Thursday, December 31, 2009

Battling for TV's Relevance

Have you heard about the battle royale between Time Warner cable and the Fox network's threatened walk-out from the cable television system? Or Time Warner's pending decision to drop Fox from their lineup? The story varies depending on who's telling it.

Seems that Fox is demanding new, higher rates from Time Warner to carry the network to its cable subscribers. And Time Warner is barking back, saying they're not going to pay a higher fee because the cost would ultimately fall on their precious subscribers.

In the middle, as usual, sit the subscribers themselves: people who have been paying their cable bill and - from what I hear friends say - putting up with shoddy service for years. At risk are the many sporting events scheduled to air these next few days on the Fox network, as well as several popular Fox prime time shows. If Fox and Time Warner don't reach an agreement by midnight tonight, some or all of Fox's programming might be blacked-out across our area for people with cable TV. The world won't come to an end because of it, but considering how football-crazy this part of Texas is, one might think it has.

Me? I don't have cable. I don't have a dish, either, or any other fee-based TV provider. You think I want to PAY for the trash that constitutes network television these days? Fortunately, I don't live in a neighborhood that bans TV antennae (thus requiring homeowners to purchase fee-based TV). Neither do I watch much television except sitcom re-runs and PBS anyway. So, for me, fee-based TV isn't worth it. For a lot of other people, however, it is; and the ones I know who have cable seem to complain a lot about its reliability, cost, and customer support.

But Fox and Time Warner don't care about any of us anyway, except when it comes to cable subscribers paying their bill. Because all they care about is revenue, they're looking for any way they can find to get as much money out of their product, and if cable customers are going to get jilted along the way, so what? While making a profit isn't a bad thing, how one goes about making a profit says a lot about one's perception of the people buying their products. Both Fox and Time Warner say they're not going to keep football programming from north Texas, but they've certainly dangled the possibility low enough to make people sit up take notice. What this episode is doing to both company's credibility is anybody's guess at this point.

After watching Fox and Time Warner duel, out have come the pundits who say this is all part of the preliminaries for the end of free broadcast television as we know it. They say because producing new shows for network television has become so expensive, plain old advertising doesn't cut it anymore. Today's television audience has become so sophisticated and demands such technological wizardry in its entertainment that sponsoring companies once relied upon to cough up advertising dollars are balking at what it costs for a 30-second spot on even a poorly-rated show. Indeed, the old advertising model of cigarette companies trotting out celebrities before half-baked backdrops and fake plants is so passe as to be absurdly amateurish. Indeed, even the amateurs of today (which encompasses 90% of current TV actors) command a level of showbiz that would stun the medium's founding fathers (and mothers).

While it's amazing that costs have risen but quality has fallen, what's more amazing is the rate at which American viewers - who claim they don't have enough time - seem to be able to justify the dollars they spend on fee-based television. Most of middle America pays for their TV access now, leaving the elderly, folks in the rural hinterland, or in the slums to serve as the backbone for free broadcast television. And what market do you think advertisers are going to go after? They want the viewers who have already proven they can be bought - because they're paying for their TV broadcasts! If they're that careless with their money, maybe they'll drop a few more clams on this car they can't afford or the home trinkets they don't need.

Of course, I'm being cynical, aren't I? After all, I've already acknowledged that some people have cable because it's forced upon them (more's the pity). And if you're really a sports freak, ESPN probably is worth it to you - college football is certainly better for you than most everything else on Fox. So I'm not saying that all television is bad, or even that people shouldn't have to pay for it. On a certain level, it's a basic function of capitalism for people to pay for what they use, even if they still have to put up with all the commercials.

What gets me is spirit with which this whole Fox - Time Warner deal is going down. Fox's Rupert Murdock was quoted recently as saying it's impossible for him to produce programming without raising a lot more money. To Murdock I would ask, "and what makes you think your programming is good, just because a lot of people watch it?" A democracy is good when it comes to deciding political leaders, but just because a lot of people like something doesn't make it good or right. A lot of people used to like to smoke. A lot of people used to think the world was flat. Just because Fox produces a lot of programming that people like doesn't mean that programming is any good. It just means Fox is capable of appealing to the lowest common denominator. And you need MORE money to do that?

I'm not just blasting Fox; take any of the networks and really think about their programming. Where are shows that will be legendary for their quality? Shows like Seinfeld, which spent as much time nurturing their characters as they did spitting out ingenious catch-phrases like "no soup for you!" What about the Gunsmokes, Paper Chases, Columbos, or even the campy Star Treks? Maybe these don't qualify as the best entertainment of all time, but they're certainly classic for the medium of television, whose own legitimacy as an art form, even at the dawn 2010, has yet to be completely accepted anyway.

Here's another question: how can the BBC, Britain's quasi-governmental production company, produce such programming gems as "As Time Goes By," "Office," and others at a fraction of what it costs Hollywood studios? Is it because they pay their actors far less, and their production staff even less? Is it because they re-use props? Or is it because they rely heavily on well-honed scripts and classically-trained actors to compensate for what the technical sophistication may lack? In other words, do they strive more for the upper end of the entertainment spectrum, as opposed to the lower end?

At what point will American television executives - both in the production and distribution sides - realize that they serve the American viewing public far better when quality acting, writing, and directing (the core components of any performance-oriented art) serve as the medium's standard-bearers?

Free broadcast television may soon be a thing of the past. But if we're all going to have to pay for TV, it better get much better pretty fast.

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