At twelve noon on June 12, 2009, the end of analog television’s era was also when I let my set go dark. The last declaration I saw was that there were about three million of us disconnected but, no worry, we can still order the “converter box” to bring all those programs back to our living rooms. Going dark on tv was not that hard—at least for a while. My recent memories had too many “yuks” and too few “harks”.
President John F. Kennedy’s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, shocked a broadcast industry audience when he called television a “vast wasteland”. That was in 1961!
Had he not mellowed as a corporate lawyer with a lucrative practice, what would Newton Minow say today? What is the superlative of “vast wasteland”?
Television today—over the air and cable—with the usual exceptions, could empty the dictionary of disparaging adjectives. Some times slots—such as daily afternoon talk-entertainment shows—are so bad, so sadomasochistic and exploitive, that they escape the media critics. Why would Tom Shales—the insightful Washington Post critic who writes like a dream—want to apply his talented eye to shows that invoke the Latin phrase “res ipsa louitur”: the thing speaks for itself?
On weekends, the shows swing from the slick infomercials, pushing cutlery and real estate wealth, to sports that become duller play by play—especially golf—to the Sunday morning news program where evasions of predictable questions run on and on.
Then there are the second-rate movie reruns, the insipid sitcom shows, so dependent on canned laughter, the dramas, so spilt-second violent that they eliminate any kind of memorable suspense.
The early and late local evening news needs psychoanalysts. Repetition may be economical for it requires fewer reporters.
The thirty minutes of the late local news is composed of roughly nine minutes of ads, four minutes of sports, four obsessive minutes of four weather segments, the usual openings with street crimes or fires, the customary animal story and half minute of contrived, spontaneous chit-chat between the anchors and the rest—the abbreviated rest—is what can be called news.
One local DC station once had the temerity to try vainly distinguishing itself from the sameness of its competitors by the slogan “no chit chat, no fluff”.
So little time is left for news that most news is not covered—not in the neighborhoods, not in city hall or the courts, not in business, labor, schools, or civic activity or achievement.
Missing so much reality by allocating lots of time for local news and wasting so much of it takes the label of those “Reality Shows” to the level of ironic satire.
How much reality would there be without C-Span—that lonely tribute to the public intellect and engagement? Over ninety percent of television is entertainment or advertisements—mostly low grade even for those willing to inhabit bad taste.
I just saw an auto ad on the news for Kia with hamsters driving and occupying the front seat.
The public air waves belong to the people. They are the owners and the television stations are the tenants. Guess what? Since the beginning of television broadcasting, these lucrative stations have paid no rent. It is a rent free way to mint money under the guidance of a supine Federal Communications Commission and a Congress frightened of the power of the broadcast industry.
Gone are the regulatory expressions of the 1934 statutory standard—namely “the public interest, convenience and necessity”—binding television stations to a level of public responsibility.
Gone is the worthy requirement for each station to ascertain the public’s information needs in an annual public report to the FCC. There is no more fairness doctrine or right of reply. FCC station license renewals proceedings are not as frequent as they were thirty years ago.
Some valuable shows manage to get through the “vast wasteland” and make money. Among them are 60 Minutes (CBS) and the Simpsons (FOX). Non-profit public television has the Bill Moyers Journal. The nature and history shows on some cable channels bear occasional attention.
By and large, however, getting through the noise, hoping to find snippets of interest in otherwise flat and formulaic programs, and having to endure the densely-packed relentless advertisements and product placements, and not knowing whether a news segment is canned from an industry consultant, invites a vacation from an already limited resort to my TV.
There are so many other things to do and learn and evoke than watching screens.