The End of TV as We Knew It
The other afternoon, while visiting the grocery store where I go to amuse myself by looking nostalgically at things I used to be able to eat, the young checkout clerk let out a deep sigh as she sacked up my low-fat yogurt and a few Chilean grapes.
I'd picked up a copy of a magazine that featured a tribute to Walter Cronkite on its cover, the legendary CBS broadcaster who'd just passed away. Like millions of Americans born in the middle of the last century, I came of age with Uncle Walter, who was often called the "most trusted man in America." Uncle Walter's death seemed like the end of a golden age of TV -- and, to some extent, America itself.
"Isn't it so sad about Jon and Kate?" the clerk remarked, snapping her gum and shaking her head.
The names were faintly familiar to me, but I couldn't think how I might know them. When I admitted this to the checkout gal, she laughed and pointed to the other side of the magazine cover, where a young couple who looked like they were having joint root canals were pictured.
"Good heavens," she said. "Don't you watch TV? Jon and Kate are only the hottest couple in America."
Whereupon she helpfully gave me a speed-dating version of their meteoric rise to fame. Jon and Kate Gosselin, it seems, were just another young married couple with kids until they had sextuplets to go with a set of twins and landed their own reality TV show called "Jon & Kate Plus Eight" on TLC.
The show became a major ratings hit and an addictive pleasure for millions of Americans.
"You can't turn on a TV set these days without hearing about them," the clerk emphasized. "They're coming apart at the seams. Kate brought the kids to the beach here in North Carolina this summer while Jon went off and partied like a wild man in France. She just filed for divorce -- rumored to be having an affair with her security guy. Jon just moved to New York City with his new girlfriend, Hailey. Her father did Kate's tummy tuck after the sextuplets. Now he wants his own reality show."
"All of this is on TV?" I asked.
"Not yet," she said. "But it will be soon. The new season starts next week."
I shook my head and told her I recalled when The Learning Channel, as it used to be called, showed documentaries on Mesopotamian bird migration and fun with fractions.
"Not anymore," she said. "TLC is hot. I can't wait to see the new episodes."
Recalling TV's Infancy
I walked out to my car wondering if I ever felt that way about a TV show, then realized I certainly had -- several, in fact.
One was called "The Wild Wild West" and came on every Friday night at 8 p.m. The travails of a couple of slick federal agents battling evil in the Wild West prompted me to race home from Boy Scouts and plant myself in front of the tube, tuning the rest of the world out for an hour..
Before that, I'd been equally mad about "Bonanza" and "The Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday evenings. Ditto "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Big Valley" and "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."
In fact, since I was born the year more Americans bought TV sets per capita than any time in our history -- 1953 -- I may have been something of the original American TV kid. I started out with the "Howdy Doody Club" and graduated to "Captain Kangaroo" and "The Shari Lewis Show." I never missed an episode of "Lassie," "I Love Lucy" or "My Three Sons."
Say what you will, they were well-written shows that told a story. There was nothing "real" about them. They were designed to amuse, entertain, and sometimes mildly instruct. I doubt I missed an episode of "The 20th Century" either, the marvelous weekly history program narrated by none other than Uncle Walter Cronkite. Sunday nights at 6 as I recall.
TV could bring the world into your home. "Wild Kingdom" and "The American Sportsman" -- they were magical. TV was magic in a wooden cabinet. Of course, as our grandparents used to say, life was very different then. In those faraway days of the 1960s, we had one black-and-white TV set and three local TV channel options.
The medium was still in its cultural infancy. The national anthem played at midnight, and the screen turned to electronic snow until 6 a.m. sign-on, at which point the national anthem played again and some lug in an onionskin shirt sleepily read the morning news from The Associated Press. There were brainless game and comedy shows, to be sure -- not to mention soap operas that only maids and bored housewives watched -- and celebrities were mostly consigned to talk shows that came on later than I was allowed to stay up.
History in the Making
Every generation grows up to mourn what it perceives has been lost, but broadcast news truly seemed like important news in those days. So far as I can recall, I never missed a NASA space launch and sat transfixed for hours watching live events coming out of Dallas in November 1963, with good old Uncle Walter on the news anchor desk. I actually saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot on live TV.
I also remember watching Churchill's funeral from London, the Beatles' first live performance on Ed Sullivan, and in the 1970s, as I came of age and was eligible for the draft, Walter Cronkite's sober reporting from Vietnam basically marked the turning point in our involvement in that pointless Asian conflict.
"If I've lost Cronkite," president Lyndon Johnson ruefully confided to his advisers, "I've lost middle America."
I was working as a summer intern at the newspaper in Greensboro the night Richard Nixon announced his resignation. The next day several of us watched, huddled around a small black-and-white TV set in the newsroom, as Nixon gave his sober salute and choppered away. Everyone applauded. I remember being amazed to watch history as it happened, thinking this was what TV did best.
Ironically, at the end of that decade, during my time as a reporter in Atlanta, I was offered a job with an intriguing cable news start-up called CNN. My fellow superior print journalists liked to say the acronym stood for the "Chicken Noodle Network" because Ted Turner's daring experiment in live 24-hour news broadcasting probably wouldn't last long.
I happened to think cable news was a great idea -- all news, any time of the day -- but chose to take a job with a magazine based in the hills of New Hampshire. Too much printer's ink in the blood, I suppose. Also, I wanted to write stories and essays.
Walter Was Right
About that same time, in 1981, Walter Cronkite gave his final evening news broadcast and disappeared into the sunset himself -- or in his case to a sailboat off Martha's Vineyard. In a speech not long afterward, however, reflecting on worrying trends in television that included a growing fascination with mindless "personalities" and a distinct tilt toward the trivial, Uncle Walter warned that TV news and maybe media in general could soon be subsumed by something he called "infotainment," a hybrid of news and entertainment.
He warned that if the industry at large began to pander to the lowest common denominators of entertainment and cheapened news coverage -- choosing style over substance, gossip over good reporting -- both television and society would suffer grave consequences. TV would soon write its own epitaph.
In the opinion of this child of TV's golden age, television began to die with the infamous O.J. Simpson car chase in 1994 and accelerated to the precipice with the death of Princess Diana three years later. Both events elevated marginally important celebrities into iconic figures -- and turned TV cameras into appliances for a nation of voyeurs.
Is it simple coincidence or Uncle Walter's prophecy coming true that MTV gained and we began to fight foreign wars on TV about that time, too? One of the most chilling revelations to come out about both Gulf War actions was that military planners scheduled the assault on Iraq to coincide with the largest prime-time viewing audiences. More than one commentator remarked that watching Baghdad light up was like watching a great kids' video game. Apparently they saw no irony, or Strangelovian terror, in that fact.
Too Many Choices
Our TV sets at home today receive more than 400 cable choices, only one or two of which I can bear to watch for more than an hour. I should probably give them to Goodwill Industries so somebody else can use them.
I used to love watching TV news shows until they largely abandoned objective news reporting in favor of windbags like Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity. Every cable news outlet now relies on panels of left-wing and right-wing windbags, partisan "experts" providing Americans the "truth" about the opposite side of the debate, whipping up wild conspiracies and fake crises.
For whatever it's worth, these are often the same folks who insist the newspaper industry is going the way of the blunderbuss -- a claim noisy types from Father Coughlin to Rush Limbaugh have been making since the dawn of radio, by the way. Real TV newsmen, if you can find them, are an extremely rare commodity, a sweet throwback to the Age of Walter.
The death of Tim Russert, I have to tell you, really threw me for a loop. It says something that Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" has inherited Cronkite's mantle as the "Most Trusted Man in America." We're literally laughing at our own news these days.
I also used to love watching weather on TV -- until The Weather Channel pretty much quit showing it. They now show gripping specials on what the weather was doing 30 years ago, punchy survivor stories, tips on how to winterize your windows or survive a surprise twister.
Postmodern Faux Reality
The ailing networks, meanwhile, have rushed to embrace the kind of witless "reality TV" that made MTV executives so wealthy in order to try to save their vanishing viewing audiences. Forget Jon & Kate Plus 8. I understand that a new reality show debuting this fall matches grossly obese women with tubby bachelors, working out their love aches and various phobias before a nation of curious voyeurs. Reality was never so unreal.
Oh, how I once loved watching Major League Baseball's "Game of the Week," back when there still was such a thing -- which was back when baseball still had some integrity and players could remember what city they actually played for. The pasty guys who sit and argue endlessly about sports on TV chat shows -- which I can't fathom anyone but a shackled prisoner or a crack house junkie watching -- don't seem the slightest bit fazed by the fact that every major superstar in baseball has been accused of juicing over the past decade.
Speaking of sports commentators who never know when to shut their yaps, I recently tuned in to my traditionally favorite golf broadcast of the British Open from Turnberry in Scotland, hoping to see how the world's best players handled a links golf course I happen to know quite well.
The "anchors" talked endlessly about the Open Championship's difficulty and esteemed traditions. They showed several pre-produced segments featuring skirling bagpipes and the Firth at dusk.
Then they went to a dozen commercial messages and came back and continued talking endlessly about the Open's difficulty and esteemed traditions. In an average hour, maybe 20 minutes of actual live golf action got beamed across the pond -- and nobody but the best-known leaders was shown.
So what's an aging child of TV's Golden Age to do in this postmodern era of celebrity worship and faux reality TV? Lately I've found myself catching the odd episode of "Magnum PI" or reruns of "60 Minutes" from the 1970s on a couple of the more far-out cable channels a few hundred clicks up the dial, savoring what real storytelling and TV news reporting used to be like.
As the late Uncle Walter would say, perhaps that's just the way it is for August 2009. But I'd bet my last surviving case of Billy Beer that not even Jon Stewart would find this particularly encouraging news.
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
More like this story