Is TV Worth the Transition?

At twelve noon on June 12, 2009, the end of analog television's era was
also when I let my set go dark. The last declaration I saw was that
there were about three million of us disconnected but, no worry, we can
still order the "converter box" to bring all those programs back to our
living rooms. Going dark on tv was not that hard-at least for a while. My recent memories had too many "yuks" and too few "harks".

President John F. Kennedy's chairman of the Federal Communications
Commission, Newton Minow, shocked a broadcast industry audience when he
called television a "vast wasteland". That was in 1961!

Had he not mellowed as a corporate lawyer with a lucrative practice,
what would Newton Minow say today? What is the superlative of "vast

Television today-over the air and cable-with the usual exceptions,
could empty the dictionary of disparaging adjectives. Some times
slots-such as daily afternoon talk-entertainment shows-are so bad, so
sadomasochistic and exploitive, that they escape the media critics. Why
would Tom Shales-the insightful Washington Post
critic who writes like a dream-want to apply his talented eye to shows
that invoke the Latin phrase "res ipsa louitur": the thing speaks for

On weekends, the shows swing from the slick infomercials, pushing
cutlery and real estate wealth, to sports that become duller play by
play-especially golf-to the Sunday morning news program where evasions
of predictable questions run on and on.

Then there are the second-rate movie reruns, the insipid sitcom shows,
so dependent on canned laughter, the dramas, so spilt-second violent
that they eliminate any kind of memorable suspense.

The early and late local evening news needs psychoanalysts. Repetition may be economical for it requires fewer reporters.

The thirty minutes of the late local news is composed of roughly nine
minutes of ads, four minutes of sports, four obsessive minutes of four
weather segments, the usual openings with street crimes or fires, the
customary animal story and half minute of contrived, spontaneous
chit-chat between the anchors and the rest-the abbreviated rest-is what
can be called news.

One local DC station once had the temerity to try vainly distinguishing
itself from the sameness of its competitors by the slogan "no chit
chat, no fluff".

So little time is left for news that most news is not covered-not in
the neighborhoods, not in city hall or the courts, not in business,
labor, schools, or civic activity or achievement.

Missing so much reality by allocating lots of time for local news and
wasting so much of it takes the label of those "Reality Shows" to the
level of ironic satire.

How much reality would there be without C-Span-that lonely tribute to
the public intellect and engagement? Over ninety percent of television
is entertainment or advertisements-mostly low grade even for those
willing to inhabit bad taste.

I just saw an auto ad on the news for Kia with hamsters driving and occupying the front seat.

The public air waves belong to the people. They are the owners and the television stations are the tenants.
Guess what? Since the beginning of television broadcasting, these
lucrative stations have paid no rent. It is a rent free way to mint
money under the guidance of a supine Federal Communications Commission
and a Congress frightened of the power of the broadcast industry.

Gone are the regulatory expressions of the 1934 statutory
standard-namely "the public interest, convenience and
necessity"-binding television stations to a level of public

Gone is the worthy requirement for each station to ascertain the
public's information needs in an annual public report to the FCC. There
is no more fairness doctrine or right of reply. FCC station license
renewals proceedings are not as frequent as they were thirty years ago.

Some valuable shows manage to get through the "vast wasteland" and make
money. Among them are 60 Minutes (CBS) and the Simpsons (FOX).
Non-profit public television has the Bill Moyers Journal. The nature
and history shows on some cable channels bear occasional attention.

By and large, however, getting through the noise, hoping to find
snippets of interest in otherwise flat and formulaic programs, and
having to endure the densely-packed relentless advertisements and
product placements, and not knowing whether a news segment is canned
from an industry consultant, invites a vacation from an already limited
resort to my TV.

There are so many other things to do and learn and evoke than watching screens.

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