Mad Dog: The Trouble With TV
Television has been in the news a lot lately. It's one thing to read newspaper and magazine stories about it, but there's something unsettling about seeing the evening news run stories about itself. It's a primeval fear to be sure, born from the dark dread that such incestuousnous will give rise to some mutant media offspring which will bear a startling resemblance to the banjo player in Deliverance. And it will be given its own daytime talk show opposite Rikki Lake.Interestingly all this uproar hasn't been about the decline of quality, the lack of morals, or the talking turd on South Park. It's actually been about a sitcom going off the air, a dramatic series that will cost more per episode than falls out of Bill Gates' pants pocket in the wash, and how the obesity rate in males will rise next year since there will be more commercials per football game, giving fans yet more opportunities to wake up in their La-Z-Boy recliners and refill the bowl of Doritos.We might as well admit it, TV is important to Americans. On the average we watch 4.4 hours of it every day. This is like taking a full two months out of your year to do nothing but watch 24-hours a day of TV. And you thought A Clockwork Orange was scary. Add this to the 8 hours of sleep most of us get every night and it turns out that the average American is unconscious fully half of his or her life. Except Jesse Helms, of course, who has even briefer spells of consciousness.If you're like most people, you deny that you watch much TV. If this is true, then how come everyone knows the first names of the supporting characters on the Drew Carey show, gripes that Jerry Springer wore the same suit on "Men Who Love Women But Only For Their Nose Hair" that he did on "When Bad Shows Get Worse", and argues that Justine Bateman was better in "Family Ties" than she was on "Men Behaving Badly?" And actually seem to care? Oh, that's right, they saw it on that special on The Discovery Channel. Or was it C-SPAN?The truly scary part is that if all these people really don't watch much TV then there's an equal number of people who watch twice as much. At a whopping 8.8 hours a day that would be more time than they spend sleeping, 16 times as much as they spend in the shower, and easily enough to have them declared clinically catatonic.So is it any wonder that when Jerry Seinfeld announced that his modestly named show wouldn't return for another lame season it hit the front page of the newspaper, was the lead story on the evening news, and even made the cover of Time magazine? I guess we should be grateful that it happened too late for Time to make him their Man of the Year, an honor which instead went to Andrew Grove, the CEO of Intel, for helping make it possible to exchange time spent in front of the TV screen for time in front of the computer screen. At least now we can play Myst, chat online with 65 year-old men who claim to be 17 year-old cheerleaders named Bambi, and sleep well in the knowledge that we own the most expensive door stops in the history of civilization.They say Jerry Seinfeld turned down an offer of $5 million an episode to return to NBC. This proves that money wasn't the point, insanity was. Not Seinfeld's for turning it down, but the network's for proposing it. Once they realized that "Must See TV" was about to become "Musty TV", the network panicked and agreed to pay a record $13 million per episode for "ER" next year. Unlike Seinfeld, the "ER" crew had no problem accepting this outrageous pay scale since they do, after all, try to paint a realistic portrait of medical doctors.No sooner had the ink dried on the "ER" proposal than four networks agreed to pay $17.6 billion for the rights to air the next 8 years of NFL football. Yes, that's billion. While this is more than twice the cost of the last contract, it's not so bad when you consider it's only two-thirds what it will cost to bail the Dallas Cowboys out of jail during the same time period.By doing this the networks may stand to lose up to $200 million a year, in spite of increasing the number of commercials per game to 59 while raising their rates. In the grocery business this is called a loss leader. In the federal government it's a way of life. In TV-land it's called a tax write-off. Interestingly, the only network to keep its head about them in the football bidding war was NBC, who won't be airing any NFL games next year. It was either that or let George Clooney go.For all this money the networks are throwing around we should be able to see more than higher cable bills, reruns of the Simpsons on four channels, and an estimated 40,000 commercials per year per person. We should get what we want. In Germany a recent poll found that 48 percent of TV viewers wanted to see more pornography broadcast. Maybe they're onto something here. At least then we wouldn't feel like we're the only ones getting the shaft.