Sunday, October 22, 2006

Grunge TV

I like to watch quality television programming like the next guy (I think). Such programming is hard to find these days. When cable tv was first introduced I thought that it would offer a real variety of programming including frequent and easy-to-find “classic” movies on television: Movies that are always lauded at Oscar® time but I missed because I was not yet born. Such was the promise. Of course, nowadays, the “classic” channels and other channels are all seemingly offering the “least common denominator” fare targeted to the “coveted 18-34 demographic.” The “classic” movies are also rare to find at a local video store.

Parents Television Council (PTC) (founded 1995) is a nonpartiasn organization that tracks the content of primetime programs and their sponsors. They work with "elected and appointed government officials to enforce broadcast decency standards." I weekly, or at least now and then, hop over to their site to see what I’ve “missed” — most often for my good. “We’ve come a long way baby” from the early days of cable television, not to mention television in general. PTC is always noting that the primetime "family hour" —7:30 pm to 9pm are the parameters I think— is anything but family-friendly these days.

If you are wondering “where have the arts gone on television?” and “why are there 100 channels on cable and they all seem similar?” (read: no variety), then PTC’s October 2, 2006 article, Culture Watch Entertainment Industry News by Christopher Gildemeister, is a near “must read.” Here is an excerpt from Gildemeister's full on-line article:

Critics generally laud foreign film as superior to most American fare, yet the United States was one of first nations where film as a medium of artistic expression began; and inarguably America’s early success with the medium contributed to its worldwide popularity and encouraged the development of film as a medium of expression overseas. Thus, film can be considered one of America’s few native art forms, and as such is deserving of proper preservation and presentation.

Such was the original mission of the American Movie Classics cable network. Beginning as a pay service in October 1984, American Movie Classics became a resident of the “basic cable” tier in 1987. At its inception critics gushed over the network and its presentation of classic films, from famous epics to little-seen gems, including silent films, shown around the clock. The network – and the movies it showed – were free from commercial interruption, and thus were able to be viewed as their makers intended them. Spaces between films were often filled by Movietone Newsreels. The network also offered original documentaries on the art of film and the charmingly nostalgic drama Remember WENN. But the network abandoned its dedication to the American artform, and is now a general-interest network similar to others.

“American Movie Classics has devolved into just plain old AMC and, like the fast food chain KFC, refers to itself exclusively by acronym to shroud the content of its product. The word ‘Classics’ no longer applies, as you could watch AMC for days and never see one. The schedule used to boast Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton festivals, and films such as Katharine Hepburn’s debut in A Bill of Divorcement, and the rarely-screened Frank Capra feature The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Now, AMC is home to Halloween IV [and] RoboCop…All this was done, according to AMC, to attract a younger audience, because heaven knows there just aren’t enough cable networks devoted to the 18-34 demographic.” David Hofstede, author of What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History.

AMC’s former niche on basic cable is now occupied by Turner Classic Movies, which emulates much of the presentation style and content of the old American Movie Classics; but the trend towards crasser programming may also be creeping upon TCM. The network currently advertises a program in which traditional film host Robert Osborne will face off against the younger and presumably trendier Ben Mankiewicz in arguments over film. TCM has also announced the debut in October of TCM Underground, a series to be hosted by Rob Zombie, director of such stomach-churning movies as House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects.

If cable’s treatment of classic film has become skewed toward more explicit violence and sex, it is as nothing compared with the fate of networks and programming originally devoted to the fine arts.

The Bravo network originated in 1980, and featured a gamut of programming devoted to all areas of art, from presentations of Shakespeare and other plays to grand and light opera, as well as more avant-garde productions. Occasionally classically-oriented top-quality drama from film and television were also presented, such as the acclaimed miniseries I, Claudius. But while the audience for arts programming tends to be both financially wealthy and fiercely loyal, it is also small. Furthermore, most of the viewers of fine arts programming are in the over-45 age bracket – an unpardonable sin in the eyes of network programmers and advertisers. After being purchased by NBC in 2002, Bravo began its evolution towards the déclassé format it currently occupies. Today, alongside such hit programs as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, one finds the raunchy standup comedy of Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List; the Desperate Housewives-inspired The Real Housewives of Orange County; Work Out, featuring the clientele of a Beverly Hills gymnasium; Tabloid Wars, which chronicles the cutthroat world of salacious journalists; and presentations of such graphically violent films as The Silence of the Lambs and Pulp Fiction. And while Bravo’s executives gamely protest that nothing has changed, such statements are farcical when contrasted with the programming Bravo now offers.

PTC’s also lists regularly their Top Ten Best and Worst Shows for family viewing on prime time broadcast television.

Photo: Grunge Television © Shaun Lowe
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