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Committed to the First Amendment 2/23/2003 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Nets Could Use a Reality Check

Now, we don't want to get off on a rant here, but (with apologies to Dennis Miller) the Neverland miniature railroad train wreck that is Michael Jackson's world at present and the how-low-can-you-stoop sweeps limbo produced some of the cheesiest TV in many a green moon.

Whether it was an endless loop of a digital facelift for the Gloved One, has-beens armed with laser pointers sitting in judgment of wannabes or various voyeuristic exercises in pseudo-romance, the sum total was "reality" only in the minds of programmers hooked on the heroin of unscripted programming. It was Fox that once pledged to kick that habit in favor of a return to first-run dramas and comedies, but it has proved too lucrative and too popular a habit for any of the broadcast networks to break. They have even begun blowing out their schedules to air repeats of the reality shows that did well the first time.

We're not knocking all reality here. But, in its extremes, both oversaturation at the expense of other programming and excessive voyeurism, it makes you want to take a shower afterwards. Yes, people will watch it, as they will watch a train wreck, but that is not an argument for staging train wrecks to get attention.

We remember when Dateline
was a top-notch investigative magazine, the crash-test fiasco notwithstanding, and perhaps it will be again. But it's two-hour trip on the Jackson bandwagon last week was far from its finest hour. A guy who used to work with Jackson's plastic surgeon competes for credibility with a National Enquirer
writer. Need we say more? Yes, in fact, but only to point out that Dateline
is not our target so much as our vehicle for the message that the "T" in TV is in greater danger of standing for "tawdry" with the addition of each new voyeuristic variation on the reality theme. It would be sad indeed if the newsmagazines were co-opted regularly for heavy lifting on the "reality" front, although some would argue that has already happened.

We predict that the next reality offering will be a group of network programmers standing on the street corner and dropping their standards entirely.

Rebel With a Cause

Looks like we need to bone up on where sort-of-Republican FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin stands on a bunch of issues. Given his ability and willingness to form a coalition with the Democrats on the panel to thwart the Republican chairman, as he did last week on the phone-competition proceeding, he suddenly becomes a potential deal breaker for the chairman. Last week's "palace coup," as an irate Billy Tauzin labeled it, could be an aberration. People close to him swear he remains committed to the deregulatory regime of lifting the 35% ownership cap and allowing newspaper/broadcast crossownership. But given some of the concerns Martin has expressed about media ownership and its effects on programming, concerns that he shares with the Democratic minority, the Martin-Copps-Adelstein triumvirate could prove more than just an ad hoc regime.

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