I never said I was going to have only two posts on the state of TV heading into the digital transition. I had every intention of doing more, and in fact I was inspired to write this post nearly four weeks ago, towards the end of the Olympics, when I watched a special commemorating 50 years of local CBS affiliate KIRO. Of course that means quite a bit of the special has faded from memory, especially as my watching was a bit off and on, but still, how exciting to be taken back to the heady days of the 1950s, when television was a wild and wooly place! Nobody knew what the heck they were doing, all the ground rules were still being laid in place, everyone was a trailblazer, and people were still trying to figure out this glowy box thing. Why, you had to operate a station with a few boxes, a few wires, and a small box for a studio! Not really, but you’d probably hear something of the sort.
In those days, you had to innovate to set yourself apart, and what set KIRO apart was one of the longest-running, most-beloved non-PBS kids shows perhaps ever, the J.P. Patches show. Every week, every day people from up and down the Sound would flip on their TV to watch a more-serious-than-most clown nonetheless get into wacky hijinks with more supporting castmates than you could shake a stick at, and all the bad jokes, wordplay, and even bones to the parents you’d expect from a low-budget kids’ show, all completely improvised. We didn’t need no stinking Captain Kangaroo, no siree! Unless you’re from around here you probably never even heard of J.P. Patches, and that’s just as it should be, but if you’re my age you’re probably just scratching your head no matter where you live. And that’s not even the only KIRO show to get its own Wikipedia article, odd as it sounds, and doubtless there are countless other markets that had their own wacky clowns and their own B-movie hosts, especially on those independent stations that really had to innovate to set themselves apart. Where did Mystery Science Theatre 3000 come from? Here in Seattle we even used to have a Saturday Night Live ripoff!
What happened to that? Where are the J.P. Patches and Cryptkeeper wannabees of the world? I grew up on Sesame Street and Nick Junior, and we hardly even turn on any sort of channel when we want to watch a movie. What on Earth has happened to local TV?
You want to know what a typical local TV schedule is like these days? If you’re with one of the Big Three, it’s all network, network, network all day long. Whatever time you don’t have to set aside for network or other purposes, you load it up with syndicated Oprah rip-offs, court shows, old TV shows (by “old” I mean “about three to ten years and probably still on the air, and we’re not talking Star Trek-like cult classics either, only the hits”), game shows, and oh yes, tabloid shows. The local news is the only thing local stations produce themselves anymore, and they take a lot of pride in it, but local news is very good at putting forth the same basic template and copying it across the nation, and it’s not always all that good a template – loaded with stock footage, stupid “don’t go away!” tricks, sappy “human-interest” stories, and an ignorance of real news in favor of “The Crime Report”. Name me one thing someone in Tampa is getting that they couldn’t get just as well in Phoenix or Minneapolis. It seems like no TV station these days is unique – you get your ABC over here, your NBC over there, your CBS in the other corner. Heck, just look at what the stations call themselves! They used to take pride in their call letters, but now they just define themselves by what the suits in New York send to them – it’s all “ABC 7” this and “CBS 2” that!
Independent stations? They don’t even EXIST anymore – the really great ones have hopped on board the Fox network, with whatever’s left flocking to UPN and the WB, and now the CW and “My Network TV”, the latter mostly to avoid having to lapse back into being an independent (more on this in a later post you can expect in about four weeks :). Fox doesn’t load down the schedule with morning shows or soaps no one cares about anymore, but what do you see on your local Fox station instead? If you guessed “syndicated crap even FEWER people care about than soaps” give yourself a hand! You can hold out hope for local sports on CW or My Network, but the network doesn’t want to see preemptions get in the way of their fun, so we see the Fox Sports Net channels get their dominance that just drives people further away from otherwise perfectly good antennas. (And that’s not the whole story: we have an independent here in Seattle, but the Mariners and recently-departed Sonics don’t use it, and the last time the Mariners were on broadcast television it was on the CW station. Blame the need to get on other stations in other markets with those games, which is too much of a hassle.)
Locally produced TV’s not dead – there are local shows on the NBC and ABC stations here where I live – but they are the VAST exception. Cable has pushed out a lot of the audience and local stations, in addition to having to work with a small market compared to the whole nation, don’t get a cut of cable subscriber fees. (The “retransmission-consent” scam is an attempt to change that, but I’m not seeing it changing this.) Local stations are all about cost-cutting; no way they’re going to take on the expense of producing anything except news for themselves! They don’t have to pay the costs of production, heck they might not even have to pay anything to the syndicators, they can just give them some of the ad space! Nothing really changes from place to place, you just see some of the syndicated shows hop to different channels and time slots!
When you hear people talk about the homogenization, the “McDonaldization” of America? This is what they’re talking about. For whatever reason, the TV industry has decided that one of the largest nations in the world, and the third most populous, should be funneled the same, copycat shows no matter where they live. (Except when it comes to sports, which is why people in Kansas City can’t watch the Patriots games that might be interesting because they’d supposedly all rather watch their crap team, and if they don’t like it they gotta get DirecTV. Have I mentioned that I think that if there’s any sports level that has earned the right to have every single game carried nationally it’s the NFL?) If I go to New Orleans, will I see anything on TV there that reflects the rich cultural heritage of the Cresent City? How about if I go to Miami? Or even San Francisco? (Actually, those two might be bad examples, but for disturbing reasons. The Spanish-language stations are very strong in Miami – but they’re basically the same crap as the English-language stations just in a different language and all the syndicated stuff replaced with more network stuff – and there are quite a few ethnically-oriented independents in SF. Still, what about the rich cultural heritage of Boston or Philadelphia or even Atlanta or Detroit? Will I see that reflected in the TV there, other than the news anchors’ fake accents?)
What the hell is the point of TV stations anymore, especially since no one uses antennas? The CW especially just seems like a cable network that you happen to be able to catch over the air. They’re little more than repeaters of whatever crap the network hurls their way, just with occasional local news breaks. Is this really what we’ve sunk to? I wouldn’t even mind if some of this stuff was just syndicated in a certain region, but that only happens with sports. Do we really think the people of Portland (Seattle is better than most markets, especially at its size between #10-20) and the people of Atlanta and the people of Texas and the people of Boston and the people of San Diego and the people of Cleveland all deserve the same stuff with a few adjustments for the local news? The famed “red state-blue state” divide says we’re NOT one homogenous group and that’s what makes America great. But TV has always been slow to reflect that heterogeny. I’d like to think I could have a “Seattle experience” that reflects more than just my sports teams, and that the first flag I could put up to mark myself as a Seattleite, assuming I couldn’t use my sports teams, wouldn’t be the meaningless “206”. But I’m digressing into other various topics.
(And I haven’t even gotten into how so many of these stations are owned by companies that are almost entirely dedicated to running what amount to repeaters, and don’t seem to be in the business of making them anything but, don’t have any plan to make them stand out.)