to be on The Real Writers of Hoboken; I want to write books that people will want to read long after my life is over. I want to be a real talent.

Perhaps the Golden Age of Television spoiled me, but I would prefer to have written one episode of The Outer Limits than to have danced with the stars for an entire season.

Besides writing opinion pieces, Kenneth Weene is co-host of It Matters Radio, editor of The Write Room Blog, and an author of short fiction and novels. You can learn more at http://www.kennethweene.com

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12 thoughts on “Television: What has happened?

  1. James L. Secor

    The reality tv people are actors. But the issue is being fogged up. Tv and reality tv. Not tv or reality tv, However, tv–pop culture–does influence reality. My dissertation showed this to be so, using the female heroines in kabuki. But the point at which this becomes a revolving door was not brooched. The effect is not direct or 1:1. Reality tv has more fantasy/dream value than the rest of tv’s programming.

    Reply
  2. linniescorner

    Your excellent overviews are much appreciated. I watch very little TV anymore because seasons are ill-defined. It used to be that new seasons commenced in September and ran through Spring and I knew where I’d be when my favorite series was playing. Now there is no continuity whatsoever and more repeats than new shows. Cable or Fibe is about finding the same stations on multiple channels and excessive repetitiveness. Of course, I can use my PVR should I wish to record a show when a good one is scheduled. That said, the barrage of reality shows has turned me off TV for all but a few programs and most of the time, I run the music stations in the background because I don’t have to put up with the excessive commercials and yelling. Tabloid television is all about noise and everyone talking at once in shrill voices, housewife shows are all about screaming, fighting and ugly cosmetic surgery such as guppy lips and if that sounds intolerant, so be it. To a reasonable extent, TV is still about choices and I do make them. News, Music, Major League Baseball, Basketball, one soap opera (shhhhh!) and the occasional movie are mine.

    Reply
    1. linniescorner

      I wonder too if ultra low production costs influence the nature of programming being offered today. Reality TV turned out to be a real bargain for producers that paid big dividends. Gone are the days of a million dollars per episode per actor such as we saw on Friends.

      Reply
  3. Marta Merajver-Kurlat

    This is a world phenomenon. We haven’t unsubscribed from our cable TV only because of the British, French, and Italian channels it offers. I fully agree with James’s analysis about reality TV. What we have here is an overwhelming number of gossip programs, if that’s what they’re called. People love sticking their noses into the lives of celebrities, only our “celebrities” are cheap soi-disant vedettes who fuel scandal mongering through mutual denigration aired at the time when housewives have their TV on. Stats show that serious programs -political, educational, or cultural- have practically no rating to speak of.

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  4. R. L. Cherry

    There are some interesting points made in these posts. I tend to agree with Fran and Ken (no offense, Trish), looking back at some great shows that have fallen to un-Reality TV. As a fiction writer, I love a good story with snappy dialogue. The so-called Reality shows purport to show people as they really are (although the scenes and conversations often reek of contrived), but I watch TV for the same reason I read a novel: escape. That doesn’t mean it has to be light comedy, but when I read an author like Hemingway, I am drawn into a world of his making. For me, the now-popular Reality TV is like reading a poorly-written book, not worth my time. But then, I’m used to marching to a different drummer.

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  5. Clayton Bye

    To consider a different perspective…

    All popular media–television, radio, newspapers and magazines–exist for one simple reason: to make money. This is usually done by finding advertisers willing to buy “space” in your medium. The most successful companies tend to be the ones with the largest audience. So, when you ask “What has happened to Television?” you are in effect asking one of two questions: 1) What has happened to our advertisers? and/or 2) What has happened to our audience?

    From the constant reworking of old movies, it would seem television writers are out of ideas. Or have the tv conglomerate’s advertisers somehow indicated this is the audience they want watching their commercials? Similarly, could it be we are not being inundated with “Reality Shows” because Ford or GM are insisting these shows are attracting their target market (I’m certain they have), but the television writers accidentally stumbled on a kind of tv their viewers are crazy about.

    It is always going to be one or the other or both. I’m not saying people don’t try to make the very best shows they can. No, I’m saying there would be no shows at all without advertisers. Television exists and changes based on which advertisers the company can find and what audience those advertisers believe will buy their products. Simple but challenging.

    Reply
  6. Delinda

    Now here’s a question: Would you want your book made into a TV series? Would you allow it to be used to promote Exxon, Valero, liquor, tobacco or big banks? I’d love to see my books made into a TV series, but I might be choosy about advertisers. I’m not sure I’d have the power to choose once I signed a contract.

    Reply
  7. Bryan Murphy

    As Clayton pointed out, the purpose of television programmes is to create an audience that can be sold to advertisers. I don’t like being sold, so I avoid television, except when a big soccer match is on. Hey, we all have our price, right?
    In any case, I don’t like to spend my time staring at a piece of furniture, unless it’s a computer that is under my control. OK, it’s still a piece of furniture What do you want me to do, go out and get a life? Interact with real people? Like, face to face?
    The computer, though, could make television a decent option again, if it allows us to watch programmes that we choose without being bombarded with ads, when we like and at intervals that suit us. Stranger things have happened.

    Reply
  8. Sharla

    Television has become an overrated ‘must have’ for any household! Turn off the TV and step outdoors. There is a whole world of beautiful, exciting events happening on any given day that is better than seeing what the Kardashians have to offer! I only use them as an example. Do NOT watch their show…see enough, hear enough about them to warrant them as a turn off.

    Ken, I am with you. Really asking myself why we have Dish Network. It is a true vacuum cleaner…totally sucks!

    Reply
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