The Sub-Prime Time Crisis

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Ian Gurvitz Writer -- Welcome to Dumbf**kistan -- The Dumbed-Down, Disinformed, Dysfunctional, Disunited States of America

I saw a recent promo for Cloverfield and for a second I thought it was a Fox promo for the return of American Idol, a show that, like Godzilla, stomps everything in its path. But Idol is not simply a television show. It is a network executive's wet dream, in that it capitalizes on an hour of television in a way no conventional comedy or drama ever could. Unfortunately, not just for the other networks, but for society at large, there is one sad side effect of American Idol: It may be popular. But it's also contrived. manufactured, and fake. Beginning with the freak show auditions right through the false drama, cell phone voting, product integration, tours, and recording contracts (until the "winners" stop selling records), all in what is amusingly referred to with some degree of perverse pride as "a singing competition." It isn't. In reality, it's a perpetual motion/cross promotion/money printing machine that sells music and advertising, as well as the network itself. Not that it's hateful in and of itself, but it's symptomatic of a cynical corporate mentality that governs television, which is centered solely on making money. It's about programming. Broadcasting is dead. Once upon a time, networks felt a sense of responsibility to serve the public interest instead of serving themselves at the advertiser trough. No longer. That is the real sub-prime crisis -- network prime-time television -- which is, in most cases, definitely sub-prime. Though it's hardly just American Idol. There's Deal Or No Deal, where people who've never seen 8 bucks in the same location suddenly go apeshit slamming down the pellet bar so they can scream "NO DEAL!" as they reject $85,000. You'd think the prospect of being able to afford dental work, an extra month of Nutrisystem, and a GED would be enticement enough to take the money and run. But no. They came to Hollywood to scream "NO DEAL!" on national television and, dammit, they're going to do it. Then there's Celebrity Apprentice, Survivor, Dancing With The Stars, Amazing Race, The Biggest Loser. If there's a brain cell lurking anywhere in these shows, I guarantee it's cowering in a corner, fearing for its life. And adjacent are the gossip shows, with their worship of skeletal Britney-types who all look like they haven't thrown up a good meal in days. And then there's the breaking news coverage of Britney herself, melting down in public like a Hershey bar on the sidewalk, as we're fed the daily details of her fate and that of her youngins. You wish there'd be at least one loved one close enough to her to take this poor entertainment unit somewhere to heal, instead of calling Dr. Phil, syndicated life coach, who obviously came a-runnin' to Cedars as fast as a child molester heads for the schoolyard at recess. My dream is that one day we will come together as a society, as a nation. Black and white, young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, and hold hands coast to coast in a sign of national unity and say "we don't give a shit!" Then and only then will things change. Which brings me around to the WGA strike and the idea that, as horny as network executives are to dispose of writers, they won't. Now that networks can have ownership, they know the syndication value of a Frasier, Seinfeld, or Raymond. These shows are worth aftermarket billions. And the notion that networks will suddenly free themselves of having to do these expensive pilots is absurd. No one ever held a gun to NBC's head forcing them to make drama or comedy pilots. If there were such a gun, it would've been employed during the strike. They made pilots because it was in their financial interest to make pilots, hoping that one turns into a prime time and eventually a syndicated hit. They have always had the power to declare they would broadcast nothing but game shows and reality. And all the recent gloating over the ratings of these shows doesn't mention that fact that they really won't syndicate and that is lost potential revenue.

However, the other reason they won't dispose of writers is because they can't. They need them. Even if they don't think they do, they do. Even if they think they can live in the broadcasting moment and turn prime time television into a reality/game show/singing/ dancing/skating/weight loss competition carnival, they can't. Because they live in the same world. They breathe the same air. They are affected by the same elections. Stupid people don't just vote for who wins Idol. They vote for president as well. And if those who run the networks keep putting on brain crap just for ratings and quarterly profitability the net result will be the dumbing down of their own world. You dumb down the audience. You dumb down the electorate. More gossip, game shows and reality, and less real news, news analysis, and original, scripted programming will result in the intellectual fouling of their own nest. Shitting where they eat. Which is something intelligent creatures tend not to do. Eventually, there'll be one box in the house. The GoogleBox, or MicrosoftMachine, or whatever it ends up being called. There will be no distinction between television and the net. All kinds of entertainment and news will flow through it and we'll have nothing but choice in what we watch and when we watch it. It will revolutionize the nature of our media experience, but it won't change the nature of the human experience. Whether it's world events or personal lives, people will still need to communicate about the experience of being alive and will need something to come out of the box that's more intelligent than American Idol. That's why they need writers.