Monday, August 24, 2009

An argument for the future of TV

Today's entry is about Television. I've been mostly dissatisfied with Television for many years now. Until recently, the only shows that I still watched were South Park and The Daily Show. It's not so much that I think there's nothing but crap on TV (though that's mostly true), but it is very similar to why I don't play many video games: I, like most people, want to feel like the things I do with my time are worth the time spent on them. To some people, playing video games for hours on end achieves that goal nicely. For me, it's movies.

I think it's related to why I'm finding it more and more difficult to draw the line between entertainment and art. If art is defined as a creative piece of work intended to inspire and change us through its beauty and expression, can't we also find that in things that only set out to entertain us? No one who goes to see a hypnotist perform on stage for the first time can truly walk away from it thinking the same way about human psychology, yet those shows are strictly for entertainment purposes only. You need not look further than Buster Keaton, Donkey Kong, Star Wars and Domino's pizza to see just how much simple entertainment can become a part of who we are.

And so in the end, is it just a matter of taste? A preference for one escapism over another? In my opinion, the difference is this: Art seeks to stimulate creativity, while entertainment only provides the experience of it. It's like going to an amusement park and seeing all there is to see. It's all made for you. There's no dialogue, just buckle in and enjoy the ride. In a way, it stimulates the inherent sense of wonder and thrill that we all have within us. No one goes to an amusement park expecting to respond to its sights by making an amusement park of their own (unless you're Michael Jackson), and in their own way. You're not being asked to comment on anything deep or meaningful or emotional, except maybe to yourself. You're giving up the reigns on your imaginative white horse, and riding in the stagecoach for once.

TV and film are both technically passive - neither have its participant actively engaged like video games or participatory culture. But an artistic movie or show is a lot like an essay, putting forth an argument for how it sees the world, and does beg the question, "do you agree, or disagree?" Rather than responding with, "remember that one part where X thing happened to Y guy?", a viewer might instead ask something like, "how does this compare with or conflict with my worldview?" "If I had made that movie, I would have done X, because X is what I believe." "I wonder if we could have/avoid a world like in that movie." A thrill-seeking movie would not inspire such questions.

You might have already realized that according to what I've said, few films are either/or. Most films are artistic AND entertaining. As for TV, I sort of got used to the idea that they ALL must be entertaining. If they aren't, they wouldn't get as high of ratings, which is the bread and butter of television. It is due to this emphasis on entertaining that the natural tendency for a network is to lean towards shows of a formulaic and simple nature. Anything that will get the masses to tune in. The trend, it would seem, is getting far worse, given that one only needs to turn on the TV and find five hundred channels with rarely anything good on. They all follow a formula. This show's got a gimmick. That show has a gimmick.

I didn't realize that many of the shows I watched growing up, like Roseanne, All in the Family, The Simpsons, Fresh Prince and Ren & Stimpy, are all fairly formulaic (and good). Something changed in me, I suppose, to reflect that formulas are bad. It's not true, though.

I suppose it was somewhere around my senior year of high school that I was completely turned off altogether. I was still into a few shows, but I watch them online, and to this day do not own cable.

This feeling started to change dramatically last summer when my friend gave me the entire series of Deep Space Nine. I didn't have anything to lose except exorbitant amounts of time, so I started on the first season. I was pleasantly surprised with the results, and so began season two shortly thereafter. I ended up finishing the entire series that summer. Having voraciously devoured every single episode (with a few exceptions, of which fans know I don't have to speak), I felt like I had experienced the awesome power that long-form cinematic storytelling can have when done right. It is so rare to find a show filled with such interesting characters, incredible situations and ideas, and high production quality. And to continue to put out such great quality consistently is where most shows fall apart. It's hard to keep a good thing going in TV land. Even the best shows fall apart if no one's careful (see Roseanne).

But when a good thing does happen, TV networks don't just sit around and go "look at the pretty birdie" with a thumb up their asses. They take to the streets and monopolize every paper boy from here to Timbucktoo and get them the go meet every single person in the civilized world and tell them "you MUST watch ER NOW!" until finally, they say to themselves "well, Boss, I just don't know why no one's watching the 15th season. I guess it's time to abort." At this point, though, there will be 10 other fetuses to abort too (see Medical Investigation, Third Watch, 3lbs, Inconcievable, Heartland, Saved, and a score of others that are probably going to get the plug pulled soon).

TV likes formulas. They are safe. Got a good crime drama? Let's here it. "Well, it's like all the others, except the guy in this one's kinda different." Alright, Monk. Sold. Next. Got a new sitcom? Famous comedian whose life becomes the subject of a sitcom? That's safe enough for us. According to Jim it is. Next. We want something gritty and raw. Yeaaaah. Let's do NYPD Blue for the umpteenth time. In fact, let's create a network called F/X, which will be like our own little sandbox. We can have all the toys we want, because we have father Murdoch's plastic and permission to make all kinds of pseudo-edgy controversial shows (which is, in fact, OUR formula).

It's a joke, mostly. But that's how it works. Nevertheless, sometimes a show comes along that peaks, amidst all of this tele-political nonsense. Buffy, for example, was quite original when it came along and, for the most part, remained fresh all the way until the end. It had its own share of beauracratic nonsense, having to switch networks of all things, but finished on a good note. Along the way it developed a fan base which could only conceivably be rivaled by Star Trek and X-Files. And it turned a pretty good profit as well, while helping to launch the careers of several of its key players. A pretty successful show all around.

That sort of thing is long gone, though. Today's audience is far too manic and hyperactive to stay tuned in to anything for long. If every show is not grab-you-by-the-balls amazing, there is surely ten other things you could be watching instead. There's just TOO DAMN MUCH on TV these days to be this choosy.

THEN, there's HBO and Showtime. They don't have to answer to advertisers or affiliates. There is no concern about FCC violations or some parent who doesn't want her child seeing this or that. They really ARE free to experiment, and they are not economically beholden to anyone else than their own shareholders. No show's fate hangs in the balance of those who might be offended. There is viewer reception, sure, but none of the unreasonable cancellations instigated by random Baptist ministers in Buttfuck Arkansas (see Book of Daniel). They are free to be more artistic.

Also, because they are paid by subscribers, they can afford to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their programming. Though I'm still not entirely fluent in how it all works with those networks, needless to say, they've got a good theory in play, and it's working for them.

My whole point in writing this article is to say one thing: what keeps networks like HBO and Showtime in the up-and-up these days is likely going to reflect the future of television's economic viability and sustainability. All of the other networks have learned that their shows are inevitably going to become available on the internet, and so are making steps to provide their own outlets via sites like Hulu. ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX have really no choice at all. There is becoming no way for them to make money anymore, since viewers are circumventing every advertising-sponsored medium by means of things like DVR and downloads. Their stuff HAS to be free, or else no one will watch it.

With HBO, it's assumed that you're getting what you paid for. Even if there are ways to find it online, the point is to make people want to come to YOU and watch what you have to offer. They are not producing a product to be passed around willy-nilly. They raise the bar, because it is an evolutionary necessity for TV's survival. The old scheduled-programming-and-paid-for-by-advertisers formula isn't working anymore. It isn't enough. And the premium programming works.

It is this that has partly restored my faith in the television format. There are some economic and aesthetic finetuning demanded by such a format. Most shows on premium networks are not very long. They are short and sweet, usually 13 episodes per season. A whole season is more like a miniseries, with a much more well-rounded arc. There are fewer throwaway episodes, or filler episodes. They are less likely to stagnate, as formula-driven basic television is prone to doing for the benefit of the network's ratings. The incentive is to be bold and experimental, not like Starbucks, where every cup of joe is what you'd expect it to be. Basic and Broadcast networks make their money in syndication (advertising is more like startup capital), and so a show with 24 episodes has stronger "legs" (syndication value) than a shorter show. This pressure for elongated programming is a hindrence if the story would not be helped by doing so. Some stories needn't be that long. Lost is a good example of this, and they know it now, since the final seasons will be and have been made shorter.

The shows I've recently watched included both seasons of Dead Like Me, the first season of True Blood, and half a season of Six Feet Under. Of these, Six Feet Under is far and away the best. I'm loving the experience of watching premium television so much, that I want to document my experiences in a new blog.

I'm not saying HBO and Showtime are perfect. I certainly think they, too, have a tendency to be a little too conspicuously bold, if you know what I mean. Just because you CAN show what you want, doesn't mean you always need to. But, that complaint is far easier to deal with than that of a 7th Heaven-style sedation of free thought. Not everything is roses.