Mike Cline: Is TV worse today than in our youth?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 18, 2012

By Mike Cline
For the Salisbury Post
My parents bought our first television set in 1954. We could get two channels – WBTV (CBS) in Charlotte and WSJS (NBC) in Winston-Salem. Television was a black-and-white world.
My earliest memories of watching this wonderful contraption included “Superman,” “Lassie,” “Hopalong Cassidy,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Romper Room” and “Ding Dong School.”
We lived with two channels until April 1957, when WSOC in Charlotte hit the airways, giving us an ABC station. In October 1963, WGHP (also ABC) in High Point signed on, running our total number of channels to four. However, the only difference in these two stations was local programs.
And to be honest, four channels were enough.
Very rarely was it that I could turn on the set and not find a good program of interest to watch.
Today we have a zillion channels to watch. And unlike the days of old, all of today’s stations broadcast 24/7. That means they all have to put something – anything – on the air so they don’t have to sign off.
And sadly, but understandably, much of this “filler” programming, to use an old math term, is the least-common denominator of what is broadcast today. Some channels broadcast nothing but this kind of stuff. The reason, of course, is money. Many networks, if not owned by the larger networks, have no money. I often wonder why they are even on the air. Tax shelters, perhaps?
But let’s look at the big boys – CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX.
According to the Neilsen ratings (and I check them almost daily), all four networks have been losing viewers by the droves every year for about the last 10. We the people don’t rely on these powerhouses for our entertainment as we once did. The TV pie used to be sliced into three or four pieces. Now there are hundreds of pieces of the pie, and naturally, the pieces are now a good bit smaller.
Here’s an example of the difference. On the night of Jan. 8, 1964, for a routine episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” (then TV’s highest-rated series), 39 million people in the U.S. watched as Granny thought a kangaroo was a giant jackrabbit. Yes, 39 million people! And there were fewer people then.
The 1980 “Who Shot J.R.” episode of “Dallas” drew 53 million people in the United States alone.
This past TV season (which ended in May), the highest-rated weekly filmed series was “NCIS.” It averaged 19 million viewers. That’s less than half the number of people who watched the Clampetts 48 years earlier. So the network who wins the ratings war each year these days is left with little more than crumbs, nothing like the piece of the pie they used to get.
Which brings us to the question, is television programming better or worse than it was 50 years ago?
It isn’t an easy question to answer, and every one of us has our own opinion.
There is certainly more garbage on television than ever before, for many of the reasons explained earlier.
But there is also a motherload of fantastic television programs broadcast these days. One just has to look harder to find some of them, because the majority of the most-acclaimed programs these days aren’t on the big four networks.
Currently my favorite series would probably be “Justified,” centered on a U.S. marshal in Harlan County, Ky. It runs every spring on the obscure FX channel.
Also at the top of my list is AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” which I’m sorry to say, has just eight more episodes before retiring.
USA Network’s “Burn Notice” is a great tongue-in-cheek CIA series. Wife Julie and I enjoy it a lot. And this summer’s successful reboot of “Dallas” on TNT was fantastic. “The Closer,” now continuing as “Major Crimes,” is another favorite. It’s also on TNT.
Then there are Showtime’s “Dexter” and AMC’s “The Killing.” Great series as well.
But notice that none of these I mentioned are on the big networks. And there are a slew of other shows on the off-networks I understand are very good. There just isn’t enough time to watch them all, but eventually, I hope to get around to seeing AMC’s “Mad Men” and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
So what do I watch on the “major networks”? There’s “Castle,” “Body of Proof,” “The Mentalist,” “Parks and Recreation” (which wraps this coming year), and “The Office” (which is past its prime but still enjoyable sometimes). And I’ll watch “Law and Order: SVU” as long as it runs.
I would probably watch more CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX if they eliminated the “reality/contest” shows. I realize some (actually now, it’s down to a few) are quite popular, but they have never had any appeal to me. Be it singing, dancing, picking a mate, etc.Why are there so many of these shows on during primetime these days? Easy. Again money. Compared to a filmed drama series, these “reality” shows are cheap to put on the schedule. And I don’t mean to ruin anyone’s picnic, but these “reality” shows are about as real as professional wrestling.
Perhaps an accurate way to describe them is to say they are “manipulated” by the producers. For example, if there’s a contestant on one of these shows who is getting negative audience feedback to the point it might hurt the show, this contestant will be leaving, or voted off, very soon. If a contestant is one who the public doesn’t like but loves to hate (like the wrestling villain), this contestant will hang around. It’s that sort of thing.
No offense to those who watch these programs. I understand. Hey, I was a pro wrestling fan for 50 years. I even liked roller derby, and that was about as real as “Survivor.”
NBC seems to be the biggest loser of the big networks, and it even has a program by that same name. Its ratings have been horrible the last few years.
NBC had a great series with Kathy Bates called “Harry’s Law.” It premiered January 2011. NBC put it on opposite “Castle” and “Hawaii Five-O” on Mondays (one of the hottest rating-contested hours of the week), and the show ran a very close third.
NBC had a new successful show on its hands. So in its infinite wisdom, NBC moved it to Thursdays opposite “The Mentalist,” one of TV’s highest-rated series. “Harry’s” ratings went south, and NBC pulled it for a couple of months, many people thought for good.
But NBC sneaked it back on last September on Wednesdays, where it did no better. The network pulled it again after six weeks and returned it in March on Sunday nights, where it was drawing about 8 million viewers.
In May, NBC pulled the plug on “Harry’s Law,” even though it had more than double the viewers of other NBC shows such as “30 Rock” and “Community,” which were renewed. The official press release from NBC was that “Harry’s Law,” although doing respectable ratings, was canceled because it was drawing an older audience, one that NBC didn’t want.
Well, excuse me, NBC. I do appreciate your being frank with me and my fellow older viewers, but if you don’t want us watching your network, we can certainly accommodate you. It would appear to me that with your recent lack of success, you’d take anything to get your numbers up, even if it meant catering to us old codgers
Again, I ask, is television better or worse than it was in years long since passed? Certainly worse in terms that there is much more “garbage” programmed to fill the endless hours of round-the-clock scheduling. But there’s just as much great, quality series TV available as there ever has been. It’s just that they’re all not on channels 3, 9, or 12 as they used to be.
So pick up some extra batteries for your remote. You’ll need them to find all the good stuff.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents all the movies played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1979.