The Sunday Magazine: The New Television Renaissance Has Been Delayed

Back in the 1980’s as homes were becoming wired for cable television there were a few channels which trumpeted their desire to uplift Newton Minnow’s description of it as a “vast wasteland”. Before cable most homes had the three major networks ABC, CBS, and NBC, the fledgling FOX network, and PBS. If you lived in a big city you had a few more independent channels showing old movies and repeats of popular television shows. As we were being urged to wire our homes there were new channels which were trumpeting their desire to improve the wasteland and bring intellectual programming that wasn’t dependent on mass audiences or endless fundraising drives. The subtext of that message was we were going to crush the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) by being more focused.

When most people got wired with cable they found two of these networks Bravo and The Learning Channel (TLC). Not long after they would be joined by The History Channel. Bravo advertised itself as the “film and performing arts” channel. TLC called itself “a place for learning minds”. The History Channel was self-explanatory. If each of these lived up to their desired mission we would have a renaissance of intellectual material on our multitude of new channels courtesy of the cable coming out of the wall.

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As anyone who flips by these channels today knows all that high faulting’, hoity-toity stuff has been long jettisoned. The turning point for Bravo came when it began showing, in 2003, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”. The show about five gay men who came into a straight man’s life and showed him there was another way was a huge hit garnering over 3 million viewers at its peak. Once the money started to roll in the idea of “film and performing arts” flew out the window and more reality started to take its place. Right now it is the home of the multitudinous “Real Housewives” franchises, a cooking show “Top Chef”, and the fashion designer competition “Project Runway”. All of these huge successful franchises raking in advertising dollars and ratings. PBS not so much.

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TLC went through a similar alteration in 2000 as they had a more modest success in the home decorating show “Trading Spaces”. It would eventually lead to them never saying what the initials stood for as they rebranded the network with the motto “life unscripted”. Most recently that unscripted fare has focused on unusual families. Families of many children like “Jon and Kate plus 8” or the “17/18/19 Kids and Counting” franchises. Here was a connection to PBS as these were modern day versions of the 1971 PBS documentary “An American Family”. The similarity between all of them is the relentless lens of the camera destroyed these families. TLC has recently focused on little people and juvenile beauty queens to fill in their “life unscripted”.

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The History Channel is perhaps the most egregious evolution of these three examples. In its early days it was solid documentaries about history. In those early days the only things which they were able to procure had something to do with World War 2. Comedians would dub it “The Hitler Channel” because he was seemingly on most of the time. Just as with Bravo and TLC it was a reality program which changed the network; Pawn Stars in 2008. Pawn Stars followed the exploits in a Las Vegas pawn shop. Just like the other two, History would fill up their schedule with series about truckers, lumberjacks and other pawn shops. That would be fine but it is the other programming which really has twisted the function of a channel named History. There are a number of shows which plumb the ancient aliens, Nostradamus, Bigfoot, and conspiracy theory space. These are shows built upon a foundation of spurious facts and the ability to make the slightest morsel into some lurid conspiracy.

TLC and Bravo abandoned their principles but in the end they are entertainment. History seems to me like it should mean factual but that has also gone the way of the entertainment excuse too. What about PBS? Thirty years after these guys were going to put them out of business. Well when I am in the mood for international film, performing arts, documentaries, or educational offerings it is still the place to go. With nary a housewife, ginormous family, or an alien conspiracy theory to be found.

Mark Behnke

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