Friday, January 18, 2013

Has Too Many Channels Ruined TV?

The answer is clearly, yes and no. No, because there are literally hundreds of channels now offering thousands of programs, with no signs of slowing down. These are even broadcast in a variety of formats, including standard, HD, and 3D. Yes, because it has all but killed television as we know it.

Television is unique in a capitalist market like the United States in so much as in this case, competition does not breed quality.  Rather, programs can be shopped around on a variety of stations, and even whole networks can focus their programs on a niche market. Twenty years ago, a program that would not even be green-lit for a pilot episode can now attain syndication today.

While there are the old standby's like sitcoms, morning talk shows, game shows, news programs, dramas and soaps, there is a slew of cheaply produced reality programs that seem to generate enough ratings to warrant more. So much so that networks are looking in the strangest places. There are currently four shows about pawn shops, four shows about repo companies, meter maids, loggers, truck drivers, two shows about fishermen, miners, duck call manufacturers, bar owners, bike builders,  three shows about ghost investigating, beauty pageants for 5 year old's, and bounty hunting. If that isn't enough, there is competitive reality shows following groups of people competing for the top spot in their field. There are over a dozen shows regarding competitive dance, singing, and modelling alone. Lets also add competitive cooking, cleaning, make-up artists, tattooing, weight loss,  cheer leading, dating, and most recently, competitive taxidermy.

With the exception of American Idol, America's Got Talent, The Biggest Loser, and maybe one or two others, most reality television is produced very cheaply, and why not? If a network or cable station can grab ratings and save a buck in production, the happier they are. However, less production value also means a product of inferior quality. Consider the final season of one of NBC's biggest sitcoms, Friends. The cast alone received a million dollars per episode. That's six million an episode for six people, and we haven't even added the cost of supporting cast, extras, directors, writers, and crew. How much do you think a cable network spends on Ghost Hunters, or Ice Loves Coco?

Naturally, a reduction in budget is a reduction in quality, but does a lesser quality necessarily affect standards? Apparently not. Maybe Seinfeld was a bit of a prophet. In one episode George and Jerry were pitching a show idea to NBC network execs to which George said it's a show about nothing.That nothing happens. The executive asked why would he be watching it, to which George replied, "because it's on television."   That certainly seems to be the culture today. Sure, television still has quality programming, such as The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, The Walking Dead, etc. But can you honestly say 20 years ago you would spend hours a week watching tv shows about people who cut down trees, the children who participate in beauty pageants  or who work in a pawn store? How are other peoples jobs a television show? What's next, a camera crew documenting the goings on at a Burger King? So why do we watch? Because their on television?

Perhaps a more accurate question isn't, "Has too many channels ruined tv", but "has too many channels ruined us?" Because we don't seem to mind. All but the most lofty off us still enjoy a good trainwreck, and for that we'll endure Keeping Up With The Kardashians and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, just to see how intolerable people live and feel better about ourselves.


  1. I'd have to agree... it's really a numbers game. Thirty years ago the number of shows being actively produced for television was very, very small. For that show to have any chance for survival it had to do well or it was quickly axed. Today, there are thousands of different shown on any given day but the number of truly great shows hasn't increased proportionally. The reason is because the TV pie hasn't gotten much bigger. Sure, people are watching more TV than ever but we used have only three channels and now we have 600... people aren't watching 200 times the TV they used to. So that's less eyeballs for EVERY show, meaning advertising dollars get spread out more thinly than they used to.

    I think one thing you forgot to mention was the death of the ubiquitous television viewing experience. You mentioned Seinfeld and that's a great example. It used to be that you could just mention in casual conversation, "Did you see X" last night and the answer was "Yes!" or "No, I can't believe I missed it!" I think the last show to have this was American Idol. Now I don't think it exists outside the Super Bowl. With the diversification of television, people tend to stick to their own niche channels. Shows used to be produced for the masses but now they have very narrow target demographics. Even popular shows like The Walking Dead is only watched by 11.5 million people. That means you have a 1 in 30 chance of meeting a random stranger who watched this popular show. Ask, "Did you see that?" today and you'll get responses like, "Never heard of it," "I'm waiting for the DVD," "Why would I watch that?"

    Oh, and thanks for the compliment. I'm glad to know you consider me to be among the most lofty of us.

  2. Thanks, but to clarify your point, I think people are watching more tv than 20-30 years ago. According to a Nielsen report, the average american watches 37-40 hours a week. Also factor into it the average household has more than one tv, with 66% having 3 or more.