Thursday, October 16, 2014

"When television is good, nothing is better. When it's bad, nothing is worse."

Some months ago I managed to find and read Newton N. Minow's landmark 'Wasteland speech' about the state of television. In it the former FCC chairman talks about the responsibilities of those who produce programming for television networks.

It is a wonderful and an eloquent speech about the need for quality programming. It was penned when John F. Kennedy was still the president of The United States - more than fifty years ago. At that time there were only three network channels on television.

In his speech Minow has a lot to say: he correctly warned us about many things that are wrong about television entertainment: unnecessary violence, bad dramas, unfunny sitcoms, implausible characters and families in situations that make no sense - and so on.

Today we have more than just three channels: we have hundreds of them. There's much more programming on tv nowadays, reality television, documentaries and scripted television, sitcoms and dramas among other things.  The list is almost endless.

It's not a secret that there actually are some good tv programs today. In reality though, more than ever before, television programs tend to be of very low quality. There are very few shows that are actually worth watching today.

One of the biggest problems with today's television is that basically nobody seems to be brave enough to say what Newton N. Minow dared to say more than fifty years ago: that is that most of the stuff that you see on tv is simply horrendous and has no value.

What he said was really daring. I don't think you can really say anything like that today in our politically correct environment where 'everything is awesome'. It's just safer to bow your head and say that this is the golden age of television™.

As sad it is, this kind of denial runs so deep in the entertainment business.  It's so depressing to read about these usual lies about the awesomeness of tv: like network executives backing their atrocious shows that nobody even watches - they call it "niche tv."

It's equally heartbreaking when you constantly read positive reviews by these so called "tv journalists" for shows that clearly don't have any redeeming qualities. They are extremely poorly made by people who don't have what it takes to entertain and to educate us.

Truth is, as Newton Minow said, that when tv is good, almost nothing is better. The best shows probably do make us better human beings: shows such as the early seasons of The Simpsons, Star Trek, the best of David Kelley shows, Amazing Race and so on.

At the same time, as he also said, when television is bad, almost nothing is indeed worse. Almost nothing is as depressing as seeing bad television programs. Bad tv makes us seem vain, self-absorbed, superficial, ignorant and worthless.

In any case, television is potentially a wonderful innovation. It allows us to communicate our ideas. It also allows us to entertain and to educate people. But it is up to us to set the bar higher. If we don't care about the quality enough, we don't really deserve better.

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