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 www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.