By and large, though, I have a freedom to pursue what's referred to nowadays as "long-form" writing, that is, a piece that might run for several pages were it in print rather than pixels. You've been remarkably generous in allocating your time to indulge me in this project, whether I'm nattering about some obscure aspect of an equally obscure program, or going off on some tangent or other than elevates a mere sitcom to something metaphysical, if not existential. It must be a labor of love, because I don't make any money off of it (yet; just wait until the book version of It's About TV comes out), but at the same time I'm very fortunate to have the time and ability to pursue it.
What brings this sweeping reflection to mind is an article from a few weeks ago in which The Ringer's Bryan Curtis noted the recent layoff of FoxSports.com's entire writing and editorial staff, in favor of going to an all-video format. (Read: pimping from the network's own video content.) This comes on the heels of several other high-profile cutbacks, including one at MTV.*
*Imagine, a network built on video going back to video. But, as you'll see from the article, we're talking about a different kind of video.
I think one of the sadder takes on the whole tend came from Sports Illustrated's Andy Gray, who, while expressing regret for those who lost their jobs, added on Twitter that “I’ve been in digital media for 12 years. One thing I’ve learned is that nobody wants to read anything over 1,000 words. MTV is more proof.” Of course, as more than one person pointed out, SI's motto is “longform since 1954.” Despite the ridicule that Gray received for the comment, the fact remains: people, so the storyline goes, don't want to take the time to read all about it. If you can't summarize what you have to say in a few choice soundbites, forget about it. Often, a website uses video to do just that; Curtis notes that "I often get a paragraph or two into a Sports Illustrated story only to find Madelyn Burke in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, giving me a summary of the sentences I’m already reading."
Now, you may wonder what all this has to do with classic television, and the answer is this: directly, nothing; but if you think about it indirectly, you'll find that it could mean a great deal. In a way, it sounds funny to suggest that the future of television depends on the written word; after all, TV was one of those forms of entertainment that was supposed to kill reading. And yet the continued appreciation of classic television often depends on people reading about it; I’ve got shelves lined with books about television history, television genres, specific television programs, and so on. My laptop is filled with bookmarks of various websites that exist to share information about various aspects of television. The loss of these sites would be another example of our culture dumbing itself down for the sake of sexy soundbites and video bursts that cannot possibly be a substitute for the written word:
- Television is history, and history doesn’t lend itself very well either to soundbites or snapshots. In fact, it’s twofold history: not just the history of the medium itself, but the history of the culture through its depiction on screen. History doesn’t have to be dry and monotonous, but you can’t tell the story of Western Civilization in Twitter-sized bits either. To explain and understand it, you need both room and time.
- Television is meaningful, and the meaning isn’t always apparent in a clip or a screenshot. To understand what a television show is saying (either overtly or subconsciously), you occasionally need to spread it out in front of you and go through it one step at a time. Long-form writing is, as I hope I’ve shown, one of the best ways to accomplish this.
- Television is entertainment, and entertainment doesn’t always come right out and bite you on the nose. Sometimes you need to dig for it – I can’t count the number of times I’ve learned about a television series by reading an article about it, either through an old issue of TV Guide or by reading about it on one of the blogs, and in cases like this, a headline or soundbite often won’t do.
This last point, I think, bears further elaboration. Classic television has developed a kind of oral history through the years, a history that was initially passed on from people who’d seen old programs when they originally aired, to people who obtained copies of these shows through traders and other “brown market” sources, to people who purchased the shows on VHS or DVD when they were released by studios. In each case, the audience for this oral history was often comprised of people who had no first-hand knowledge of the program, other than perhaps a few vague memories from when they were a child, or something they’d briefly heard about or seen mentioned in an article.
As the internet grew, these oral histories were set down in writing, either in message boards or through websites dedicated to preserving the memories of particular programs or entertainers. These histories did indeed keep classic television alive, beyond the familiar programs (I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, Gilligan’s Island, and others) that made the rounds of syndicated reruns. This is how people learned of truly obscure programs that hadn’t seen the light of day since their original broadcast, or had faded from view after garnering initial publicity. Oftentimes people were intrigued, even captivated, as they learned of these shows, and sought them out as blind buys, based on nothing more than what they’d read in a long-form article. In other instances programs were made available because of the demand harnessed by the sharing of these memories. In either case, were it not for written communication, many of these programs would have gone unwatched, and the lives of their viewers would have had that much less enjoyment in them.
I doubt I’ll be starting a podcast anytime soon; for one thing, I don’t have time, and for another I don’t really have anyone close by that I can talk with about these things. And while podcasts can be both entertaining and educational, they’re not always a substitute for writing. That’s why I’ll keep at this, in one way or another, for as long as there’s something for me to write about, whether it runs 1,000 words or not. For if we don’t continue this oral history that has now become written, there soon won’t be any history to talk about at all.