DAFOTV IV: Junk Genres
Having established the series of posts on this topic, I’m shortening “Decline and Fall of Television” as shown above and going from Arabic to Roman numerals to give a better feel. Just so you know.
In the last installment, I discussed the issue of bandwidth. The idea is that television programming has evolved from three major commercial networks with about twenty hours of broadcasting daily, and only about three of those dedicated to original programming to dozens of networks which broadcast 24/7. Any creative endeavor is going to produce more mediocrity or outright junk than quality product; thus today, with much more time to be filled and the amount of outstanding creativity being probably no more than it ever was (i.e., in short supply), TV is going to produce and air more junk than ever before. In this post I want to extend this notion, from junk as such to entire junk genres.
Making a TV show is a complicated process—you have producers, writers, directors, actors, etc. etc. For news shows or documentaries you have researchers, fact-checkers, etc. Also, each episode must be different—a different story, for a dramatic series, a different topic for a documentary, etc. Thus, from the producers’ point of view, the more you can pare things back, the more money you can save and the quicker you can put out the product, the more easily you can fill the airtime. Thus, there will be an inevitable pressure towards genres that require less and less actual craftsmanship; thus by corollary, genres which are more and more dumbed-down and trivial.
The first way to simplify is by improvisation. Instead of having writers write episodes, you have the actors improvise off of a basic framework. There was a minor trend of this on TV not long ago. Partly, I think, it followed in the wake of The Blair Witch Project (worthy of an article itself, but that’s for another day); but it obviously must have struck execs as a way to speed up the production process and save time and money on actually writing scripts. There have been some gems that have resulted from this; but from what I’ve seen and read from others who watch much more than I, they’ve been the exception. The problem with improv is that it takes very skilled actors and a good framework to pull it off well. Even for the best, doing it regularly and consistently in the context of an ongoing series (as opposed to unrelated sketch improv) is very difficult. There’s a reason that screenwriters exist, after all.
The next strategy is game shows. Game shows require no writing, only one set instead of multiple sets, no actors (unless you count the hosts or celebrity guests), and depending on the premise, relatively little research. You just get contestants on a stage and have them play the game, week after week. Easy. Game shows get a bit tiresome after awhile, but I don’t object to them in principle. I watched almost all game shows of the early 70′s, after all. In any case, game shows are easy ways to fill bandwidth, so their resurgence is no surprise. I do have some issues with their current incarnation, but I’ll save that for a later post.
At least improv and game shows have a venerable history and can be done well. The next step down is so-called “reality television”. There have been antecedents for this going all the way back to the PBS series An American Family, the NBC series Real People, and later, MTV’s The Real World. Survivor was the archetype of the current wave, which shows no signs of abating. The idea with reality shows is that you dispense with writing, direction, and everything else and just shoot film of whoever doing whatever. One refinement is that there’s usually a “premise”–Let’s put people on an island and watch what they do! Let’s give a family a new house and see how they react! Let’s send people on a race! Etc.
N.B.: I include things like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Biggest Loser, the recent shows Jamie Oliver has been doing, and the various shows about hoarders, home makeovers, bridesmaids, etc. on TLC, Discovery, and such under the rubric of “reality TV”. I even include Dick Clark’s old Bloopers shows and America’s Funniest Home Videos. They may not all purport to be documentaries (as An American Family did) or have an explicit game-show aspect (as Survivor does), but the basic principle of just letting the camera roll before “real people” is essentially the same. Also, I realize that it’s not all “real”–there’s jimmying and manipulating—but it’s still easier and cheaper than writing an actual drama or researching a documentary.
The next strategy is to have multiple seasons and multiple airtimes for the same show. Dancing With the Stars, for example, has two seasons every year (something inconceivable in the last century!) and airs two days a week (also inconceivable for an entertainment show back in the day). The idea is that instead of risking a new show in a given time slot, just put a proven commodity in more than one time slot, and do it as many times as you can per year. You use the tried and true rather than the new, different, or experimental.
The nadir of junk genres is the infomercial, the staple of late, late night slots that previously had only a test pattern. Frankly, I think the test pattern is esthetically, ethically, morally, and in all other ways superior. The infomercial is the ultimate short-cut to fill space. You don’t even have to produce it—the advertiser does—and you don’t have to worry about making money from it, because they pay you to air it! If it were possible, I suspect the networks would air infomercials exclusively. Thank God the public’s taste hasn’t descended that far yet!
This concludes the overview. I want to look in more depth at junk genres individually, which I will do in upcoming posts.