May 4th, 2008

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Television: One Last Honeymoon?


      When you hang around on this globe long enough to get a bit of snow on the roof, you may observe that history really does have a habit of repeating itself... While I'm on the subject of American television and the coming transition to all-digital (see previous post), I'm sort of hoping the End Of The World As We Know It will hold off just long enough for me to satisfy my curiosity as to whether we've got one more honeymoon with TV coming...

      "Honeymoon?" I pretend to hear you ask...

      It seems that, whenever a new venue for television programming opens up, there is a period of months or years during which that venue is home to a refreshing change of pace. Experimental and innovative programs. Silly stuff. Material abandoned long ago by the older venues returning like a nearly forgotten friend from way back when.

      I figure that, when a new TV venue is created, it is an unknown quantity with no track record of success, so the Big Shot Media Executives just aren't that interested in it. They probably spot some nobody flirting with the chubby girl in the mailroom and...

Corporate Suit: "Hey! Do you work here?"

Slacker: (Startled, turns to face the Suit while quickly hiding lit joint behind his back.) "Uh... Yeah... Yessir..."

Suit: "Good. Take some money out of petty cash and round up some programming for the new venue."

Slacker: "Uh... Okay!" (Watches suit leave room, winks at chubby girl, takes a slow drag on his weed.) "WHOA! I'm like... A program director now! Cool! ...Uh, what venue was he talking about?"

      It started with the dawn of commercial broadcast TV itself. The Golden Age, when nobody knew what they were doing, so they did anything and everything they could think of. More than half a century later, the pioneers of that era are still well-remembered. Benny, Sullivan, Ball, Skelton, Berle, Gleason...

      In days of yore, local affiliate stations often did little more than relay the network feed. During the many gaps in that feed, they'd actually sign off the air. Geezers may remember watching snow or an Indian-head test pattern while waiting for their favorite show to come on. Eventually, the local stations wised-up to the fact that they could be making a few dollars during the off-feed hours, and filled them with "Uncle Shows" (somebody dressed as a cowboy/pirate/Indian/clown to introduce cheap cartoons and short subjects for kiddies), "Scream Theaters" (somebody dressed as Dracula/Mad Scientist/Evil Monk to introduce cheap horror and Sci-Fi movies), "Popcorn Theaters" (cheap afternoon movies, too dated and black & white for network broadcast), and, of course, syndicated reruns of late network shows. Programs like Gilligan's Island and Star Trek, which had short and under-appreciated runs on network TV, became pop-culture icons thanks to perpetual reruns on local TV stations.

      Then came the independent stations. With no network feeds at all, and virtually no budgets to work with, they really dug deep into the barrel of available programming. Cartoon shows made up entirely of public domain material. Old theatrical serials spliced together. Singing cowboy B-movies. Chopsocky. Giant, radioactive monster flicks.

      Some of these independent stations became the anchor "superstations" of basic cable TV, which expanded to include an array of themed channels, apparently helmed by true fans. The SciFi channel, for instance, often featured forgotten gems from long ago, as well as cult classics. Cartoon Network was clearly operated by real cartoon lovers who put together such shows as ToonHeads, the Popeye Show, Late Night Black and White, The Bob Clampett and Tex Avery Shows. Even the guys who put together the Acme Hour, ostensibly a block of random theatrical cartoons, often built shows with a theme, almost like ToonHeads without the commentary bumpers.

      Ah, but good things never last. Each new venue was the victim of it's own success, which made it impossible for them to fly under radar, and ultimately invited Corporate Suits, with their marketing strategies, focus groups, and bottom-line focus to take over programming. Thus we're stuck with the bland homogeny of "Me Too Television". But, for a few gleaming years there, each of these TV sources were actually cool.

      Which brings us to the transition of American broadcast television from analog (NTSC) to digital (ATSC). While most people are distracted with the High Definition capabilities of digital TV, I think the really important aspect of digital is the potential for sub-channels. Digital broadcasts are more efficient than old analog, so the 6Mhz slice of the radio spectrum the FCC allots each TV station can be used to transmit more than one program at a time from the same station.

      For all intents and purposes, you could wind up with four times as many broadcast TV channels on your dial almost overnight. What will they broadcast on all these channels?

      Here's hoping that the pot-head from the mail room gets another shot and we get one last blast of amateur programming coolness before the lights go out.

      Hopefully, the suits won't waste all the new channels on 24-Hour Weather (does any market really need more than one of these channels?) and goddamned infomercials.
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