[Editor’s note: work/family issues required a break from blogging. Hence the lengthy hiatus.]
NBC’s past season, from Fall 2010 to Spring 2011, was a massive bust. NBC’s big bet on diversity failed. Gone, was “Undercovers” (a glamorous Black couple running a high-end catering service are also super-sexy uber-spies). The show failed fairly quickly, and was pulled in November 2010. “Chase” featuring a waify blonde woman all of 120 pounds beating up on hefty evil White guy fugitives, as an uber-US Marshall, in February of 2011. “The Event” with an Obama-like President uncovering an evil White guy conspiracy involving Aliens was canceled in May 2011. So too was “Outsourced,” the wacky comedy about the hilarity of firing Americans and moving a call center to India. So too was “Law and Order Los Angeles,” with the usual Law and Orderen lineup of evil White guys (is there anything they can’t do?) and downtrodden non-White victims (not reminiscent of the Los Angeles I know, where the Azusa 13 Gang was indicted by the US Attorney for hate crimes against Blacks).
Diversity just did not pull in viewers. NBC’s big bet came a cropper. The failure was so bad, across the board, that NBC even … renewed “Chuck” for a fifth and final season (a limited 13 episode run). Likely that move was taken in consideration of a likely NFL lockout. Given that “Chuck” is the only NBC show (and outside Fox’s Sunday animated shows, one of the few on network TV that at all) that skews male. NBC tried betting big on “diversity” and hoped that would draw in lots of female viewers. Who in turn are mostly White. The dirty little secret is that while Univison and Telemundo are posting dramatic gains in audiences, their night-time audiences are still tiny. Less even than the CW, itself a baby netlet often drawing fewer than one million viewers for some shows. NBC thought that going all out for “Diversity” would provide an alternative to what other networks were doing. In this they were correct. Where NBC went wrong was in thinking that the mostly White/Female audience was interested in this diversity. By and large, they were not.
Now NBC has resorted to lots of comedies, crummy reality shows, and hoping NFL football comes back in its new 2011 Fall Lineup. The only things original are the “Sliding Doors” type dual-reality show “Awake” (in one reality his wife is dead, in another his son), and “Grimm” (about a police procedural involving … Grimm Fairytale characters). These may fail. But NBC should be applauded for at least taking the risk. Both are a bit different, offbeat, and not the same old procedural stuff.
[Interestingly enough, both NBC and CBS, during their fireworks broadcasts on the Fourth of July, heavily promoted their upcoming shows, the first time I can recall them doing so. It seems they feel the need to expend more time/money in promotion than in years past.]
CBS only has “Person of Interest” with Jesus (Jim Caviezel from “the Passion”) and Michael Emerson (the bad guy from “Lost”) about a covert op teamed with a software mogul aiming to stop crimes before it happens. Basically, a variant of the Equalizer, done decades ago, but hey that was a good show. Everything else is either a renewal or tired re-run (Poppy Montgomery from “Without a Trace” has a new show “Unforgettable” about a detective who cannot forget anything). “A Gifted Man” is a weepy-ghost-chick-flick show (so naturally it should do well). I’m shocked Katherine Heigl is not in this one.
ABC has a “Mad Men” clone (“Pan Am”) and a Charlie’s Angels remake, plus a woman in jeopardy Lifetime Movie Network series (“Missing”) with a global twist, and another with a “Lost” in the Amazon style twist (“the River”) and a couple of night-time soaps (“Revenge” and “Good Christian Belles”) the latter of which was changed from “Good Christian Bitches.” Nothing of interest to anyone not gay and possessing a Y chromosome. “Once Upon a Time” has again, the Grimm Fairytales characters inhabiting the modern world, in the town of “Storybrooke” seeming to mix Harry Potter with conspiracy-theory heavy shows like “Lost” or “Fringe.”
Fox has the usual assortment of lame comedies, plus the dramas “Terra Nova” (much delayed) about a family moving to the Earth of 80 million years ago to escape Global Warming and pollution, or just the neighbors, or something. Plus mid-season replacements “the Finder” (about an Iraq War vet with a talent for finding things that have gone missing) and “Alcatraz” (another “Lost” clone about criminals from Alcatraz who never age and go on killing sprees, or something.
CW has “Ringer” with Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, as a woman on the run from the mob posing as her missing twin sister … who is herself pursued by unknown enemies. The rest is teen witches, teen vampires, and so on.
FX has picked up for pilot Brian Michael Bendis (who did an excellent turn on Marvel’s “Daredevil” years back) based on his own comic book (he retains ownership in other words) “Powers.” The series features gritty cops investigating crimes committed against ordinary humans and super-powered people by people with … powers. Meanwhile ABC is prepping for the following season a number of Marvel properties, including “the Incredible Hulk,” “AKA Jessica Jones,” and “Cloak and Dagger.” [Sadly for ABC/Disney, Marvel’s drop-off in superhero quality from their first tier is substantial. “Jessica Jones” and “Cloak and Dagger” are both “diverse” and low-rent superheroes, who while having been around since the 1970s never really caught on. By contrast DC has tons of superheroes, poorly used, with rabid followings.]
As usual, AMC has a violent/provocative show (“Hell on Wheels” about the building of the Transcontinental Railway) and various other basic cable and premium cable outlets have new series they will premiere in dribs and drabs.
But of all of them, NBC has fallen the farthest, and the hardest, from a state of grace. NBC, after all, was the network of such male-oriented shows as “the A-Team,” “Miami Vice,” “Hunter,” “Misfits of Science,” along with “Hill Street Blues,” “Seinfeld,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Crime Story,” “Private Eye,” and even “the Rockford Files.” Heck what I would not give for a DVD release of “the New Maverick,” (the abortive, one-season western with the great James Garner replaying his Brett Maverick character). While CBS may have had “the Equalizer,” and ABC briefly “Max Headroom,” NBC remained the place for guys in the 1980’s and even into the 1990’s. Heck as recently as 2009, NBC aired “Life,” one of the most shockingly tough-guy shows ever put on network TV.
As Newton Minnow said in his Vast Wasteland Speech
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
While Minnow is often quoted as noting the vast wasteland, the first part of his speech is often forgotten. I have seen over the course of my life TV go from a purveyor, even though flawed, of a mass culture and matching model of traditional masculinity (do the right thing, don’t stop trying) to one of total camp, attention-whoring, and paralyzing uniformity. A place where men exist only as female-oriented studs or gays, without even a smidgen of action, adventure, and excitement.
TV, when it is good, is simply unbeatable. Its restrictions on budgets and effects are matched by the advantage of time. A typical movie will have to clock in at around 2 hours, more or less. A TV series, going 22 episodes, even with only 43 minutes devoted to story (less commercials) can still clock in at around 17 hours. That 17 hours allows for a richer story to be told. One with more detailed and developed characters, one with more complex and emotionally arousing storylines. TV at its best helps unify the country and provide (all the more necessary with the collapse of church attendance and religion) a unified morality, and one based on what the people themselves believe, not what elites in Hollywood and NYC believe.
So, it has been good and refreshing to see NBC’s diversity line-up fail. Other networks have followed suit. None have launched copies of what has failed at NBC. No laugh-a-minute yuks about outsourcing to India, or super-glamorous super-spy couples who are Black, or Obama-clones fighting off Aliens and corporate White bad guys. Instead, NBC has basically punted, relying on junk reality, a final season of “Chuck,” (at least Adam Baldwin will be on TV again in the role of John Casey, he’s completely hilarious) and two new series trying something a bit different. Even so that network will have a huge Sunday night hole if the NFL (hopefully) remains on lockout. ABC, CBS, FOX, and CW are merely repeating in new shows what they’ve always done before. More soaps for ABC, more procedurals for CBS, more big-budget Sci-Fi for FOX, and hunky magic teens for CW.
Eventually, one network will have to take a chance to break from the pack. More of the same fighting over a constantly declining female audience will not cut it. “Diversity” and other tricks, aping “Lost” or pushing a big-budget (soon to be trimmed) Spielberg-driven Dinosaur show won’t do it. “Terra Nova” seems set for the success of “the Young Indiana Jones” or “Amazing Stories.” Back when Spielberg was not corrupted by a posse of toadies telling him his every brain fart was genius, he made some pretty compelling movies. He’s been consistently bad in TV, however, not realizing that TV requires story-telling emotion over a budget always under assault. The network most desperate is obviously … NBC. So it was good that “Diversity” failed. Nothing gets network attention (and all the networks pay attention) like spectacular failure.
Sooner or later someone at a network will take a gamble on men, and provide a staple of cheap, entertaining, and amusing male-skewing shows. The country will be better off, because traditional male-oriented shows for the most part must embody fairly conservative values. Honor your word, show physical and emotional courage, stand up and fight, protect the weak, punish the wicked. Those are the stories men of all ages are interested in, and are almost completely absent on the TV screen every night. Let’s hoping those stories return soon.