December 31, 2013

Raging against the machine

I'll be making a tangential comment about Duck Dynasty coming up, but I'm not issuing my standard disclaimer about skipping this piece if it doesn't interest you, because this isn't really about Duck Dynasty.  So don't worry.

Instead, we'll start today with an insightful quote from Andrew Fielding's fascinating book The Lucky Strike Papers. (One of the positive aspects to having an appendectomy: being able to catch up on reading.)  I'll take a closer look at Andrew's book after the first of the year (hint: it's not too late to buy a last-minute gift for the TV fan on your Christmas list), but there's a bit from the early part of the book that jumped out, and I think it's a good starting point for today's discussion.  It's a quote from Douglas T. Miller and Marion Nowak's book The Fifties: The Way We Really Were.  They're discussing the appellation "Golden Age" to the early days of TV:

That assessment, even allowing for the rosy hindsight of nostalgia, is moderately true.  Those first years were fairly unique.  This was primarily because TV had a semblance of balance in programming.  The medium broadcast shows for widely disparate tastes, and this wide spectrum of shows appeared during prime time. One could choose opera (like the made-for-TV "Amahl and the Night Visitors"), the fights, live original drama, quality documentaries like the "See It Now" series, Sid Caesar's satire or Milton Berle's hamming, in addition to situation comedies, musical variety shows, news, and adventure shows.

This is not to say, of course, that every program from the 50s and early 60s was golden; I can tell you from first-hand viewing experience that a lot of them weren't.  But I think Miller and Nowak are on to something here.  I've read pieces from Terry Teachout to the Onion's AV Club to Grantland to James Lileks talking about how we're living in (or just concluding) a new "Golden Age" of television, and it's quite possible you can make the case that TV drama, for example, can deal more frankly and more realistically with today's issues than shows of the first Golden Age.  Certainly we see a more realistic depiction of things like violence and sex (though I'll leave it to you as to whether or not that's objectively a good thing), and coverage of sports and breaking news is - at least in some respects - light years ahead of where it was at the outset.

But here's the point - does the term "Golden Age" refer to more than just quality, and specifically quality in a particular genre or type, or must it encompass the whole of television programming, including the variety of programs available to the viewing public?

In lauding the future of television, media figures such as Newton Minow often heralded the potential that lie in the proliferation of cable television stations, which would be able to program for niche audiences.  Classical drama, opera, ballet, symphonic music, truly educational programming - all these were seen as a given in a world that had 50, or 100, or 200 channels.  And at first that was what we saw, too - until it wasn't.  The disappearance of niche networks give the programming pallet a bland uniformity - it's hard to tell TNT from TBS from WGN from USA from Cloo from FX from FXX from Hallmark from Lifetime from OWN from - well, you get the picture.  And don't even get me started on the betrayal of the "cultural" networks such as Bravo and A&E.

Which brings us, however obliquely, to Duck Dynasty.  In going through the various words from pundits and commentors alike, one phrase pops out over and over, in one variation or another: I don't watch TV.  I seldom ever watch the tube.  We haven't watched it for years.

This is invariably said with an attitude, however unintentional it might be, of smug superiority.  I'm too good, too smart, too moral, to watch television.  TV is the devil's instrument.  I haven't watched TV in years, don't even own a television, there's nothing on anyway.  You get the idea.  People think television is bad for you, and watching it is a waste of time.  I hear this attitude a lot, and every time I do it makes me want to wretch.

For one thing, television is morally neutral.  It's an instrument of transmission, neither good nor evil. It can be used to watch programs that are good for you, or bad.  It can broadcast programs that are full of truth, or made up of lies.  But all that is the fault, or the credit, of those in charge of programming, and the viewers in charge of selecting what to watch.  The television itself has nothing to do with it.

We've covered this territory before, and there really isn't much more to add to it.  As you probably have gathered, I watch a lot of television.  I love watching television - have ever since I was a kid. It hasn't made me stupid, stunted my curiosity, made me antisocial, or turned me into a chubby couch potato.* But, in fact, I Indeed, I probably learned more about American history from watching Alistair Cooke's America than I did in school.  It was watching how television told stories that made me want to create; even though my storytelling is in a different media, I think there's something absolutely visual about the way I write, and I owe that to television. The ability to watch events happening halfway across the planet, or in outer space; the improvement in quality from a fuzzy black and white to stunning HD color, this is truly a marvel.  To be able to plug in a cord and watch streaming video from my laptop - that's incredible.  Even though television has existed for the entirety of my lifetime, I'm still impressed by that fact.

*Well, there may be some truth to the last one.

Of all the criticisms of television, the only one I really have any sympathy for is the argument that there's nothing on worth watching.  A reader of the blog (and a television blogger himself) remarked that the irony for him is that he doesn't even own a TV; everything he watches is on DVD.  I know what he means, because that's true for so much of what we watch as well, albeit with at 40 inch flatscreen HD rather than a computer monitor.  But it's true that there aren't many current programs that I watch regularly - Top Gear, Doctor Who, sports, news, a couple other things.  Most of what I watch comes from my vast media holdings and streaming video.  I think people like us are reinforcing the opinion of Miller and Nowack - there's nothing good on TV, there's no variety in the programming, there's more on than ever before and less worth watching.

But if you're one of those television critics that doesn't see anything good about TV, even DVDs of shows from long ago - you can continue to be smug, you can continue to believe that by cutting yourself off from the outside world your own world is better off for it. I think there's a better way to deal with it: if you think what's on is garbage, don't give in - get your own programming.  You can build good, educational, family entertainment around it.  You can make your own Golden Age of Television.  Operas, Broadway plays, documentaries, family programs, award-winning movies, dramas that reinforce commonly held values - they're all available out there. A discerning viewer could literally spend years watching pre-recorded programming without once having to watch anything on the cable or broadcast networks.  Hell, the only reason we still have cable is for the sports and breaking news we can't get otherwise.  And I think it's only a matter of time, a few years perhaps, when even that will be available through other means.

Don't rage against the machine - instead, as the poet says, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.   You can make television better by making it your own.  You can turn it into a medium that teaches, entertains, informs.  You can do it - but you can't if all you're going to do is withdraw.

What do you think?  Am I reading Miller and Nowack correctly?  Is it true that "Golden Age" refers to the variety of programming as well as the quality?  Or is there more to it even than that?

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!