Amidst the ticket stubs and litter-strewn garbage on the infamous red carpet, I watched Monday as the production grips and gaffers hustled to dismantle the dreams and the disappointments of the 61st Annual Emmy Awards. Through their methodical breakdown and equipment removal, one burning question remained in my mind.
Snapping pictures of the disassembly, I wondered if I was actually witnessing the demise of the institution of television. Certainly we have seen the decline of network ratings for years with the advent of cable and pay per view. When Walter Cronkite moderated the moon landing, and television was at its peak, an estimated 500 million people worldwide watched that broadcast. When the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan over 73 million people watched. (Remember at that time, the number of households that owned television was significantly less than today.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most watched_television_broadcasts#United_States
February 28th, 1983 105 million people watched the M*A*S*H Finale. This was over 60% of households that had television. Even American Idol, at its most viewed show on May 21st 2003 was 38 million people: a whopping 462 million less than the lunar landing. If you look at a few examples contributing to the erosion of viewership, it is hard to argue against the shift in television habits.
There are certainly many more choices today and that affects the ratings of television shows. I can hear radios collective on-air gulp at the advent of the motion picture. I can feel the motion picture business "group quiver" when the little black box arrived. The invention left studio executives wondering if anything else would remain in the theaters besides remnants of candy and buttered popcorn.
So, does television, with the advent of Internet, cable and mobile content simply disappear? It seemed to be a reoccurring theme at Sunday's Emmy Awards. Who knows really what is going to happen. Yet, in somewhat of a desperate state, we see more and more lowest common denominator shows. Years ago a Victoria's Secret television show would have been laughable. It's true, when the infamous catalog arrived at Studio office, one hundred doors closed in unison, with catalog in hand, yelling "Hold my calls."
Another example of the lowest common denominator approach was at the Emmy's. During the nominations for Best Family Programming, an animated Stewie from Family Guy asked his dog Brian who he is voting for and when the dog lists another show that he is going to vote for, Stewie beats him up. It was violent and bloody and years ago, that would have NEVER made it on the air. I watched the audience's reaction near me, and no one was laughing. In fact, a few heads were shaking in disbelief. Yet this type of writing has become a common occurrence in television. When sex and violence stop being used as a centerpiece for the audience grab, we might get some creative juices flowing again. Well-written, clever shows that don't use a body to sell the storyline -- unless of course that is the storyline -- which then begs the question, do that many people focus on sex for that much time in a day? Err, then again...
Legitimate, illegitimate, fear or truth, all of these shifts in technology and acceptable content have largely given the audience, the user, and the consumer more choice. That is the good news.
The bad news is these tectonic shifts have highlighted cost concerns, and helped to dumb down the fare that is created in broadcasting. Yes, there is more choice and more competition yet this has resulted in less creativity and quality. You have heard this before; the lowest common denominator has become the easy tool for writing because sex, misfortune and violence sell.
We can blame the additional choices that consumers have for the demise of television or take a deeper look at why so many people have stopped watching television. I must admit the production of this years Emmy's was terrific. The best I recall in years, thought it might be just be another example of too little, too late.