Television Killed Itself: The Rise of Pointless Television

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Television Killed Itself: The Rise of Pointless Television

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | July 18, 2012 | Comments ()


I've been sitting in a hotel room in one city or another for going on three weeks now. The reasons aren't important here, but suffice to say, it has been a period of interminable hurry up and waiting. Five years ago, staying in a hotel was a treat as far as television went. I'd put on the History Channel or the Discovery Channel and just let it ride. I've watched enough "Modern Marvels" that I might be able to restart civilization from scratch by myself, assuming the slow mutants stay out of the way.

There was a joy to most of the channels. The shows had to do in some broad sense at least with the topic of the channel on which they aired. Now they are nothing but a void of vapidity. History? I have multiple degrees in history and haven't stopped on that channel once in three weeks. I can't name an instance of flipping by it once when it wasn't airing "Pawn Stars."

Fucking reality television. It's not reality. Not simply because it's probably half scripted, and the individuals are so far removed from actual reality to make the term meaningless, but because it conveys nothing of actual reality. In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, so long as they'll sign a liability release and have a job that would make their grandparents ashamed to have bothered winning those wars in the first place.

And sure, bad television isn't something to be that worked up about in and of itself. The problem is where the formula leads. Good drama and comedy last nigh on forever. They'll be selling the DVDs, remakes, and film rights to those things for the next century. "The Next Housewives' Alaska Pawnshop"? Go fuck yourself, television. That might make you a larger profit margin now, but it's at the expense of destroying your future base because you have shifted from producing long term value hooked to the brand of a themed network to simply producing whatever random filler happens to fall in front of a camera.

There is no longer any brand meaning in most of television. History, TLC, A&E, Discovery ... the dreck that fills these stations isn't just terrible television, it is terrible business because it has no connection to its network. Hell, even the Weather Channel has a reality show about a fireworks company. Think brand doesn't matter? Explain then with a straight face why you don't care whether it's HBO or Lifetime that adapts your favorite novel.

We are in the midst of some of the best television that has ever been made. The networks that dedicate themselves to storytelling are constructing a new golden age of creativity. But it seems to be a dichotomy. Either networks self destruct into vapidity or they go the total quality route; the only real exceptions being USA and TNT with their foray into light popcorn entertainment.

Why now? That's the real question. It's easy to explain away that reality shows are cheap and easy and cable television's endless wasteland of hours needing filled just beg for that sort of entertainment. That might be the easy answer but it's also a steaming pile. Those conditions have existed for well over twenty years without seeing the detonation of shit that has occured over the last five years.

But we kind of like that answer because then it's not anyone's fault. We can attribute crap on television to some sort of natural effect of a marketplace without examining the faults of any of the actors. Hey, companies make that crap because it's cheap and they have hours to fill, no reason to be introspective about anything. But the moment we consider that maybe this explosion is on the demand side, we have to look in the mirror.

Is it a 9/11 thing? Is it just that this generation of whippersnappers is really that shallow and vapid? Can we blame Paris Hilton or the Kardashians?

No, I think there's a deeper poison at work. The escapism of television storytelling is breaking apart, it is losing its ability to charm the masses as it once did. In its place is something uglier and more petty: voyeuristic porn of the freaks of society. We stare at those who leech off of the margins, bidding on storage lockers, wrestling aligators, babysitting rich brats, flipping houses. It was once said that a workers' revolution was impossible in America because even the poorest believed that someday they might be rich. Today they just hope to attach themselves to the wealthy or find some big score that will get them through to the next day. There's no hope of advancement by work, by creating something, only of getting one over on the next sucker in line.

It's suffocating cynicism. It leads individuals to stagnate and leads content companies to toss crap on the air in order to get a payday now at the expense of the future. Reality television isn't the problem; it's a symptom of something terrible.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • kudzususan

    Eloquently stated and very timely. I really think it's an epidemic. Think about how many people you deal with during an average day who just don't care about how their actions impact the world around them or whether they are doing their jobs or raising their children or just living their lives with any kind of integrity. Seems that the state of television programming is a symptom.
    Definitely recommend anyone who hasn't seen it to watch Mike Judge's Idiocracy. (another commenter earlier referenced "Ow, My Balls.") Funny, but a little terrifying in it's accuracy.

  • Green Lantern

    I WAS going to write something along the lines of "I'll be laughing...and crying...along with you guys when 'Ow, My Balls' finally broadcasts.", until I I remembered "Ridiculousness" on MTV and realized we were already there.

  • NateMan

    Your one mistake is this:
    "No, I think there’s a deeper poison at work. The escapism of television storytelling is breaking apart, it is losing its ability to charm the masses as it once did. In its place is something uglier and more petty: voyeuristic porn of the freaks of society. We stare at those who leech off of the margins, bidding on storage lockers, wrestling aligators, babysitting rich brats, flipping houses."

    This hasn't changed. This instinct has always existed. Back in the 19th and early 20th century - and before - it was the circus sideshows that were the draw. Then a morality wave crashed, and they went out of style. The only way we could get our fix was slowing down when we passed a car crash. But now the freakshows are BACK, on national television, with an exponentially expanded audience, and what's more is we have people vying for the opportunity to become the freaks. We've made it into a fucking badge of honor to be so screwed up, so damaged, that other people will waste hours of their lives in horrified, amused viewing of your life. It's pathetic, and anyone who's ever been on reality television should be sterilized for our protection, but it's sadly all together human for this to happen.

  • zeke_the_pig

    As George Carlin said: 'I think we're just circling the plughole as a species now, and personally I'd like to see the circles getting a little smaller and a lot faster.'

  • when The Weather Channel began running movies and producing reality shows- like "real lifeguards of the OC" or whatever they call it, I realized it was the end of the television world as we know it. its the faulking WEATHER CHANNEL, for crissakes.

    Hear me now and listen to me later: unless the programmers at TWC have learned that Jim Cantore has been cooking meth in his storm chaser van in between Gulf hurricanes, they have no business producing, airing or running a reality show.

  • John G.

    I'd like to blame Reality Television, but Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and Whitney are all scripted. The problem has to be us. We're morons, and we'll watch watch anything they put on.

  • David Sorenson

    Preach it. The big three channels I would stop on were Discovery, National Geographic, and History for some hot and sexy educational action? Now it's all Deadliest Catch, Pawn Stars, and Alaskan State Troopers or some variety of them because apparently SCIENCE isn't cooler than what some dumbass found in a god damned storage locker and sold for a profit.

  • frank_247

    Iread that as "Deadliest Prawn Catch" and thought, "I'd watch that"....

  • Bert_McGurt

    To be fair, it's not just the deluge of reality shows - it's the quality of the programs on those networks in the first place.

    Cases in point - History's Brad Meltzer's DECODED, which is a semi-scripted show (hosted by the guy responsible for DC's Identity Crisis, no less) recounting obnoxious conspiracy theories, kind of like Dan Brown meets National Treasure. And even worse - Ancient Aliens. Does anyone seriously consider that orange Greek dude with the weird hair and terrible accent an expert in ANYTHING?

  • I think the explosion recently is also to do with being able to very cheaply shoot digital rather than on film or video. Follow around some idiots with a small crew, store the footage on a hard drive and download it for editing. You can produce fast and cheap. The inexplicable popularity of Jersey Shore was the flame that lit the fuse. After that show became a hit with dip shits everywhere all the networks wanted their own freak show.

  • John W

    You can thank FOX. The minute they started airing Cops it's been a slow decent into the crapper ever since.

  • I feel like the downfall of cable television by internet streaming will change the landscape next. I don't know if the content will be better or worse, but I think it will make television/webisode/internet-programming makers limit their content and perhaps their need to create cheap programming.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    And now I'm so depressed I can't even scoff.

  • Fredo

    The problem occurred in 2008 when the WGA's strike happened. Before that every network had 1-2 "big" reality TV shows but when the strike happened, they turned away from scripted shows to reality TV to fill in their air times. What they found was that people not only didn't turn away from those shows, but instead followed them in droves -- everything from the "Pawn Stars" to "The Voice."

    And, in a sense, reality TV isn't really the issue. It's the watering down aspect that's the issue. It's not just "Pawn Stars", but "American Pickers", "American Restoration" and "Cajun Pawn Stars." It's not "Deadliest Catch" but "Ice Road Truckers", "Ax Men", "Mountain Men" and so on. It's having 2 NCIS shows and 3 CSIs. It's having American Idol and Dancing with the Stars on 2-3 nights a week. TV networks have become addicted to the cheap, copy-and-paste method. They're not generating new ideas. On the contrary, any show that fails to meet the ratings of these beasts gets the axe -- never mind that the reason they get the ratings they get is cause audiences are trained to catch each episode for fear of missing out on a "live" moment.

    I always think back to 1991 and how Seinfeld was doing so poorly during its first season that there were real fears it was going to be cancelled. NBC stuck with it then. I doubt they would stick with it now.

  • Leigh

    Your post is 100% genius.

  • dizzylucy

    "Hell, even the Weather Channel has a reality show about a fireworks company." Yes, as I unfortunately discovered while in the midst of a sudden, horrible storm a few weeks back where I quickly turned on TWC to get an update. Instead I got 10 minutes of "drama" about fireworks before an emergency update crawl even came on. Silly me, expecting the Weather Channel to actually report on the weather.
    There is some beautiful, brilliant work being done on TV these days, mostly by a select few basic and premium cable networks, with the rare network gem (Parks and Rec). But the vast majority of it is utter garbage. I do not understand who watches all these shows about cupcakes and pawn shops and people catching racoons and plastic surgery freaks whining about their luxury lives, but somebody must be.

  • Slash

    Yeah, "payday now at the expense of the future" pretty much describes a lot of what's wrong with America today. Though greed isn't new. And greed given priority over other stuff certainly isn't new. I think it's because there are so goddam many channels/hours to fill, it's reduced the value of TV.

    When it was just 3 networks (plus PBS plus a few independents, when I grew up in OKC), there were a total of maybe 6 shows to watch at any given time, and all channels signed off at midnight (a few went all the way to 2 a.m. on the weekend). That's it. Just 6. Not 500. No internet, and the latest home video game was still Pong. No cell phones.

    If you wanted to watch a TV show, you had to watch one of the 6, and because they each had to compete for the millions (in large metro areas) of viewers, they actually tried (kinda). They were competing for at least 1/6 of the (for ex.) 5 million NYC metro viewers. Now they're competing for a lot smaller share, against a lot more competition, and also competition besides television.

    Now there's so much competition for entertainment, a lot of TV producers don't bother trying to be "competitive," they just identify a niche and then try to fill it, mostly with the cheapest, fastest shit they can slap together. Which is usually the stupidest shit.

    Networks and other "content providers" bitch about how much it costs to produce TV, but they themselves have made sure, through sheer volume, that viewers don't value TV highly. Why would we? When I can turn on TV at any hour of the day and find something to watch from among hundreds of channels (if I actually shell out for the primo cable package), there isn't any value. Scarcity creates value. Ubiquity creates its opposite.

  • Four Eyes

    Trust me, it's not American society alone that has devolved into this sort of quick fix mentality. It's something that has taken root here in Trinidad as well. "Gimme now and to hell with later." ("Later" can also be interchanged with "quality")

  • GunNut2600

    Your underselling just how insanely cheap reality TV is compared to a normal show. Even when its scripted, which most reality tv is now, there is no comparison to the cost. I am willing to bet that the entire production cost of an entire season of "insert random noun here-WARS" is less than the cost to do a single show of "Madmen". Most of the idiots on Reality TV provide content for free. So the return numbers you need to justify the costs is insanely low.

    Say I got a shit show, that costs me next to nothing to produce...I don't have to compete against "Breaking Bad" because that show requires a much MUCH higher viewer rate to break even. The number of required viewers to break even is so low, that you put it on any channel, anytime, and I can sell advertising for it that we ensure I make a profit.

    Eventually we are going to have dog fighting and fist fucking on TV. The continued decline of human seen on TV.

  • Slash

    Dog fighting AND fist fucking together? Dog fighting WHILE fist fucking? Or dog fighting, THEN fist fucking for the "winner"?

    So many questions ...

  • GunNut2600

    See...the tie in shows just write themselves. We got an entire weekly line up here!

  • Mr_Zito

    Until something like two years ago, I had spent eight years without cable. I remembered when I had it, whenever I wanted to just sit and put anything on, I would be able to watch something that at least didn't offend or annoy me so much that I would turn it off. Now that I got cable again it's nothing like that. As I work mostly out of home, it's common for me to take breaks and turn on the TV, and the risk that I catch on something good and forget about work has disappeared, because almost everytime I spend something like ten minutes flipping channels and I just quit. It's really terrible.
    I just don't agree completely when you talk about Pawn Stars. I can't stand anything else History puts on, but I think this is a good show, when it's not taken over by its "characters" and rides on the atual history of the objects and how certain historic objects are valued and others aren't, it's actually a good show. I think Pawn Stars was actually an interesting way of taking the format of the reality show and using it to talk about history. I can't say the same of the various spin-offs and rip-offs. The one where the guys have to sell or auction the objects is kind of fun, like a gameshow version of Pawn Stars.

  • Blake Shrapnel

    You ungrateful shits. This is the greastest moment for television in all of its history. Do you think the Wire would have gotten five seasons in 1965? Fuck no, it would have been canceled and replaced with reruns of Gilligans Island? Do you think Game Of Thrones would have gotten 6.5 million clams an episode? I hope you like the Battle of Blackwater Bay done with cardboard ships and matte paintings. Would the Walking Dead exist? Good luck getting that through the Moral Majority. BUT AT LEAST THERE WOULDNT BE SNY FUCKING REALITY SHOWS.

  • Slash

    You meant "GREASIEST moment for television," right? Because that would be appropriate here.

    Just trying to help ...

  • Aaron Anthony

    Ummm did you miss the part where he said "we are in the midst of some of the best television ever made." Did you just read the first paragraph then hop down to bitch about it without finishing? Where are you even getting 1965 from? He said five years ago, that makes it 2007 unless you have some sort of wacky time machine that turns 5 years into 48.
    I see the main complaint here being that channels that used to have a distinct identity (i.e. History, Discovery, A&E, MTV, TLC) have completely abandoned that concept in favor of cheaply produced "reality" shows that are in now way unique to that channel and in fact could be shown on any channel out there. When I turn to History Channel I want to see something that has to do with history not some lowest common denominator crap that I couldn't care less about. Even shows like Modern Marvels is pushing it for me but at least they have some sort of historical significance to tie it in with the History Channel's (old) mission. The same can't be said for Ice Road Truckers, Pawn Stars, or any of that drek.

  • schrome

    I think I miss "Wild Discovery" more than anything. Discovery used to be such a great channel, History as well. I used to actually LEARN things from their programming.

  • bokchoi

    I used to love "Connections" on TLC, but back then it was The Learning Channel.

  • dahlia6

    Let's be real, television is as much about art as TMZ is to reputable journalism. The sad thing is, it doesn't have to be. I can't speak for the inception of TV (my time machine has a flat and is stuck in the 1700's right now) but I remember when the Friends cast demanded their 1 million an episode paycheck back in the hazy 90's. And I thought it was bullshit. I mean, yeah, you're popular and pretty and everyone loves you, but 1 million dollars? Seriously? For TV? Its spiraled out of control since then. If the star really gave a shit about art, instead of ego, they'd be focusing on getting decent writers for their show, work on some of the shitty special effects, and, I don't know, stop pandering to the half-wit mouth-droolers and give their audience a little bit of credit when it comes to programming. Aim higher. You'll hit the ground if you aim for it, but really, at the end of the day, all that means is you've spent the day rolling around in the dirt with the pigs.

  • John G.

    Is there a difference between TMZ and CNN or any other cable news?

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    Part of me says reality television is nothing more than guilty pleasures for most people, and now there's a flavor for everyone and that's not so bad, right? But the other half of me gets a little sick inside and worries that this is an indication of something worse, and what we see now is the death of the canary in the coal mine. I agree with you that I think it stems from a newly pervasive undercurrent that everyone believes he or she will be the next reality tv star. The rocks I cling to are, as you mentioned, the amazing shows that are being scripted (Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, etc) knowing that they will surivive. I wonder if this is our deal with the devil and these "little" shows exist because they're cheaper than making another Two and a Half men and networks are willing to tailor programming to small but dedicated audiences and hell, I don't know. Maybe there's always just lots of flotsam and jetsam, we just didn't have so many channels to thrust in constantly in our face. The question is - do we relish in the golden age of creativity or throw our hands up in despait?

  • Alex0001

    I used to agree with the "guilty pleasure" stance until things like the Jersey Shore and the Kardashian show came on. At first glance you look at the people on these shows and laugh at how awful they are. But then people start to change somehow. People actually admire and genuinely like the Snookies and Kim's on these shows. It's not guilty anymore, people think these "characters" are wonderful people to be looked up to.

  • BierceAmbrose
  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    That clip was actually quite interesting and I find both his pectorals and his parietal lobes engaging.

  • BierceAmbrose

    Mr. Rowe gives me something to aspire to - on both counts.

  • Bert_McGurt

    Host charisma renders it acceptable.
    See also: Mythbusters.

  • e jerry powell

    Host PECTORALS renders it acceptable.

    There, fixed that for you.

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