by Robin Reed
Last week, I talked about my history as a television viewer. Now let’s talk about something more recent.
First, one final nostalgic show reference: I always watch “The Wild Wild West” when I come across it. I don’t know why.
All righty then. I come not praise or condemn TV in general, but I do want to discuss its business model. I actually have to go back to radio again. In the early days of radio, no one could figure out how to make money on it when anyone could pick up the signals for free (or rather, for the cost of a radio.) Big companies were poised to sell the home receivers, but no one would buy them if there was nothing to listen to. Vaudevillians, musicians, and other performers thought it would be a new way to find an audience if they could get paid to do it.
I don’t know what genius thought to start charging advertisers, but the idea became the basis for radio, then TV, now a lot of the internet, NASCAR, signs in sports stadiums, and on and on. We live in an advertising-saturated culture. And I don’t like it.
It was while attending my first college (which went bankrupt after my first year) that I first learned that TV doesn’t sell shows to the audience. It sells the audience to advertisers. Every time I sit down to watch TV, it sells ME.
The old Nielsen ratings system, which used a laughably small sample of audience members, was the basis of the huge amounts of money TV charged for commercials. I guess cable can more accurately tell how many TV sets are tuned to what channels. The result is the same; TV shows are created to attract eyeballs to the shows so the number of eyeballs can be the basis of ad rates.
Attracting eyeballs to the TV is not the same as creating entertaining, interesting or enlightening television. One major way to attract viewers is to make the shows numbingly stupid. This explains Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, judge shows, TMZ, The Bachelor, Survivor, Big Brother and many others. Of course, if shows appeal to stupid people, then there must be a lot of stupid people out there. But the business model of TV wants people to be stupid and even get more stupid over the years. The stupider they are, the more money there is to be made.
I always hated soap operas, but they are beacons of sanity and intelligence compared to most daytime TV now.
When advertising is the basis of a culture, then no one objects to it taking over everything. Everything is for sale, and selling is everything. We now sell the very names of our public spaces to large corporations.
Then cable came along, what used to be called pay TV. We pay a healthy chunk of cash to get TV, and we still get commercials. We pay in precious time in our lives AND we fork out the monthly fee.
The recent revolution in “Reality TV” is based on such shows being very cheap to produce, and yet popular. All moneys not put into the production go into the producers’ pockets.
Advertising based TV came to fruition with the infomercial, which cuts out any kind of programming entirely. People still watch. Hell, many people have their TVs on all the time, as background, or when they’re not in the room. I will admit to watching an occasional infomercial, but at least I turn the thing off when I’m not watching at all.
I have some experience being in the audience of infomercials. I was paid. No one in an infomercial is there just because the product is wonderful. They clap when they are told to. They laugh when they are told to. If they ask a question they have been given the question on a piece of paper and ask it exactly as written.
It is clear to me that the advertising culture has a lot to do with the corruption of our political system. For one thing, campaigns only put forth information that can be conveyed in thirty or sixty seconds. Also, by charging political campaigns the same rates they charge McDonald’s and Procter and Gamble, they make congressman and senators spend most of their time calling donors, rather than actually legislating.
Not that the TV industry could solve that problem, laws need to be passed banning political ads and requiring free air time for campaigns. That won’t happen, the system is too far gone.
When I watch TV now, I never sit down at a specific time. There are too many other ways to see what I want, when I want, many of them without commercials. Mostly I flick on the TV just to see what there is to see. I tend to watch cable reality shows like “Pawn Stars,” “Mythbusters,” “American Pickers,” “Storage Wars,” etc. When I do this I don’t want to see a particular show, I just want some moving images and sound to suck into the black hole between my ears. Besides, the Internet has replaced TV as my primary time-waster.
I personally have completely lost interest in police or investigation shows. Especially if someone finds a body at the beginning of every episode. Is police work really the only interesting thing that humans do?
There are good TV shows. Shows done by people who care, and work hard to make their shows good. I watch those shows online, or on Netflix, or on DVD. The rest of TV is there to keep me from having to deal with the real world. And I don’t mean “The Real World.”
I watch a lot of crappy TV, but I try to avoid the ones that make me feel guilty for contributing to the lessening of the IQ of the human race. Yes, “Psych,” I’m talking to you.
To the people who make the good shows, I say keep doing it. I’m sure you know that your audience appreciates it. I’m sure you also know that your industry doesn’t really care how hard you work or what you do, as long as there are eyeballs that can be sold.