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Ode to Plotlessness 

I want my Ralph TV

Wednesday, Sep 27 2000
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And here we are again, poised on the brink of a ”new fall season,“ a little delayed by the Olympics but still the traditional beginning of the TV year in spite of the fact that, especially since cable began to flex its muscle, new shows premiere now all the time. (All the fucking time, I almost wrote. Where did that come from?) There are 2.5 dozen new network series lined up just back there in the corridor, eager and green, tricked out in their Sunday suits and best frocks, waiting to come out and impress the hell out of you with their comedy stylings and dramatic recitations. They are storming the shores of your attention to win your hearts and minds, or at least your eyes and ears, and whatever‘s in your wallet -- that will do just fine.

And yet amid all this gay expectation and strategic maneuvering, dark notes are being struck, dark clouds lower. With strikes by the actors’ and writers‘ guilds expected in the spring, strain and tension have seized television’s executive class, bless their hearts, while the medium itself has been taking knocks, and kicks, and spit -- well, it is an election year. A safe and productive and time-honored target is the tube, and there‘s a stack of political hay to be made out of decrying the way the media preys upon, ill serves, and warps beyond recognition the citizenry, especially those citizens commonly called ”our children.“ People can see their children are warped, and they have to blame somebody.

This year, presidential candidates and other D.C. speechifiers have been particularly lucky: A recently released Federal Trade Commission report, ordered by President Clinton after the Columbine massacre, has provided a convenient platform, attacking as it does the marketing of ”violent“ music, video games and movies to the younger set, by among other means ”age inappropriate“ advertisements on TV shows popular with (though not necessarily intended for) kids -- Buffy, wrestling, etc. Al Gore, whose Tipper made a bad name for herself back in the day battling rock stars who couldn’t tell the difference between product labeling and censorship, has sounded particularly Old Testament on the matter -- running mate Joe Lieberman is already a sort of poster boy for clean media -- while Ralph Nader, thinking constructively, opines that the thing to do is ”to get these kids to participate in their own culture the way they did centuries ago, where they have their own plays, their own arts, their own crafts, their own music“ -- sounds like the Sixties to me, dude -- ”instead of sitting on a couch as a spectator, 30, 35 hours a week in front of a screen, getting overweight and out of shape before they‘re even 13 . . . It’s a matter of providing a new, noncommercial culture for these youngsters so they have alternatives.“ Oh the lovable old fool. New, noncommercial culture!

The incredibly pokey Federal Communications Commission, meanwhile, also roused from torpor by the FTC report, has been making concerned noises, and has vowed as it has vowed before and will again to study the situation -- specifically to inquire whether there should be stricter limits not only upon the type but the amount of advertising carried on kid shows, and whether the whopping three hours of ”educational“ programs television networks are currently required to carry weekly should possibly be increased. Heretofore, it must be said, the commission has been generous as to what constitutes education. NBC, in an FCC filing early this year, described the higher purpose of Saved by the Bell: The New Class thusly:

The educational objective of this program is to demonstrate how the knowledge of one or more characters in the story moves from one level to a more informed or higher level of knowledge by the end of each episode. This change in knowledge conveys an educational message to the audience which may fall into one or more categories -- intellectual-cognitive andor socio-emotional. The message will always be integral to the plot and present throughout the script. [NBC used the identical language to describe three of its other four ”educational“ programs: Hang Time, City Guys and One World.] This objective is achieved through this series by exploring social themes through the daily school life of six teenage friends at Bayside High who help each other make the most of growing up in a complicated world. The Bayside kids give teens a useful perspective on many of the tough issues they have to face both in their peer relationships, and in personal decision-making both in and out of the classroom.

Uh-huh. And here is CBS on the pedagogical properties of New Tales From the Cryptkeeper:

[E]ach episode focuses on a youthful main character in need of learning an important life lesson. The engagingly ghoulish character of the Cryptkeeper, well known to both elementary school aged and adolescent children, plays a role in helping each of these young characters to learn the value of such traits as perseverance, integrity and honesty and the importance of education and planning. The objectives of the program are to assist children in understanding both the positive and negative consequences that arise from different individual and group behaviors, and to help them gravitate toward choices that will enhance their personal development. This program is specifically designed to further the educational and informational needs of children, has educating and informing children as a significant purpose, and otherwise meets the definition of Core Programming as specified in the Commission‘s rules.

How could I have missed that?

Something will be done, certainly, because something always is done. (Which does not necessarily mean that anything substantial will happen.) The FCC plans presently to hold hearings, Variety reports, ”on the obligations of broadcasters when it comes to programming for children, including the effect of sexually explicit and violent programming.“ It is going to call for ”comment“ and get to the bottom of what a day or two of actually watching television ought to make clear to anyone not in charge of regulating it. The networks will be encouraged to adopt voluntary standards -- DisneyABC got off that block ahead of the pack, promising not to run ads for R-rated movies before 9 p.m., though it didn’t promise to cut the sex jokes out of Two Guys and a Girl. (And I am happy to see that CBS is importing its new Saturday morning lineup from Nick Jr.; I‘m not saying things never get better.)

Yet barring an industrywide embrace of a sin-specific Hays Code sort of code -- about as likely as the paper you now hold folding itself into a crane and flying away -- these standards are bound to be elastic, vague, subject to convenient redefinition. Desire crafts morality in a free market, and all the figures seem to indicate that the people, whatever they say they want, actually do like their entertainment sexy and violent. (Kids of course mostly just like it violent.) The FCC would better serve you by fighting vertical integration and corporate abuses of power, but that is hard work and possibly un-American. You are going to have to save yourself, save your kids, by yourself. The networks, meanwhile, have been around this track several times before, and -- secure in the knowledge that not in a million years will their licenses be taken away -- they barely bother now to register a reaction. A perfunctory swish of the tail to acknowledge the gnats, then it’s back to the oats.

Citizen Ralph is right, of course: Television can be your bestest pal but it is also your worst enemy -- a facsimile of activity, a black hole of purpose. And you have asked it into your home. As far as I‘m concerned, the most interesting TV of the late summer was Big Brother, at least once the ”cast“ came to identify the show itself as the problem. In its final weeks, rather than enacting the drama of friction and betrayal its producers were doing their best to create, the players opted to get along, and their suburban prison was as full of love as Waltons’ Mountain. It was a beautiful, plotless thing. (And proportionately low-rated.) And I hope the irony is not lost upon the public that when the contest ends this weekend, the winner will have gone three months without television. And lived.

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