Television Basics – Episode 1: An Overview
I have been threatening to do this for a good long while. The time has come. It’s time to take a good, long look at the face of television, and I want to take you on that trip, so I hope you’re ready because this journey of a million shows begins with this single step.
Television. It is a mirror of our society. It is a window into our hopes and dreams, or in some cases, our “reality.” It gives us stories of all sorts. It gives us the news. It gives us comedy, drama, the full range of human emotion, from uncontrollable laughter to unstoppable sobbing. Why is it so difficult, especially for people who claim to make this medium their business, to get a handle on it?
We have to begin with some very common concepts.
Let’s define. What is it television is designed to do? First, last and always, television is an advertising delivery service. Let’s go over that point
once more and in bold caps:
TELEVISION IS AN ADVERTISING DELIVERY SERVICE.
What does that mean? It means that the most crucial reason for television to exist is to present COMMERCIALS.
And what does *that *mean? It means that all of that other stuff, the sporting events, the sitcoms, talk shows, games, documentaries, films, dramas and everything else you can think of, the stuff you THINK you’re watching television for, is all SECONDARY.
So, if you happen to love a program, connect with its characters, enjoy the writing, and follow the storylines from season to season, great! But that doesn’t matter to television, because it is a business designed to coerce you into buying goods and services.
Spinning that around, Television (or more accurately each network and channel that is available on Television) wants to attract sponsors that will pay big money to advertise these products. So, TV does have some concern about the programming it offers because if it doesn’t attract an audience, sponsors will not want to advertise. End of story.
Now, in years past, any show that made it to a network time slot automatically got thirteen weeks: thirteen episodes with which to either capture their audience or receive their pink slip: cancelation. But now, programs are constantly being replaced in just a handful of episodes based on the ratings. But those days of yore had different rules because only a small number of producers were creating programs. Nowadays, there are content providers everywhere, and with that finite pie of a prime time schedule, only the biggest ratings grabbers need apply.
Why a show is canceled is often a difficult one to answer. But the quickest reply is: it didn’t find its audience. Of course, that always begs the question: just what audience were you going for with this? Often, that follow-up doesn’t get asked, because the show is already gone. But there have been many programming decisions that the broadcast networks have made that are mysteries even our complete list of little screen investigators and detectives couldn’t sleuth out. Reversing it, sometimes a show that seems to have all the pieces to the puzzle in place (save the Nielsen points) will get canned, and we’re left wondering why that network couldn’t be bothered to promote the program or give it time to grow.
What else? Television can often be more about the technology rather than the content. The idea is that television manufacturers want you to continue to purchase new TVs. They began with Black and White sets that were tiny framed pictures in large wooden cabinets. They expanded the size of the screen. Then, they added color. Eventually, they perfected the tint/color corrections. Then a television with a remote control which let you change channels and even raise and lower the sound without getting out of your easy chair. Then the TV tubes went away, making way for solid state. Cable soon took over, with better quality picture. Next came stereo sound, just in time for the Music Video era. Follow that up with projection screen and large screen television to create a movie theater system in your own home. Then analog went away and now everyone has to have a converter box to view TV. At about that same time, high definition went mass market. Now, we have 3DTV. You have to keep buying televisions to take advantage of the new tech!
So, really what Television is doing is getting you to purchase more and more new tech, and the fundamental reason for it is to get you to be able to view advertisements. That’s the bottom line here, from the humble beginnings of Felix the Cat to where we are now. Commercials are King.
I would also suggest that this is the reason why Television (or most prominently USA Television) fails so spectacularly when it comes to giving us either programs that truly reflect our society or policing itself when it comes to covering news about the medium. Consider this: if your main objective is to encourage sponsors to pay money to advertise with you, will you be as free to show everything you want to show, or present as many differing and varied concepts as you might have otherwise done? Of course not. You are working for the people who pay your bills, and those people want to project a specific image for their business.
So, television has an obvious problem. It can’t really be a “window” to our world, because it needs to be a place that is flexible for its sponsors, and is “safe” for them to present their commercials. This means that ultimately there is a bit of untruth to everything you see on television, as the medium works to create an environment for audiences to appreciate the sponsors bringing them the broadcast. Perhaps the most true elements are news events that are happening live: things like the Lunar Landing, The collapse of the Berlin Wall or the 9/11 attacks. But anything else will always be skewed, even if only slightly, by Television’s need to cater to advertisers.
Of course, pay channels also exist: channels to which viewers subscribe that do not rely on commercials to provide the bulk of their income. But don’t be fooled. Even these channels have advertisers of a sort (mostly the film studios that release the motion pictures that provide the bulk of the programming for them) and do need to hold to standards that satisfy those corporations.
And finally there is the Federal Communications Commission, or the FCC, that is there to police broadcast media. If there is anything that is considered impermissible on your television, the FCC will be there to fine those responsible: just another added layer of security and/or fear. Content is screened and if deemed too offensive, will be excised.
Combine all of the above and you have the recipe for the groundwork that everyone working in the TV industry must negotiate.
Your first assignment is to think about television as an advertising delivery service, and how both the medium itself and any shows in particular have demonstrated this. Give some examples of times when you felt that a program veered away from a topic or a concept because it was too dangerous for a sponsor. List off any famous “censorship” issues you think were especially memorable, unfair or outrageous. Or note any programs you felt may have been removed for their content in one way or another. For extra credit, suggest where you think this is headed next: either the tech side of TV or the sponsorship side, and point out reasons for your hypothesis.
Next time, we’ll cover some Television History.