Telling it like it might be

What if television signed off for one day a week?

It was a Sunday town meeting in a Southern city where this plain-spoken politician had grown up; folks knew him here. He was remembering the Little League where he played second base and the old folks' home where his sister was a volunteer.

And, as he remembered the way it was-this wasn't scripted-he recalled, "Back then, there wasn't so much television to divert our family-just three network affiliates that signed off at midnight or one in the morning.

"Television, you know, it does a great job, despite some of the things we hear now and then. But back then, it was just becoming a part of our lives-but only a part. We had other things to do.

"I sometimes think, you know, it would be great to go back to those days somehow, if, let's imagine, all the television stations, all the cable networks, would just go dark. What if they just sign-off on Sunday?
If they did that, our families, which mean so much to us, could have the time to reconnect. There is just so much distraction out there.''

He was about to go on when, slowly, applause began and then swelled and then went on, and on, louder and louder. In a week, this politician, known for his common sense and lack of pretense (or vocabulary for that matter) was suddenly America's most admired man, according to the pollsters. Yearning for a simple life, Americans liked his even simpler message.

Instantly, the networks and Broadcasting & Scrabble magazine screamed about censorship. But the network news divisions hit that angle softly. That's because they figured out early that no candidate could try to close down the news divisions and survive the First Amendment onslaught. So for the first time since the corporatization of television news, the journalists had a leg up. They could have the only show in prime time!

In fact, three days after the speech, the candidate said that watching Meet the Press
and 60 Minutes
was almost a civics lesson of which he certainly didn't want to deprive the people, and Sunday NFL games, he laughed, bonded more dads and sons than the Boy Scouts. Each of the networks and CNN and Fox News quickly announced new Sunday news programs.

Meanwhile, the network bean counters had a change of heart. When they first heard about losing a whole day of revenue, they blanched. Then they realized: the candidate was creating
scarcity. By eliminating one whole day of programming, the politician was causing a land rush for avails that could raise rates by 30%-40%. Plus, programming costs were going up while viewership was declining. This could be a good breather.

At the same time, if nobody was putting on a television schedule, no one would be at a competitive disadvantage, and syndication libraries wouldn't be depleted as quickly.

Down the hall, the research department deduced that prime time Saturday, once the night of the week with the least viewing, would quickly become the night with the most. Better than that, because Sunday was an off-day before the work week, viewers would watch more and longer on Saturday (when Sunday "began" was bound to be complicated).

The communications staffs at the networks advised the brass to adopt the correct wounded attitude. You don't want to tip off your adversaries. "We have families too,'' said one network executive, pretending to be indignant and sympathetic at the same time. "And while we oppose this idea, we endorse its spirit. Americans ought to spend more quality time together with their families. We like to think our network provides some of that quality, but certainly, there is more to life than television."

Well, that's true. Because most of the networks owned a movie studio or two, and all of them made millions from video rentals. Either way, the Sunday television ban was a godsend at the box office and Blockbuster, and they finally found a way to force a mass audience to look at that dreadful streaming media stuff on their Web sites. Radio listenership went up, too, to the delight of the four companies that owned all the stations.

Americans yearned for that simple life again, and that's what they got. The politician showed that, indeed, he was a man of the people. The next January, he was named Man of the Year by Time Magazine, where, incidentally, the circulation had gone up 14%.