Why Television Matters

For my first blog post, I thought about doing something hip—something about Downton Abbey, perhaps, or maybe a call back to cancelled shows of days past that you never watched but should have. Instead, I wanted to test the waters with something a little more broad.

A lot of people think broadcast television doesn’t matter. They could care less if Community is on the verge of being cancelled, because there’s always something else to watch, right? That’s true, but it didn’t used to be. With the introduction and recent surge in popularity of original programming on cable, the television industry has made sure there’s something for everyone. MTV has your trashy, poorly-written sitcoms and reality shows lacking any modicum of taste, the Discovery Channel has your science and manly-man show fix, and Bravo’s cornered the sparkly world of housewives, million dollar real estate and cooking competitions.

Here’s the problem with that. Those shows, while they’ve infiltrated our popular culture, don’t draw viewers. People talk about them, but they don’t watch them. Advertisers don’t buy discussion, they buy eyeballs. And every show you watch is funded by advertising, whether on cable or not. The advertising industry runs the television industry with an iron fist—if the numbers aren’t high enough, companies stop paying for ad time. And on broadcast networks, where there is no safety net of cable subscription fees, ratings rule all.

Ratings are the reason shows like Arrested Development were cancelled, despite its critical acclaim. Advertisers don’t care if the writing is brilliant and the acting is unequivocally superb, they care about how many people will watch their 30-second Doritos ad. And they don’t just care about sheer numbers; they care about quality of viewers too. They’re looking for you—the 18-49 year olds watching, because those are the most likely to go out and buy the things they’re pushing at you. They could care less about gender, and they aren’t picky about your income demographics (I know it seems odd, but it’s true), but they know that 18-49 year olds talk. They’ve seen it—it’s how shows like Gossip Girl end up with only one million viewers but dominate fashion and gossip blogs. We talk—we talk to each other, we talk online, we talk about our favorite brands of shoes and clothes and whether or not we should go to Olive Garden tonight because they have that new three-course meal for $12.

Television shouldn’t just be another way for Geico to tell you to switch to their insurance, and it shouldn’t just be about passing the time before class. Just like film and music, TV is a reflection of our culture. Just like our parents and grandparents watch Happy Days with fond nostalgia, we’ll be doing the same in twenty or thirty years. Like it or not, the lasting shows on broadcast networks are the ones we’ll be watching on Nick at Nite when we’re forty and fifty, and so I ask you—do you want The Bachelor and Two and a Half Men to be the shows that survive the decades, or do you want it to be Parks and Recreation and Modern Family?

If I have to watch Glee again in thirty years, I will burn Utica to the ground. I’ll never forgive you. Please don’t make me do that.


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