Let's Face It: TV Is Upchuck -- and Not Worth Consuming

Last Updated Aug 7, 2009 1:28 PM EDT

People think that anybody who is a consumer reporter, like yours truly, should confine her outrage to price disparities among jumbo and colossal olives or the difficulties of getting the cable guy to come on time. But I truly believe that consumer protection extends to any good or service the public receives -- health care, police work, trash pick-up, and government, to name a few. Either directly or through taxes (or government giveaways) we the public are paying for all of them. Ergo, we should be getting some value for our dough.

Which brings me to TV. Nearly 50 years ago, Newton Minnow, President John F. Kennedy's newly appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, declared "TV is a vast wasteland."

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.
Well, all I've got to say is: Minnow didn't know how good he had it. The mindless, moronic and repetitive TV fare we are consuming today makes mayhem, violence, sadism and murder look good by contrast.

Before I go further, let me say that I am not a TV hater. Just the opposite. Addict more accurately describes my sad condition. Seriously, I'll watch practically anything on a screen, including "Book Talk" on C-SPAN. Even if I don't like most of the choices at a particular hour, I'll click to the LOP -- the least objectionable program -- and flip back and forth during commercials between the two top LOPs.

But both networks and cable channels have adopted programming with such Hobbesian choices that I find myself turning the TV off. What's wrong? One problem: stations now run one program in a huge forever block. Take America's Got Talent, an updated version of the Ted Mack Amateur Hour which I think ran on radio and TV before even my birth. Circus acts are not exactly my cup of tea, especially accompanied by an audience screaming more frenziedly than Darfur refugees receiving shipments of Kentucky fried chicken. An hour once a week, fine. But does NBC have to give it three hours a night on Wednesday and another hour on Thursday? Seriously, America doesn't have that much talent. Same goes for "So You Think You Can Dance? on Fox.

Forever blocking extends well beyond the major channels. A&E, whose slogan used to be "time well spent" --hah! -- now gives audiences three straight hours of Dog the Bounty Hunter. Does the public want that much of its tattooed, pierced, wife-beater-wearing stars' encounters with pathetic, drug addicted losers? On other nights, A&E features three-hour blocks of CSI reruns, two-hour blocks of The First 48, a show that has real cops catching real murderers who are so pathetic that you almost sympathize with them, and two-hour blocks of Intervention, a program about users of heroin, meth, alcohol, cocaine, crack or all of the above being prodded into treatment. If instead you crave something more light-hearted, you can tune into three hour blocks of Reba re-runs on Lifetime or five- and six-hour blocks on Bravo of the Housewives of (name a city).
The soul-crushing inanity of TV is my second complaint. I became acquainted with the aforementioned housewives (of New York) when I was sick in bed for a week and too feeble to press buttons on the remote. Just what were these dames doing that was so-o-o-o-o fascinating? The parties? They were dull. Their families? Seriously, they made my family look exciting and dramatic by contrast. Their cultivation and refinement? That was hard to conclude after I saw clips of a New Jersey "housewife" tip over a dinner table in a snit. Give me Tony Soprano any time. Then there's the phony drama of a show like Say Yes to the Dress in which brides visit a New York salon to pick out a $5,000 wedding dress and then cry poignantly when they find their dream. If the bride's mother or father died of cancer last month, the suspense is excruciating.

And what about those reality series that want to make you gag? In Obsessed, on A&E, we get to witness people with obsessive-compulsive disorders cope with their demons. Among them: the need to spend hours in the shower cleaning one's rectum with implements that look like they came from a metal-fabrication plant. Then there's I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant from TLC. Since producers have even less idea that their stars are pregnant, much of the program is re-enactments. You've got to hand it to actors -- they'll take any part to survive -- like playing a woman who, surprised by the onset of labor pains, gave birth to twins in her toilet (complete with close-ups).

Media companies are complaining that they can't afford to do better because advertising revenues are falling. Maybe a part of the problem is that advertisers don't want to pay top dollar to have their products sponsor shows that feature people having babies in toilets or throwing tantrums a la Bridezilla. And if advertisers are starting to run for the hills, maybe we should too.
  • Marlys Harris

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