A Nod to TV's Past While Contemplating Its Future - Ed Martin - MediaBizBloggers

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Where does television go from here, at the start of this uncertain new decade? I’m afraid to ask. My new year began with the sudden, shocking disappearance of HGTV and Food Network from my cable service without a corresponding reduction in my monthly bill. What’s next? The possibilities, pro and con, are endless.

As is often the case, the more I ponder the future of television the more I began thinking about the past. My recent musings sent me in search of my final column of 1999, published just before the turn of the last decade. In it, I reflected on what television had meant to me throughout my lifetime and the changes I foresaw (and in some cases feared) at the dawn of the new millennium.

In hindsight that column, reprinted below, reads like the calm before the media explosion to come. Happily, the concerns I expressed therein about broadcast and cable networks failing to distinguish themselves in the new media landscape and losing the emotional and cultural impact they enjoyed in decades past proved inaccurate. In fairness to me, there was no indication at the time I wrote it that The West Wing and The Sopranos, both brand new shows at the time, would actually usher in a thrilling new Golden Age of Drama. Further, there was no sign on the horizon of Survivor, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and American Idol, three shows that would dramatically revive the faded reality genre and change the face of television in the process. Interestingly, my thoughts about the emotional engagement of the eBay experience in its infancy would be reflected and reinforced in the rise of social networking and viral videos throughout the ‘00s. Together, they proved to be formidable new competitors for media from another era.

The Ghost of Television Past

Originally published in The Myers Programming Report on December 23, 1999.

Here I am at my computer, trying to pull together some thoughts on the changes television will undergo during the next millennium, and all I can think about is The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Mary is on my mind because Nick at Nite is running Mary marathons every night this week as part of its current programming event, Marathons to the Millennium. As I watch these episodes, I can often recall sitting through them when they first aired on Saturday nights on CBS during the early ‘70s, surrounded by such top shelf fare as All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show. Friday was date night, or party night, or movie night, but Saturday belonged to CBS. Mary was the sparkling centerpiece of the evening for seven years, from 1970-77.

Sometimes I watched Mary (and the other shows) with my family, at other times with friends, and occasionally I watched alone in my room, on an old black and white television. (This was the same set I had watched Star Trek on years earlier in our living room. I was stunned to later learn that Trek had originally been telecast in color.) In hindsight, Mary was a multi-purpose show: A fine shared family viewing experience, a great show to enjoy with friends and the perfect private pleasure.

Mary isn’t the only show that can bring forth a flood of childhood and adolescent memories. Whenever I come across an old episode of Batman I’m immediately transported back in time to my neighbors’ living room, circa 1966. They had the only color television on the block at the time, and all the kids on the street would gather in their home every Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 (primetime started earlier then) to watch the adventures of the Caped Crusader on ABC. All the parents came, too, but they didn’t watch. The mothers drank coffee in the kitchen; the fathers drank beer and played pool in the basement. Similarly, reruns of Dark Shadows remind me of countless mad dashes home after school to watch it at 4 p.m.

I’m sharing this nostalgic wallow because, as I ponder the future of television, I realize that it cannot continue to exist, at least as we know it, unless it continues to create a past – and I don’t see that happening at present.

The broadcast networks, hindered by slashed budgets (despite a booming, media-fueled economy), a shrinking talent pool (despite record employment in Hollywood) and a perceived need to be increasingly edgy (despite outrage by viewers and political leaders), repel as many viewers as they attract. (Among my family and friends, those with children have in recent years largely banned broadcast television between 8-10 p.m., because they don’t want to expose their kids to its toxic values, they say.)

Meanwhile, the basic cable networks offer pockets of interesting programming, but there is little to feel truly passionate about. No cable network currently has the essential, all-encompassing energy that MTV had in the early ‘80s. Even pay cable had begun to fade until HBO’s Sex and the City and The Sopranos came along.

Think about it: Despite a dazzling array of programming choices custom designed for all ages and all tastes, viewers everywhere made the phrase “One hundred channels and nothing to watch” a mantra of the ‘90s. Admit it. You’ve mumbled it yourself. I’ve mumbled it all week. That’s another reason why I’m watching the Mary-thon.

Looking forward, there’s no reason to assume that their sentiment is going to change, even if the number of available channels multiplies into the thousands. Delivery systems will certainly dazzle, but little of the original programming to come, I fear, will have the emotional and cultural impact on future generations that the programming of the past had on baby boomers and their parents, who came of age as television was born. There was an intimacy to television then, which broadcast networks have lost in their hardscrabble efforts to compete in today’s crowded arena (by eliminating series theme songs, among other transgressions) and cable networks have never managed to achieve.

Alternatives to both have entrenched themselves, and will continue to do so. Which brings up another point about the future emptiness of the viewing experience: With more technology, more networks and more programming outlets, virtually everything will be available to everyone at any time. This is already the situation with movies and holiday specials. I remember when the annual telecasts of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown were major events in young lives – because they only came around once a year, and they had to be watched when they were on. For that matter, the occasional telecasts of the Universal horror movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, including such classics as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolfman, were also the stuff of significant social gatherings. Decades ago in the greater New York area, several local stations aired these films on Saturday nights, often quite late. On summer Saturdays, when neighborhood kids would be allowed to come over at 11 p.m. and watch with us (on that old black and white set), lifetime memories were made.

The past to come – the present that is currently poised to influence young people and become the dominant entertainment vehicle of their adulthood tomorrow – is the Internet. I’ve given in to it myself. An hour or two browsing on eBay often proves more satisfying to me than an hour or two in front of the tube. As with all online communities, the more time one spends on eBay the more users one gets to know. As eBay grows, its users are beginning to entertain themselves, devising increasingly clever ways of packaging and presenting their auctions, encouraging repeat viewing, even by those who don’t buy. When users are able to add video presentations to their auctions, eBay will grow even more.

I wasn’t even aware of eBay one year ago. I wonder what I’ll discover online next week or next month that will become a part of my life by this time next year. As online video delivery improves, and users by the thousands, or millions, begin creating their own homegrown programming, I wonder what will catch on, and who will stand out in the ensuing media chaos. I’m looking forward to sampling some of the little-known online series programming that already exists (once I upgrade my computer), and all of the programming to come. How will it differ from broadcast and cable network fare? If it isn’t significantly different, is there any point to its existence at all? Will it fill consumers’ needs, or just those of corporate egos? As wide-ranging as all programming media will be, will they offer anything special?

I guess, as I look to the future, I’m really not sure where television will fit in. I’m not even sure what television will be. I only know what it won’t be. That has me feeling even more attached to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and even more grateful that I was around to enjoy it and so many other wonderful programs the first time around -- on simple, basic, over-the-air television.

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