Ten years and one day ago, my byline ran for the first time on a Miami Herald column about television. I didn’t see it. I was aboard an airliner flying to Los Angeles, where TV critics from all over the country were gathering to get a look at the spring season shows. When I got off the plane, I discovered that slumping ABC had fired all of its top programming executives.
My immediate reaction was panic. This was my first day on the job; I’d spent most of the past 20 years covering Latin America. I knew a lot about TV shows from all those bored evenings in hotel rooms in Tegucigalpa and San Salvador, but hardly anything about the people who made them or why.
So I called my friend Terry Jackson, whose TV critic job I had inherited when he left the paper to become a magazine editor. “Do you have any idea what the hell this means?” I asked.
“No, but don’t worry,” he advised me. “Nobody else does, either. A show is a hit or a flop. Nobody knows why. If they did, there would never be any flops. They could turn the job over to a monkey and it probably wouldn’t matter.”
Terry’s counsel seemed dubious to me, but ABC seemed to agree with him. The new network boss was a woman named Susan Lyne who chastised TV critics for expecting quality programming. Americans, she assured us at one of her press conferences, were inert lunkheads who just wanted some background noise while they laid on their couches and drank beer. She once introduced a new ABC show, Are You Hot: The Search for America’s Sexiest People, with the boast that it was “a contest where intelligence and achievement have absolutely no bearing.”
Statisticians still argue about whether Lyne’s vision of All Vegetative-Coma TV All The Time produced a statistically significant drop in American IQs, but she definitely didn’t add any Nielsen points to ABC ratings. So the network fired her and brought in a guy named Stephen McPherson who tried the opposite tack, airing shows for actual grown-ups like Lost and Pushing Daisies. That didn’t work, either.
At one point, the network even came close to adopting Terry’s idea of hiring a monkey. ABC’s workplace sitcom 9:30 (8:30 Central Time) — yes, that the actual name — was set at a TV network where the programming lineup was chosen by a chimpanzee picking at random. If 9:30 (8:30 Central Time) had been a hit, you can bet the chimp would have been given a suite of ABC offices and all of Susan Lyne’s bananas.
I’m not saying, exactly, that everything I know about being a TV critic, I learned the first day. But after a decade in the position — the longest stretch anybody has held it at The Herald since Jack Anderson, the guy who invented the job back in the 1950s — I still often think that television is at least as cryptic as the ending of The Sopranos.
Why do the cookie-cutter plots and English-as-a-second-language dialogue of the CSI shows (“Be on the lookout for an Eastern European male with bad teeth who may have access to an ape!”) rack up such big audiences? Why can’t Westerns, the staple programming of television in the 1950s and 1960s, draw flies anymore, even when they’re as intelligent as HBO’s Deadwood or AMC’s Hell on Wheels?
And why did everybody think it was thrillingly awful when too-psychopathic-even-for-the-Mob Ralph Cifaretto got his head chopped off in Tony Soprano’s bathroom, but just-plain-awful when a DEA agent’s leg was eaten by a narcotrafficker’s pet tiger in Kingpin, NBC’s answer to The Sopranos? The late David Mills, Kingpin’s creator, shared my puzzlement over that one. “I don’t understand why everybody latches onto that,” he once told me. “I mean, it’s not like the DEA guy is still alive.”
Wondering why audiences react the way they do, though it’s often fruitless, is an inescapable part of a critic’s job, especially when it comes to popular art. Financial considerations define the parameters of almost all art — da Vinci had to pay bills, just like David Caruso does — but their role is particularly acute in television, where the business model is based not on a few deep-pockets patrons but assembling great masses of eyeballs.
The increasing precision with which technology can measure those eyeballs has, if anything, made the industry crazier. If anybody at all out there remembers a 2006 ABC sitcom called Emily’s Reasons Why Not, it’s most likely as an object lesson in the dangers of cloning (the botched egg donor in this case being Sex and the City. But the show remains to me a crucial — and chilling — lesson about the economics of TV. (Just to clarify, I’m speaking figuratively here. Hacking out your eyeballs and sending them to NBC will not get Chuck renewed for another season, even if you get all your Facebook friends to do the same.)
ABC, which spent millions of dollars to promote the show and considered it the tent pole of its new season, canceled it after a single episode because the network’s computers chewed over the quarter-hour Nielsen ratings and concluded that the opening-night audience of 6.2 million viewers — lackluster, but hardly catastrophic — was only going to shrink. That means the producers had just 22 and a half minutes, the amount of program time in a half-hour show, to make their case to the viewers. Compare that to Seinfeld, which two decades ago languished in the Nielsen basement for three seasons before finding its audience.
But the torments that technology has inflicted upon viewers, the hair-trigger cancellations and the incessant juggling of schedules, pale next to the blessings it has conferred. The rise of cable and satellite have allowed the old three-channel desert of TV that I grew up with to bloom into a lush paradise of viewing choices. And that, in turn, has smashed the tyranny of the lowest common denominator that ruled television for decades.
A TV show no longer has to appeal to 30 million viewers to find its way onto the air. That means not everything has to be The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet or Leave it to Beaver. Shows have been built around everything from heroic serial killers (Showtime’s Dexter) to promiscuous vampires (HBO’s True Blood) to corporate lawyers who may be Biblical prophets or may just have brain tumors (ABC’s Eli Stone).
Genres need not be rigidly defined: The FX cable channel did a comedy-drama about eating disorders ( Starved); Showtime did one on a woman wracked with multiple personalities ( United States of Tara). Morality spills across even more lines: On show’s like FX’s motorcycle-gang drama Sons of Anarchy and Starz’s sleazy urban political study Boss, not only is it hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, but there may not even be any good guys.
Even shows that aren’t conceptually edgy have benefitted immensely from the freedom forced by cable. Friends may have lacked the bawdy erotic outlawry of Sex and the City. But with story lines about lesbian wives, premarital pregnancy and one-night stands, it wouldn’t have made it onto the air 20 years earlier or perhaps even 10. Likewise for the horny nerds of Big Bang Theory or the corporate freedom fighters of 30 Rock.
So, bite me, Bruce Springsteen. Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on? Try 300 channels and almost always something on, from Chinese cooking contests to Bill O’Reilly and/or Keith Olbermann to the narcotrafficking soccer mom of Weeds to paranoid 1960s advertising executives on Mad Men. The rich diversity and high quality of today’s television programming makes me laugh whenever I hear somebody lament the lost Golden Age of 1950s television. The one thing I’ve learned for sure over the past decade is that the Golden Age of television is right now.