The Decline and Fall of Television, Part 2: Definitions
It occurred to me that if I’m going to write about the “Decline and Fall” of TV, I should be a little more precise about what I mean. “TV”, after all, covers quite a bit of territory, and “decline” could refer to quality, creativity, or even technology. What exactly is declining and falling? And what is the evidence that this is happening? And why? I was originally going to have this post deal with the evidence, but as I began writing it, I decided I needed to back up a little bit to be clear.
I think many of us have come to a point of deciding, after watching something extraordinarily bad, that most TV is crap. This is probably true, since, as a rule of thumb, most of anything is crap. Many of us have probably also had times when we decided that not only is most TV crap but that TV in general is getting worse. Also possibly true; like most things, TV gets better at times, worse at times, cyclically. Thus, at any given time it may indeed be true that TV is getting worse. Finally, many of us have probably concluded, after watching something truly egregious, that not only is most TV crap, and not only is TV getting worse, but that the situation is irremediable. In other words, TV is getting worse and will never get better; it is slowly (or quickly, depending on your view) going into toilet (or at least oblivion), never to return. In short, TV as an art form (or even entertainment form) is in its final stages before the end
I guess I should clarify the last point. Obviously,
barring societal collapse, the technology isn’t going anywhere; nor is the use thereof. What I mean by “TV” in the context of this series is “the various types of entertainment and other content, usually in the form of series, that have become the traditional content provided by the medium of television”. By this I include most series, specials, news programs, and the vast majority of other material that has been presented on TV since its inception and is for the most part presented on it now.
By “decline” I mean three different things, in part: decline in quality (by which I include creativity and innovation, as well as pure “is it good or bad” considerations); decline in output (certainly not happening yet, but I’ll get to that); and decline in relevance and vitality as a sociocultural force (this is the sense in which I am most interested, but once again, we’ll get there in a bit). Decline in quality needs no explanation, I think. One may debate whether it’s happening, but we certainly understand what it means conceptually. Decline in output also needs no explanation. After all, art forms do die out either completely or nearly completely–how often do you see zoetropes or go to vaudeville shows? Decline in relevance and vitality as a sociocultural force is mainly what I’m going to be talking about. This is less obvious, but it has happened many times in the past and doubtless will continue to do so in the future.
Just for one example: Epic poetry has not been a vital, relevant sociocultural force for a long, long time now. Arguably the last epic poem of real importance and significance in any Western language, at least, was Milton’s Paradise Lost (the Kalevala was compiled in the century before last, but whether it is properly an “epic” in the strict sense is debatable, and while it is a significant and interesting piece of literature, I think few would put it in the same class with the works of Milton, Homer, and Vergil). That was about 400 years ago. The last one before that was Vergil’s Aeneid, 1600 years before Milton. Now the point here is certainly not to deny the greatness of the Iliad, the Odyssey, or any other great epic poems. Their greatness is for the ages. My point is that for whatever reason, epic poetry died out as an art form and is no longer practiced in any culturally meaningful way. Sure, for all I know there are thousands of people out there cranking out epics by the droves even as we speak. Have we ever heard of them, though, or does anybody care? For that matter, can any non-specialist even name an epic written since Milton?
I do acknowledge that there have been many culturally significant, even great, presentations in many genres (drama, documentary, etc.) in the history of television, and I think these will be remembered. I also think, however, that such things are becoming fewer and farther between, and that what’s left is plunging in quality at a rapid pace. This is basically what I’m going to discuss in future posts.