Sunday, August 24, 2014

How you make television suck.

Remember when the Discovery channel was actually all sciencey and full of... Well, Discovery?

Shark week used to be full of informative, factual shows about sharks, not exaggerated sensationalism propagandizing their dangerousness, and certainly not wholly fictitious "documentaries" about super-sharks that don't exist because they went extinct a million years ago.  (Yes, in case you hadn't heard, Discovery opened "Shark Week" with a fakeumentary about Megalodon - no disclaimers, no "That's entertainment!", just a fake documentary.)

So why... Is it because Discovery Networks' owners & managing directors are evil?

No. It's because we're shallow, ignorant assholes. By "we" I may not mean you directly, but, "we" the American viewing (and voting) public. In fact, we're so proud of our ignorance that many of us actually shepherd it like a most valued trait, something worth protecting and boasting about.

So, the Discovery Channel used to show documentaries and how to shows.  Now, it features fakeumentaries about fictional sharks, idiotic ghost stories, "reality" programs about commercial fishing, street racing, car customization, gold prospecting, and fake survivalism.

The History Channel used to show documentaries about - of all things - history, but now shows "reality" programs about pawn shops, driving trucks in weather, customizing cars, midgets, inedible (well, technically edible) cakes, and having WAY too many kids.

The Learning Channel. Sweet mother of dog, do you remember the Learning Channel? Remember "How it's Made"? Remember "Great Chefs"? Remember "The Operation"? No more.

They slowly transitioned through things like "Trauma: Life in the ER" and DIY home improvement (still too much learning!) to drivel like "Wedding Story", "Baby Story", and "What Not to Wear", then slipped into worse drivel like "John & Kate plus 8", "Little People, Big World", and eventually just plunged full deep into utter crap like "Extreme Couponing" and "Toddlers & Tiaras" which eventually brought us "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" - and don't forget "Long Island Medium", "Cake Boss", or "19 kids and counting".

The Learning Channel doesn't even go by that NAME any more. They just say "TLC". It would be tempting to guess that it's out of embarrassment, but it probably had to do with polling data that indicated the word "Learning" made potential viewers twitch and convulse, vomit on themselves, and slip into a catatonic state.

Why? Come on, you know why, right?

Discovery Networks is a business. They produce and broadcast shows for people to watch, so that they can earn their living, and so that their shareholders can (not) earn their even better living.

Now, sure, most of us can imagine a world where the business person says "Well, I have standards. I'm not going to lower my standards just to make a little more money." but, that's not generally the reality of business.  If you can earn more making something a million people want than you can making something a thousand people want, you're probably going to do it. And, what's more, it's actually quite difficult and dangerous to your livelihood to -make- it your standard if you're running a publicly traded corporation.

Networks have metrics to let them know how many people watch a given show, and that gives them ideas of what kinds of things to show in the future. If half a million people tune in to watch a factual documentary, and five million tune in to watch sensationalized or made up crap, and you decide -not- to further crapify your science-to-crap ratio tomorrow, you better look forward to an unpleasant conversation about your fiduciary duties with the board of directors and possibly the legal representation of the shareholders.

Of course, this brings us directly to the door of the people responsible. If you know someone who watches any of these shows, it's their fault. Partly. And, if you catch them at it, you should harass them, ridicule them, and stop hanging out with them. Ok, probably not. But, then, that's part of the problem, too. "Well, I know Jenny spends about twenty hours a week helping to make the world a more miserable, stupid, idiotic place where no IQ above room temperature and no sense of curiosity more advanced than that of a sea slug can possibly hope to survive, let alone thrive, but she's my friend! I love her anyway!"

There are lots of other factors, of course.

There's the way cable revenue and ad revenue are earned and distributed, which forces program directors to choose a clone of a smash hit over a well made original sow that would only garner a comparative niche audience. If you're making shoes, a niche can guarantee your survival. If you're programming basic cable, it's a death sentence.

That's because it's also in part about the way our legal system is tilted in favor of mega-corporations, which has to do with the way the cable industry is constructed and "regulated" (sorry if you sprayed coke from your nose at the idea that we'd "regulate" a big business - it's just for illustration's sake) so that profit gets distributed more like a Mafia slice-up and less like a cooperative meta-business, so that bigger "networks" make the rules and smaller ones get eaten or frozen out.

For example - ever watch ESPN? The average cable channel cost per subscriber - what your cable company pays to bring that channel to you - is $.28 per month. Twenty-eight cents. Know what ESPN charges? $5.54. Almost twenty times as much. So, it should be a premium channel, right? Let you choose whether to take it or not? Nope. ESPN says if a particular cable company doesn't make everyone subscribe, it can't offer it to anyone.

There's another factor, too, though. Another way in which we're to blame. Did you ever notice how so many of those amazing documentary series come from places like Canada and the UK? That's because they have real public television - which also produces crap - humans are human, don't get me wrong - but which also gets a mandate to produce the kind of actually enriching, interesting, educational, quality programming that just won't make it in an all-or-nothing top-heavy commercial market.

Here, in the US, public television gets almost nothing in tax money, and budget hawks still scream like banshees that it gets anything at all.  The entire 2012 appropriation budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was $445.2M - We have military aircraft more expensive than that. Each. And a lot more that make up half or more of that price each.

We're spending $156M each on almost 2500 of one type of plane - the F-35. $382B. Almost ten times that CPB appropriation. Add in maintenance and operation costs of around $650B , and we're spending over a TRILLION dollars - more than the GDP of Australia as the Atlantic put it - on one kind of military aircraft.

And they want to save our budget by cutting off the money we give to public television.

We should have both, of course. We should have commercial television - although, ideally, we've have a version where pricing and distribution of profits were more fair and just and merit based - but we also need public television.  And, if we're going to keep our badly broken price and profit models for private television, that just makes it that much MORE important to have a healthy public television system.

Because public television not only brings us the kind of programming commercial television doesn't, it brings us the kind of programming that our current model of commercial television literally can't.  And those are the programs we need.

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