The Decline and Fall of Television, Part 3: Bandwidth
There was one particular thing I noted a few years back that set me to thinking and ultimately contributed to my writing this series on TV. At that time, I was working part time, which means I had, as Styx put it so well, “too much time on my hands”. I am not nearly so much of a TV watcher as I was twenty years, or even ten years ago; still, there had to be something to pass the time, so I often found myself scrolling through the channel listings (at that time we had satellite TV) during the day, seeing what (if anything) was on that was worthwhile. The answer was, not very much.
What I found fascinating was this: on many, many cable/satellite stations, the day’s fare consisted of back-to-back episodes of the same series all day long. For example, on certain days, Sci-Fi (now Syfy—ugh!) might show episodes of Star Trek (any version) back-to-back from nine in the morning until six in the evening. Other days it might be The X-Files, or The Incredible Hulk, or whatever. The point is that it was the same thing (different episodes, admittedly, but the same thing for all that) for an entire daytime schedule. Nor was Sci-Fi alone in this: I noted that USA, FX, and several others essentially did the same thing.
For that matter, even network TV does this a lot anymore. Consider how NBC seems at times to broadcast nothing but various iterations of Law and Order. Consider how many series nowadays air more than once per week. Consider how some series even have multiple seasons in the same year. As a child of the 70′s, this was all amazing and strange to me.
I thought about this on and off for some time, until it suddenly hit me as obvious: this was a manifestation of too much bandwidth. Let me explain what I mean.
As anyone reading this probably knows already, “bandwidth” is a colloquial term for the amount of content one can gain access to. For example, a dial-up connection moves very slowly and allows only slow access of online-material. DSL allows much faster access, and thus greater quantities of things that one can gain access to.
Now consider: If I can access only small amounts of content at a very slow speed, it follows that I don’t need much content. My connection, if it has low bandwidth, won’t let me access much in a reasonable time, so there doesn’t have to be much there to keep me occupied. On the other hand, if I can access a lot of stuff very rapidly, then it becomes very clear very quickly just how much stuff there is to access.
An analogy: I used to live in a town where there were only three bookstores in a hundred-mile radius. They were all very small, mom-and-pop operations. They stocked bestseller paperbacks, a few hardcovers, and they had magazine racks, and that was it. If you wanted anything else, you had to special-order it. If you went there, you knew in advance that the selection was small, so you went to get what they had, or ordered what you wanted. If they didn’t stock, say, Russian grammars or Latin American novels, well, you didn’t expect them to. If you wanted something that badly, you’d order it, and that was that.
I now live about 30 miles away from the largest bookstore in about a five-state radius. I don’t get there often, but when I do I sometimes am surprised that they don’t have a certain title I’m looking for. Sure, they have thousands of others, but you expect a huge store to stock more than a small one. Thus, books may be more prominent by absence in a large store than in a small one.
In short, the more access you have to something, the more noticeable shortages or outright absences are; and vice versa.
Think about TV 30 years ago (or if you’re not that old, note my description of it): Most stations didn’t begin broadcasting until 5 or 6 AM, and then they signed off for the night between 1 and 2 in the morning. A typical broadcast day went something like this:
5 AM: Farm/agriculture report (locally produced). At least this was true in the rural area where I grew up.
6 AM: Early local news.
7 AM: On NBC, the Today show; on other stations, cartoons and kid’s shows (e.g. the late, great Captain Kangaroo and New Zoo Review).
9 AM: The first round of soap operas and game shows begins and runs until about noon.
Noon: Local news (about a half-hour broadcast)
12:30 PM: Soaps and game shows until about 3-4 PM.
3-4 PM: Local content (usually news or kid’s shows that usually re-ran Looney Tunes or Marvel cartoons)
4-6 PM: Talk shows (Merv Griffin, Donahue, &c.) or reruns of network shows (e.g. Gilligan’s Island).
6 PM: Local news
6:30 PM: National news.
7-8 PM: Game shows or reruns.
8-11 PM: Network series (sitcoms, dramas, &c.)
11 PM: Local news.
11:30 PM: The Tonight Show on NBC; later on, Nightline on ABC.
11 PM-1 or 2 AM: On NBC, after the Tonight Show came the Tomorrow Show. Most other stations showed old movies. Signoff was around 1 or 2 AM.
Now news is, well, news. It varies from day to day. Game shows are the same day to day, just with changing contestants. Kid’s shows were usually shoestring budget things that re-ran old cartoons. Reruns were, well, reruns. Talk shows were talk shows. Soaps, admittedly, did require original content; but given the slow pacing and drawn out storylines, there was a high level of repetitveness that reduced the need for originality. Thus, out of each 24-hour day, only the three hours from 8 to 11 PM contained fully original drama or comedy. Depending on the show length, this was between three and six shows. Thus, (without going into the slightly different schedules on weekends) the typical network needed only to fill a total of 21 hours with original comedy or drama in every week. This is only 12.5% of the viewing week!
Nowadays, though, everything is 24/7. Networks, local affiliates, and cable and satellite stations have something going on every hour of the day and night. This means a lot more space to fill. This is even worse of a problem for satellite and cable stations, which don’t have the news, talk shows, and other fillers that networks and local affiliates have. So how to fill the time?
One could produce that much more well-made and compelling material. Unfortunately, observation of all areas of human endeavor, especially the artistic, gives ample evidence that well-made and compelling material is always a very, very small percentage of any overall output. In fact, even moderately worthwhile material is probably a minority of overall output. So what do you do? Even for the American public there’s a limit to how much crap you can get away with showing.
Well, you do one of two things: Show the same thing over and over and over, either in reruns or slightly different versions (the phenomenon that started this rumination); or you show infomercials, the main content between about 1 and 6 AM on most cable or satellite stations. Infomercials, in my opinion, are pure evil, but that’s for another day.
The point is that even thirty years ago, the networks were hard-pressed to come up with worthwhile material, at a time when they had to fill only three hours a night with original material. Even then they called it the “boob tube” or the “vast wasteland”, and complained that most of what was on was filler or crap. If it was that bad with limited hours, what do we expect from 24/7? We have more bandwidth than quality material to fill it. Yes, there is quality material, some of it arguably among the best material ever to have been on TV; but it is small in proportion to the crap, the repetitions, and the infomercials, I think. I don’t think it’s going to get any better, either–the amount of quality in any artistic field seems more or less fixed (you have the random efflorescence here and there, but those are always short-lived), so you really have to deal with the limited amount you’ve got.
Thus, greater access and more choices have led to more access to crap and mediocrity. Or, in the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen, “57 channels and nothin’ on.”