Woody Allen devised a form of torture which involved locking the victim up in a room with an insurance salesman. That, in many ways, is the lot of the television critic, at least as I have found it during a two-month intensive bout with commercial television as the Monitor's stand-in critic. I once shared the widely held view that television is the electronic clone of our collective unconscious, a mirror that reflects our longings and our social selves.
Now, after dozens of hours of enforced viewing, all that seems utter folly.
Commercial television is a business -- or more precisely, a collection of businesses. It makes its profits by delivering the largest number of people to an advertiser at any given period of time. The images one sees floating in the video eye do not, in general, drift out of any shared vision of life as it is lived in these United States. They are ``commercial paper'' once removed -- a highly manufactured product, as incidental to our lives as the wrapper on a candy bar. They were put there by people skilled in making images with financial potential.
The medium and its images have little or nothing to do with giving people something that responds to the virtues, torments, and real textures of their lives. Television is a purveyor of products turned to a very specific purpose: high-volume commercial gain.
In taking account of the vast majority of television's entertainment inventory, therefore, one has to wade through: formula sitcoms with mindless laugh-tracks; an inexcusably commercialized and empty Saturday morning ghetto for children; cookie-cutter detective shows; demeaning game shows; soap operas; dumb superheroes who talk to their cars; and such special undertakings as ``The Hollywood Wives.'' At any given time, there are humorous and wholesome comedies, as well as strong dramatic offerings, available to viewers. But these are few and far between. And they are generally far removed from anyone's real-life experience.
This, anyway, has been my experience with the medium as a frequent consumer and temporary critic. It may be that I have missed hours and hours of substantial virtues in television programming, although I don't think that is the case.
One expects a large amount of filler material from a medium that operates 20 to 24 hours a day. This doesn't, however, mean that network television could not, if it chose to, make substantial strides toward giving the public high-quality drama in the form of television movies, specials, and series that don't suffer from the medium's obsession with stereotypes, reheated story material, and the latest titillating fad.
The old shibboleth that the networks simply give the public what it wants is undermined, it seems to me, by two simple facts: (1) that the networks will only keep something on the air if it is a clear ratings winner, so that a vast portion of the public may want a show and still not get it; (2) almost everybody flips on the tube and selects network programming on a least-of-three evils basis.
This is not to let ourselves off the hook for using the medium as a drug and baby sitter. Like it or not, the dominant picture of our society is a herd of viewers led to the media trough, night after night, for our feeding of mindless imagery. In the end, it is up to the viewers to vote with their feet and with their letters, to let the networks know that they want something better. Because something better is possible, as public television has shown over and over. No one says that network television can afford to move into public television's profitless terrain -- only that, by degrees, it can afford to shed some profits in the interest of creative responsibility.
Network television may offer occasional buried gems of real-life imagery; but, by and large, it probably represents the greatest waste of a natural resource -- the public airwaves -- the country has ever experienced.
That is why, when something dignified or honestly conceived does come down the network pipeline, it generally inspires the feeling that a river has departed its normal course. These high moments in commercial television are so distant from the mainstream of the medium that they seem to belong elsewhere in the arts in general: Plays and symphonies and worthwhile movies happen in an apparently haphazard fashion, with no discernible continuity. So do the rare moments of grace in television -- such as in the early ``Hill Street Blues,'' ``20/20,'' ``Nightline,'' ``Playing for Time,'' ``Roots,'' and a few dozen or so other offerings.
From this, I deduce that television itself is only an accidental location in which these meritorious things occasionally happen: like a building that infrequently houses a play or a concert.
The medium's current owners bear a terrible responsibility, therefore, for the goings-on with which they tenant their building. Especially considering the fact that they hold their titles at the sufferance of the general public.
The marvel is not that they occasionally put something real and living on display there. It is that the body politic has not long since seen through network television's pretense that what we see is a mirror image of what we are all thinking. And that, having discovered the deception, we have not served an eviction notice on the system that clutters our airwaves with generally dismal and useless stuff.