Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Death of TV

I'm old enough to remember the birth of television on our street.
That's not to say I was around in 1925 when John Logie Baird succeeded in making monochromatic silhouette images move on a screen.
But I recall the odd brown box that arrived in my parents' home one morning in the 1970s and the air of pioneer excitement and they fiddled with clunky dials and a picture fought its way out of a snow storm.
Back in those days there were just two channels, BBC 1 and BBC 2 and two colors, black and white, as well as the unedifying spectrum of greys in between. We could get ITV on a sunny day but my parents didn't approve because they were forced to watch adverts for commercial appliances, the latest transistor radios, twin tub washing machines or Cliff Richard spinning at 45 revolutions per minute.
Early TV provided a script for our childhood. We hid behind the sofa when we heard the alien theme tune of Doctor Who thumping through a vortex of time because we knew the Daleks were about to appear. We shared our early years with the avuncular presence of Ronnie Barker in Porridge and John Cleese strutting through the corridors of The Ministry of Silly Walks or beating up his Austin 1100 with a tree branch in Fawlty Towers.
And it sounds like a chiche, but some TV-less neighbors did come to our house to watch the wedding of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips in 1973, although our mother was at pains to point out she didn't look like a fairytale princess; more like a horse.
Then there was adult TV, which meant something different in our childhood than it does now; the serious grown-up drama that my parents were addicted to such as When the Boat Comes In and Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven.
Color arrived in our home at some point in the 1970s. I can't remember when but I recall the characters from Dougal and the Magic Roundabout suddenly gaining the hallucinagenic hues of their LSD addled creators.
As we grew older TV ceased to lose its novelty and charm. It was just there in the corner of the room like a goldfish or picture, although I still have fond memories of the monotone voice that read out the football results on Grandstand and the game we played predicting what score came next based on its cadences.
At some time in the next decade I drifted away from TV. When I returned in the mid 1990s it was a curiously different creature from the one I had grown up with. The feeling was mildly disconcerting. It was as if I had been going into the garden to feed a reliable but unaminated pet rabbit every day for a decade, only to notice one day it had grown green tusks.
For me the green tusks of reality TV first arrived in the form of Changing Rooms. The plot was simple. Take two sets of neighbors who are good friends, add garish paint, some MDF, a ridiculous fop with a name like Llewelyn-Bowen and get them to decorate each other's homes, resulting in neighbors who weren't such good friends.
The other reality TV show that I first noticed was Airport, a fly-on-the wall about Heathrow airport. I was suspicious from the outset. I'd spent long enough hanging around Heathrow Airport waiting for delayed flights to not want to watch this kind of thing as a leisure activity.
My cynicism did little to arrest the forward march of reality TV.
About 10 years ago I attended a lecture by Peter Bazalgette a TV executive who outlined the vast popularity in Holland of a show in which random people were put in a house and eliminated by public vote. Bazalgette explained audience numbers peaked when two housemates had sex, which equated on the small screen to two grainy figures wriggling around in a sleeping bag.
The scene was set for Big Brother and the rest is history. I have lost track of how many tedious series of Big Brother have been filmed or the cast list of desperate wannabes the show has enabled. But by hanging on every action of these characters the media has transformed them into vacuous celebs who are famous for being famous.
Characters like Jade Goody made being talentless a talent. And they lived and died in the glare of tabloid TV.
Today I have more than 30 channels on a basic cable package in the US. I can surf them for hours without finding anything I have a remote interest in watching.
Reality TV is TV whether it's Wife Swap, the real housewives of whatever place you can think of, the Kardashians, The Osbournes, Hulk Hogan's daughter, men who catch crabs in cold places or men who force themselves to eat enough food to feed an African village for a week for a certificate.
And Bazalgette's monster has spawned in a way Frankenstein's never did. You can vote on America's best model, singer, dancer, cook. Surely America's top snail racer or sewage technician will soon be a mere lazy flick of a channel away.
Meanwhile I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of here is in its umpteeth series on British TV and the soiled underwear of dozens of minor celebrities we had forgotten about is being paraded across the tabloids. TV has surely reached a parlous state when the departure from the show of Jordan, a woman famous for her gravity defying breasts, and I can't think what else, causes the viewing figures to plummet by two million.
If this isn't bad enough plans are now afoot to make the bushtucker trials, the stomach churning tasks the D-listers endure in I'm A Celebrity, such as eating kangaroo testicles and witchetty grubs, the centrepiece of new prime-time series.
Stateside our obsession with celebrity shows few signs of abating. In Colorado a father apparently pretended his son had floated off in a hot air balloon to raise publicity for a reality TV show he had pitched named The Science Detectives.
Perhaps he should be rewarded with a few bushtucker trials.
In DC a couple up for consideration for The Real Housewives of DC crashed a state dinner at the White House.
The monster unleashed by TV executives more than a decade ago who realized they could save money by avoiding high quality productions and using members of the public instead of actors, is out of control and nobody's going to round it up any time soon.
And as TV increasingly becomes fragmented and rendered obsolete by the Internet, it's hard to escape the conclusion that TV's going to be voted off this challenge.
Years ago when I first saw those flickering shades of gray it seemed like the beginning of something. Little did I realize I was peering into a golden age and contemplating the beginning of the end.

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