I watched serial television on the networks and non-premium cable stations.
It may seem contrary - a media columnist who admits that he doesn't watch so much TV. But, I'm here to tell you that I watch next to no TV whatsoever, especially the compost on prime time. Sure, I'll watch HBO, my share of sports and movies. But, serials have frustrated me more often than not over the years. That is, they've frustrated me when they haven't completely bored me.
I can't bear to watch so-called Reality TV, so let's just stick with this week's lineup of pulp. We have:
Gary Busey and Wendy the lady in the Snapple ads competing to lose weight on "Celebrity Fit Club," somehow back for a second season on VH1;
Staying tuned to VH1, there's Botox-infused ex-cover girl Janice Dickinson, thrice married, noted detox recidivist, and former host of the really weird America's Next Top Model (a UPN property) moving in with some mismatched roommates, including Carey Hart, who is known, I think, as Pink's boyfriend, on a program that the "Video Hits" station calls "The Surreal Life."
ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" somehow became this summer's breakout hit, and never mind that the "stars" were people I might not recognize in the street, such as 30-something "New Kid on the Block" Joey McIntyre and John O'Hurley. Do you know who John O'Hurley is? He's the guy who played J. Peterman on "Seinfeld," and his inclusion on a show about "stars" is, to me, the height of postmodernism. After all, here's a guy who played a character based on a caricature from a short-lived catalogue - a person who everyone in on "the joke" knew never existed, but who somehow did exist on a show about nothing, and hasn't been heard from since. But, he's somehow classified among the "stars" in this program. There's symmetry in this, somewhere.
Let's not forget the widely panned "Being Bobby Brown" on Bravo, featuring the messy onetime R&B star and his wife, the barely standing Whitney Houston. Last month, this program attracted 1.1 million viewers - not a bad showing for Bravo, actually.
While that figure is notable, Nielsen has 22.4 million viewers having watched the finale of "Dancing with the Stars." That's right - 22.4 million.
What's next on TV? Well, if you don't want to watch Hulk Hogan in his new serial, Jose Canseco is on deck with one of his own.
I'm not making any of this up, of course. But some of you might be upset with me for picking only the bottom feeders. Okay then, let's look at the most ballyhooed serial of the year, FX's "Over There," a serial about soldiers in combat in Iraq.
Justifiably controversial, since this isn't a war picture about some past conflict, but one about a perpetual one in present day, "Over There" is not political in any meaningful way - a relief, since its about not just Iraq but the middle east altogether. What amazed me about its premiere this week, however, was how much like the rest of the nonsense above it was.
The pilot opens with establishing scenes for the main characters. We see their passionate goodbyes and feel their doubts and fears. Mostly, it feels like reality TV. Suddenly then, we're thrust into battle - but it's not just battle, it's a standoff against multiple, hidden, faceless insurgents - to searing guitar riffs.
That's right - the heavy metal music begins during "Over There" when the soldiers pull off their safeties and fire.
I don't mean this as a criticism of the program - honest. It just made sense to me within the entire idiom of what television has become in this, the age of new media that has been driven primarily by interactive. Each of the shows above is written for an audience that is sitting back, trying to stay awake, barely engaged. Forget D-list, has-been celebrities and their ongoing, out of date foibles. Even war scenes in present day Iraq, the producers are telling us, aren't expected to keep our attention. They need a sound track.
Back in 1996, when I entered this business, someone told me that the Web was different than TV because users sit up and engage when they're online, and they sit back and watch television. As far as I'm concerned, TV has a far worse problem, in terms of content, than the Web. Bob Garfield was right about the spotty nature of interactive content. But, I think that the point limps until a given threshold. For instance, I'll put our industry's top 50 properties up against television's top 50 properties any day of the week.
Of course, in our business, advertisers know who saw their ad. If you're one of those who bought time on "Dancing with the Stars," you probably lost viewers during commercials because they went to their computers to Google "J. Peterman."