Big Brother 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The other day, I sat down to watch one of the last episodes of Law and Order –
the watershed police/courtroom drama recently cancelled by NBC after 20 years on
the air. Channel 1 has the show on an irregular basis, and is now broadcasting
the final season. The particular episode I watched dealt with one of the
hot-button topics in the US: late-term abortions.
It was one of the
best-written TV shows I’ve seen in a long time. It managed to accomplish
something very difficult – coherently and effectively raise both sides of an
issue in an emotional manner, without passing judgment on either side. It makes
for powerful television.
The Law and Order
franchise is part of a long
tradition on American television. Dramas about the country’s public institutions
have been a hallmark of network and cable programming for decades. Off
the top of my head, I think police and courtroom shows have been around the
longest, but there have been plenty of other backdrops for good shows. We’ve
seen some great programs taking place in hospitals, schools and even the White
Quality prime-time dramas serve a purpose beyond the quest for
ratings. They are often vehicles to express opinions on topics which are
either part of the public agenda or raise awareness on subjects the
writers/producers believe should be debated. Shows can even act as a catharsis
for viewers. This happened quite a bit on American TV after 9/11 when producers
scrambled to discuss the terror attacks’ implications on society. A good show
gets its audience thinking.
SO WHY don’t we have programming like this? I
believe the answer lies in the programming we have on the main television
Some 80-90% of television is dominated by three main kinds of
shows. First we have the family relations shows. For some reason, most of
the locally produced dramas and comedies being broadcast on Channels 2 and 10
revolve around families – dysfunctional families, new families, bizarre
families, families with problematic children – we’ve had it all. But despite
some excellent shows, these programs are a minority.
Next are the news
programs. We are inundated with news and news magazines. They seem to be
endless. News is the most expensive type of TV to produce, so the
channels get as many hours of programming out of their news divisions as
possible. Some of these shows are actually quite interesting and have
high-quality content, but it’s clearly overkill. There’s only so much current
events people can handle, and while the main news broadcasts are pulling in good
numbers, the rest are not ratings powerhouses.
The shows bringing in the
ratings are the third type of programs, reality TV.
I don’t think there
are many lovers of quality television who will disagree when I say that most
reality programs aren’t of the highest caliber. This is especially true for
shows like Big Brother
two of the top-rated programs. I’ll fully
admit to liking American Idol
, which showcases talent, but I just don’t see the
appeal of watching an eclectic group of people living in a house for more than
You can’t argue with success and good numbers, but each of
these types of shows creates a vacuum, leaving no room for quality dramas about
public institutions like Law and Order.
Indeed, why try to bring up real
issues via fiction when there is an abundance of news programs? The endless
bombardment of news brings about a need for personal escapism, which is exactly
what the reality programs are about. The events on shows like Big Brother have
no impact on the viewer. No “torn from the headlines” plots and certainly no
real implications on who wins or loses. It’s the abundance of news programs
which fuels the ratings for reality shows here.
We also live in a small
country, where many people know each other from school, the army and friends of
friends. Spending time with your family is commonplace, as we live so close to
one another. Israelis don’t need to get on a plane to be with loved ones for the
holidays, we just drive. It is this closeness which fuels the popularity of
family relations shows. What can be more dramatic or funny than situations we’re
likely familiar with?
Perhaps TV is a reflection of our society and the
direction it is taking. We all care deeply about what’s going on, and feel the
need to be informed. In the US, there is barely 50 minutes devoted to news
during the evening hours. On some days, we have more than triple that. On
the other hand, many people – especially younger people – seem to be more
occupied with issues which have nothing to do with the country’s development.
They’re the ones spending so much time watching crass programs.
that eventually we will have room for economically viable, well written and well
acted fiction which can get people thinking about important issues. The
entertainment industry certainly has the talent, and such programs wouldn’t just
make for good television, they would perhaps make for a better
country.The writer is an independent media consultant, an adjunct
lecturer at IDC Herzliya’s School of Communications, and a former producer at
the Fox News Channel in New York. [email protected] jeremyruden.com