9.24.18: a rebel alliance of quality content
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the bland taste of seasoning
why the networks lose out to cable
by michelle von euw

Michelle Von Euw's short story STARF*CKER will be featured in LET THE EVOLUTION BEGIN, the first book from Intrepid Publishing.

I love TV. I love the idea of television, the shiny, new-age black surface of a television set turned to off, the smooth, slightly rubbery feel of the remote control buttons against my fingertips, the brief moment of static before the picture snaps into place. I love the colors, I love the noise, I love the sharp taste of anticipation that arrives like clockwork, defining the days of the week.

OK, maybe that’s a little much. But I do enjoy television.

As much as I may love it, as many times as I’ve laughed with Xander Harris or cried with the Fishers or yelled at John Madden, I don’t get it. Network television? Baffles me to pieces. And at this time of the year, when the temperatures dip and schools are back in session and vacation homes are shuttered up, when a million other things are distracting Americans from their television sets, this is the time when we are supposed to pay close attention?

I don’t get the Nielsen system. I don’t see the logic, particularly in this day of advanced technology and 256 cable channels narrow enough to appeal to any demographic, of this outdated system of tabulating television viewers. TiVo and VCRs and even remote controls would seemingly obliterate the sweeps period, the all-important dollars-to-viewers ratio, but instead, sweeps are even more important than ever before.

But mostly, I don’t understand why the networks continue to follow a system that bombards their viewers with new shows and new seasons of returning shows all at the same time. The battle for an audience is so cut-throat that shows are often canceled after the airing of three episodes, or two, or even just one episode airs, which makes absolutely no sense at all. If the networks are going to put the time and money into a pilot, why not let the show try to build an audience? (Of course, in a lot of a cases, a quick cancellation is a blessing.)

Because the networks run on their own insane schedule, they load up the summer months with cheap reality-based television, reheated movies of the week, and enough "Law and Order" repeats to fill several nights of the week. (Just how many "Law and Order"s are there? During August alone, I’ve encountered the original "Law and Order," which features a grumpy old cop, his handsome partner, and some DA-type people; "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," which features a female cop, her handsome partner, and some more DA-type people; and "Law and Order: Overacting Anonymous," which features a really dramatic, over-annunciating cop, some other cops, and some more DA-type people. I’m expecting to see Dick Wolf add "Law and Order: Traffic Violations," and "Law and Order: School Crossing Guard Division" to the mix as well.)

Summer programming can be successful, as HBO, "American Idol," and "Survivor" have demonstrated recently (and "Beverly Hills, 90210" proved back in the early ‘90s). However, every time a network experiences a summer hit, they quickly move that program onto the fall schedule for future seasons. Only HBO – who, notably, doesn’t rely on advertising dollars at all – are brave, or perhaps bright, enough to air new episodes of their marquee series during the warmer months.

In between "Law and Order" and "Big Brother," this August networks bombarded us with advertisements for their new fall lineup, as if the over-saturation of Whoopi Goldberg’s jive-talkin’ white friend would be titillating enough to make us tune in to her new sitcom, or if softly-lit scenes of Alicia Silverstone will make us stay home on Friday nights to catch "Miss Match." The lineup for this season looks appallingly bad, and for the first time since I can remember, there’s not one single new show that I’m looking forward to watching. The carefully-crafted commercials running on every network inspire yawns, or anger, or amnesia. I think that Christine Baranski is married to John Ritter in one show, but it may be John Laroquette. There’s some sitcom that promises to provide hundreds of laughs with the extremely funny subplot of a man with both a fiancé and a girlfriend, and let’s not forget the hours of entertainment provided by immigrants with funny accents.

As I said earlier, TV sometimes makes me angry or exasperated, and every time I see an ad for ABC’s new sitcom set in my hometown, "It’s All Relative," I want to scream at the TV, “There are no Irish Catholic Republicans in Boston! They are all Democrats!” Perhaps the scriptwriters out in LA feel the need to dumb down reality to make their cheap premise -– liberal Harvard daughter of two gay parents engaged to son of Irish Catholic Republicans -- work. Maybe they think the general viewing audience is too clueless to realize that “Republican” doesn’t automatically equal “conservative” or vice versa. Perhaps they think that the nation is totally unaware of any actual Irish Catholic Boston politicians, like John Kerry, Tip O’Neill, and several generations who claim the last name of Kennedy. Or maybe they can’t see beyond Arnold Schwarzenegger’s candidacy to realize that perhaps politics are different on the other coast.

I’m not looking forward to Rob Lowe in a law firm. I’m not setting my clock for "CSI" in the Old West or "CSI" in the Navy. I have no desire to see “some bumpkin date some famous chick,” as my husband describes "I’m With Her." I can’t see Joe Pantoliano in anything on network TV, not after his grisly "Sopranos" demise. And despite my admiration for Eliza Dushku, I can’t watch "Tru Calling," because I know Fox will yank it before Columbus Day.

The truth is, nothing new looks as good as "Once and Again," or "Sports Night" or even any of the Chris Carter series that were canceled within their first year. And nothing old looks particularly inspiring, either. I don’t think I can stomach "Friends" dragging along into its tenth season, and I don’t believe "West Wing" will match its first and second season form. The original "CSI" I’ll watch if I’m around, the only returning show I’m looking forward to at all is "Alias."

If I only had network television to rely upon, my love affair with TV would most definitely come to an end. Thank goodness for "Six Feet Under," "Trading Spaces," "Iron Chef," and the other programming brought home by those 256 cable channels. They leave the networks in the dust.


Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

more about michelle von euw


love, american (tv) style
relationships, reality, and reality tv relationships
by michelle von euw
topic: television
published: 5.7.03

the more tv changes, the more tv stays the same
the technology is there, so why aren't the results?
by michelle von euw
topic: television
published: 5.8.06


russ carr
9.8.03 @ 2:04a

"Chelle, you forgot Dick Wolf's Boston variant, "Law and Ordah."

mike julianelle
9.8.03 @ 11:39a

As much as it pains me to say, Tru Calling looks like shit. Eliza will be back as Faith somewhere, someday. For now, we've got The OC, a 90210 for the new millenium, with ultra-hot Mischa Barton. Oh yeah!

jael mchenry
9.8.03 @ 11:42a

After dinner Saturday night we came up with a few great CSI spinoff ideas. "CSI: Council Bluffs" is one of my favorites.

I'm looking forward to Alias and CSI, and I'll probably watch an ep or two of Tru Calling. I wish I had HBO so I could check out Carnivale. Other than that? Meh.

Chelle? Change your bio, when you have a minute.

mike julianelle
9.8.03 @ 11:43a

Alias, The OC, 24, Angel...Carnivale looks interesting, although EW gave it a Meh.

jael mchenry
9.8.03 @ 11:52a

I don't know if I'll bother with 24 this year. Last year's finale was pretty much a letdown.

russ carr
9.8.03 @ 12:19p

The trailer for 24, during CTHD last night, was awfully encouraging. Kiefer said in an interview he thinks they've found a balance between the intrigue of Day 1 and the action of Day 2.

It's the only show I'll watch regularly next season, I can say that already. Tru Calling is just Early Edition with breastseses.

jeffrey walker
9.8.03 @ 12:36p

Note 1: Baranski is married to Larroquette in "Happy Family"; two actors who havn't done well in their last two sitcoms team up to suck some more. Watch it on Tuesdays right after "Whoopi," and it won't seem to suck so bad.

Note 2: I'd watch "The Handler" if it weren't on Friday. I'm just not home for that.

Note 3: Two and a half men? Charlie Sheen must have really taken a beating in the market.

I'll watch Norm MacDonald in Fox's "A minute with Stan Cooper" until it gets cancelled, and then thank Netflix for saving me from all this other crap.

jael mchenry
9.8.03 @ 1:41p

Mmmmm, Netflix.

When was the last time a Friday night show was successful? Other than early X-Files? Was Providence Friday or Saturday night?

jason siciliano
9.8.03 @ 2:33p

Friday and Saturday nights are all about TLC and BBC at our house. Trading Spaces, While You Were Out, What Not To Wear (only the BBC version). Throw in a little Food Network every now and again.

CSI, Law & Order, Cops, 24, Alias, X-Files...various spins/levels of the same: Good-looking government people with guns running or chasing other people for a living or for their lives. Great eye/brain candy, but really.

This column is so on. And let me add newscasts to the fire. We've got Jim Lehrer, and maybe the first half of The News with Brian Williams (or whoever is filling in for him tonight). What else? BBC World News when it's on. FOX? CNN? Nasty stuff.

HBO, ESPN, MTV2, BET, TLC, Cartoon Network...the only channels really going for it are cable channels. Though you could argue that FOX is going for it - in that they're pushing the boundaries of taste.

FINGER CROSSER: West Wing pulls out one more great season - without turning into the soap it seems like it's becoming.

erik myers
9.8.03 @ 3:03p

As far as I'm concerned, the only reason to have network television anymore is that Fox plays Simpsons reruns every night, new episodes on Sundays, and is now finishing up its run of Futurama.

Network telvision is tired.

rachel levine
9.8.03 @ 6:16p

Nielsen Ratings. They're not meant for you. The trouble with being smart (or creative or interesting or a combination of these) is that what appeals to the lowest common denominator is not going to make you horny, baby.

russ carr
9.8.03 @ 10:42p

Now there's a column.

robert melos
9.9.03 @ 12:00a

I'm a VCR guy. I tape everything I feel like watching, and then fast forward through commercials. When I stopped to consider my view habits I realized with the exception of ER, all of my favorite shows fall to the non-traditional networks like UPN and the WB. The rest are on cable. I've often wondered how the Nielsen system counters for viewers like me? I admit I did stop the fast forward once about a year ago to watch a kitty litter commercial. On FF it didn't look like a kitty litter commercial.

tracey kelley
9.9.03 @ 2:33a

Six Feet Under. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Carnivale. West Wing.

That's what I'll be watching this fall. With the exception of insominatic selections. Trust me - if you think there's a void in prime time, try 2:00 a.m.

heather millen
9.9.03 @ 3:20p

New series, for the most part, haven't even kicked in yet and I am already painfully addicted to The OC and have a newfound passion for Queer Eye. I will continue to watch Sex in the City and, as always, will turn into Thursday Night Must See TV.

As you can see, I have a very busy fall ahead of me. And I'm not even much of a TV watcher- at least not by Intrepid standards.

k j
9.10.03 @ 1:09a

sorry I posted twice.


k j
9.10.03 @ 1:40a

michelle von euw said :
[I want to scream at the TV, “There are no Irish Catholic Republicans in Boston!]
Yep in NY either.

michelle von euw said :
[The truth is, nothing new looks as good as "Once and Again,"]
And here lies the problem. We call "truth" as we see it and often that means we call it differently. To me that show was cliched and predictable, headlined by 2 genric dullsters and the implausibilities, if stacked on end, could cover the Washington monument from top to bottom. Based on my experience with recent divorcees, life's a lot sloppier. The kids act out in ways that would cause poor old Lilly to have a stroke. She might even have to suffer the indignity of settling for some computer shlub -- always suspected' someone's Jewish grandmother influenced the "archetect" idea -- clinging to him for dear life b/c god knows in the universe I live in, she wouldn't have got past the goal line in *most* interviews given she was computer illiterate. She'd soon miss her mortgage payments on top of that she'd be sitting on so much anger at her disloyal dad that he might up and crok before they reconciled -- way too ugly for this show....Life/people are a lot less polite than on O&A from what I've seen. But they can be a lot more interesting. Actually the BBC has done takes on the same subject that worked better for me.

And I think this illustrates the dilemma of broadcast programming. What's great to some people is ordinary to others. While you might sing the praises of Lilly and Rick; Ruth and family -- I might rather catch a case with Dennis and Rick; or chow down with Carmela and family(an elastic term in this case). So they try to cast as broad a net as possible so they can pay their bills. I think that's why programming is so CSI/L&O predictable. Thank god for HBO and BBCA.

I agree I think starting shows in the slow season may have some benefit. Maybe "The Job" (one of my favorites) wouldn't have been a smash hit, but it might have at least given people a chance to decide. But I still think the chances of getting everyone to agree on what quality entertainment is will forever be elusive b/c of so many options.



russ carr
9.15.03 @ 12:59p

I watched the season premiere of Enterprise last week, just to see if the show's much-hyped retooling did anything to improve it (answer: NO.) and deliberated watching Jake 2.0 and decided, "Ehh." Why do I want to watch another cookie-cutter, act-1-2-3 "hero discovers dilemma-hero is apparently helpless-hero escapes from an overly-elaborate trap" show? It's like watching Law and Order -- see one, seen 'em all.

michelle von euw
9.16.03 @ 6:13p

KJ, sorry I didn't see your post sooner. If you haven't read it yet, I talk a little bit about The Job in a column I wrote last year, and also a about the reasons why I thought Once and Again was a good show. But it's cool my throwaway comment inspired such a thoughtful post!

k j
9.17.03 @ 6:14p

I elaborated my reasons b/c I wanted to offer a different take on O&A's diminishing audience besides the ones supporters usually cite -- namely that they played with the time slots too much and/or people simply weren't in the mood for depth. Since my objections were echoed by many other people I know, I figured it was worth mentioning. Of course what resonates truth to us depends to some extent on our experiences -- demos like geographic location, background, etc... Which brings me back to my point about the "network" dilemma. I looked but I couldn't find your article that on it.



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