Tuesday, April 27th, 1999
Can you feel it? The May sweeps—they started Thursday—are in the air, full of hyperbole, special investigations, exclusive television events, and
well, as much as the traditional nets (and their local affiliates) clamor and hype for your attention, the results at the end of May will no doubt be continuing in the trend we’ve witnessed—fewer people watching, more people drifting off to cable and satellite alternatives, more people bored by it all.
Or maybe not bored. Maybe desensitized, comfortably numb.
So why do they, the programmers, the fillers of time, bother?
Well, they’re looking at spreadsheets. They’re watching the ebb and flow of advertising revenue, of course. And as advertisers sneak off cableward in search of their audience, broadcast stations are forced to cut what they charge for advertising, and so the ebb continues.
Sign after sign points to the decline of many aspects of traditional broadcast television. News has been dumbed down and over-promoted to the point of being staggeringly repetitious and content-free. Where once Dan Rather was confidently predicting that CBS Evening News would expand to an hour, now its continued existence has been put into question.
Whole genres of entertainment are being talked about as hopelessly passé—sitcoms, for example. The idea that anyone wants to watch the antic adventures of just one more dysfunctional family is, well, laughable. "Creative" people in LA are trying to come up with the next Friends and Seinfeld just as the nonstop reruns of those two shows have us crying uncle. Oh yeah, please give us more of that same.
Sports producers are trying to hold onto dwindling audiences with gimmicky high-tech devices—virtual first-down lines, glowing pucks, and the like—as well as (again) a promotional spin that puts every ball game in the pantheon of great American battles.
Even the traditional success stories like the staggeringly expensive ER are not immune from the decline. We (as a collective people) just don’t want to sit down and make an appointment for televised anything., it seems. We aren’t much of a collective people at all these days, I find myself thinking.
And then, something happens like the Cotton Mill Fire, or the school shootings in Colorado, like the Oklahoma City bombing before it—that seems to punch through the static in a way that intangible bomb-dropping in Kosovo hasn’t.
For that, we can turn to the media, to somewhere on television, talk radio, even the newspaper, and we find that there still is, amazingly, a communal moment or two of grief, disbelief, outrage, or triumph that can be wrenched out of us.
And wrenched is the operative word, because like the kids playing Doom, I feel desensitized sometimes. There’s just so much of it. We’re way beyond the intimacy of television, where a story about a single killing could grab us. It has to be carnage. Then we re-connect.