Thursday, January 21, 2010

Is there anything noble in the world of television anymore?

I'll admit it, I'm probably more addicted to television that I should be, but at the same time, it's a welcome diversion from the day to day events that crop up from life and work. I'm willing to pay more than most folks for the ability to watch certain things, like professional soccer, so we have a digital package with our local cable operator. I've suffered with just normal network television, and now that I've seen the light, I can't go back. It would be like switching from cable internet to dial up, you could make it work but if it doesn't cost that much more, why not pay the extra.
And for the most part, television provides some welcome diversions. I have my stable of shows that I watch religiously each week to see the wacky adventures, and for parts of the year, I'm entertained. It's not a bad relationship on most occasions, except when networks decide to put a lot of good shows on the same night, like Thursdays. I love Community and the Office, but my wife is a huge CSI fan and used to watch Ugly Betty when it was still on Thursdays, so we used VCRs to catch up on episodes we couldn't see. Most Tuesdays we bowl, so any shows that fell on that night got taped for viewing later, but then it became an issue trying to find time to watch. No worries, television on demand now has most of the shows available anytime, so it makes it easy to watch when you have a spare moment. I appreciate the flexibility of this, especially after one tragic night where a VCR consumed a tape of a show that I was watching, and we never did get the tape removed. This led to us having to buy a new VCR, which apparently now is hard to do because most places don't make just plain VCRs anymore.
Technology may take care of some concerns and problems, but there's been some rather disturbing trends that are beginning to bug me about the whole concept of television. While I appreciate that cable has become a big business and most people now have it simply as a necessity, I miss the days where big events were always on broadcast television. The NBA All Star Game hasn't been on broadcast television in years, and over the past few years, the MLB playoffs have been shown between Fox and other cable outlets, and now even regular season NFL games are appearing on cable on either ESPN or the NFL network. Granted, we live in a rather wired society, so most hardcore fans have figured out ways to watch what they want to without having to rely on networks, but I fear the days of being able to choose are slowly fading away.
NBC and Comcast are merging operations very soon, giving a cable communications magnate control of one of the major networks in American, while the other three channels are part of large multi-national corporations that have a media arm. Even large companies now have separate divisions that strictly deal with media and public relation issues, and while that's not exactly a new development, this arrangement is even filtering to smaller firms who need help with the media. Unlike in other parts of the world, television in America is for the most part a free enterprise run by whomever owns the broadcasting rights with very minimal oversight. The Federal Communications Commission provides oversight into mergers, business practices, and ensuring that some federal standards are met, but for the most part, they've let business do what they want on the airwaves.
In many parts of Europe, the government levies a television tax for all the houses that use television, and the tax is then given to broadcasters in lieu of having to generate income from advertisements. American stations on the other hand rely on their network sponsors to provide some content, while they subsidize themselves to a great deal on income from advertisements. This has lead to a spawn of infomercials, a full length program that advertises a product or service. And while I find some of them rather amusing, it's obvious that with them appearing on the schedules a lot, stations make a ton of revenue here without having to buy or create other content. It's bad enough that most shows now have more commercials bombarding our senses, but now many shows have become talking billboards for a product without most folks realizing it. I am all for free enterprise as much as anyone else, but at what point is commercializing everything enough?
And with overcommercialization, it's now become part of the plan to make some things more of a spectacle that they've been before. I know it's crazy when NFL playoff games have halftime entertainment and other events reserved for the Super Bowl, because networks and advertisers are doing whatever they can to have people watch. Even local news has become shills for network programming, often taking away news time from their nightly news to talk about an upcoming show or interesting story that happened on a network show. I suppose that I've become numb to that whole development, but this meshing of entertainment and commercialism has produced two prominent situations playing out as we speak that affect a lot of people.
One is with an FCC decision regarding regional sports networks and sharing content, as the FCC declared that content operators must make a good faith effort to share content amongst various interfaces. This means that cable operations that have a contract with a team or league must work with other vendors, such as satellite providers, to ensure that content is more readily available. This situation has a huge impact in the Portland area, as the rights to the Trail Blazers broadcasts are held by Comcast. While some providers have worked out an agreement to broadcast the game and some games are available locally on KGW, most fans are shut out because of Comcast, who not only has asked for a premium price for their channel from other providers but they've exercised their rights to blackout other access channels available to local residents for Blazer broadcasts, like the NBA Ticket. Since the Blazers signed a 10 year deal with Comcast to create a channel for their games, some fans have been in limbo trying to see their team on television.
While I agree that free enterprise works in most situations, it's hard to make something work efficiently with a limited amount of providers, referred to in economic terms as an oligopoly. Because there are only a few outlets available, most situations require a government agency or group to regulate companies to ensure free access while allowing companies to charge a reasonable fee. And based on what is being said, Comcast is happy to sell their channels to anyone that wants them, but the fees being asked for apparently are appalling. And within the past few months, there have been various cable outlets upset at the increase in fees that most channels are charging for their programming. It's no wonder that cable rates have risen quite astronomically over the past few years, and now to prevent people from moving to satellite or other options, cable systems are trying to play hardball in protecting their exclusive content. Instead of thinking of fans, the companies are searching for more money and keeping control, and in that war, consumers lose. The only problem is that when companies fight, consumers often lose, and that's why most Trail Blazer fans may rejoice the decision but they don't expect any dramatic changes right away. There's too much money involved for either side to back down now, so this whole thing could get ugly.
Not as ugly as the late night wars, which have finally reached a point of truce today. After seven months, Conan O'Brien is leaving the Tonight Show after NBC decided they wanted to move Jay Leno back to late night television. Leno hosted the Tonight Show for 17 years before agreeing to retire this year to give O'Brien the earlier time slot, only to be given a prime time talk show at 10 PM to keep him at the network. When the show failed, NBC tried to move Leno back to late night while keeping O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon on the payroll, but when O'Brien refused the move, it led to a war of words. The retirement agreement was set up a few years ago to avoid the media mess when Leno took over from Johnny Carson and Dave Letterman bolted to CBS in protest.
I'll admit I'm not a fan of Leno, and watched his actions as the retirement date approached wondering if he would really fade into the sunset or if he'd try to move to another show or network. He did, and provided NBC a terrible entertainment option at 10 PM causing other issues with the affiliates. When they got unhappy, instead of honoring the agreement with O'Brien, NBC decided to wedge Leno into the late night fold. And Leno, instead of being noble or a good guy in just walking away decided he wanted to return to the limelight. I can't blame O'Brien for being upset, especially being a loyal employee for almost 20 years, and now given a chance to host a show he's dreamed about for years, he's shown the door after 7 months.
Granted, the ratings have been off the hook and late night television hasn't been this funny in years because the drama is real and hosts are veering from their normally scripted material to mine some comic gold. But this whole situation just reinforces the fact that ratings aren't enough anymore, and shows must worry about marketability and demographics. Leno draws the type of viewers NBC wants, and they made their choice not based on ratings, simply a desire to attract the people they want watching their network, and in the process, have upset many people with their decision. O'Brien may not appeal to everyone, but he's got a manic energy that is reminiscent to the early days of Letterman with his absurdest humor, and to me, that's what late night television is supposed to be about. The only people benefiting from this mess are Letterman and Craig Ferguson at CBS, who stand to benefit from disenfranchised O'Brien fans waiting for his eventual return.
Television is supposed to provide a diversion from the day to day drama we all experience, but as often we see in the world, reality creeps its head into a lot of unexpected areas. Maybe in all of this mess, people will see the value of sticking to your word and doing what's right for the consumer instead of grabbing for every last available dollar.

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