'TV is good" is the theme of ABC-TV's in-your-face campaign to market its new fall prime-time program line-up.
How good is it?
I tuned in on a recent series of evenings to find out, and encountered a few surprising moments of value.
In a poignant episode of "Nothing Sacred," a newly bereaved husband is burning his wife's clothing in the backyard. As a traditional Roman Catholic, he resents reforms in church practice and liturgy and spurns a young priest's plea that he attend her funeral. "All that beauty," he says as the flames rise. "That was my wife. She was my church." (GO TO BLACK)
Then socko! "Kiss me." "He held her captive." "Why am I here?" "Give up fluoride for whiter teeth? No way." A 3-1/2 minute rockfall of hard-sell for movies, toothpaste, paint, satellite TV, a waterbed, a sweet from Dairy Queen, quickie promos for entries in the "TV Is Good" campaign: "Dharma and Greg," "Home Improvement," and "Hiller and Diller."
During that entire hour, 35 commands pummel me to buy this, try that, taste this, watch that. Surveys show the networks relentlessly expanding the length of those interruptions.
When "Nothing Sacred" resumes, my reeling mind demands: "Where was I?" The narrative has been sliced like a salami, the mood shattered, the empathy squandered. The series - about young priests who struggle to keep their parish relevant - is a network anomaly. It tells stories that have social value, a point of view. It tells them simply and well.
But the relentless surf of network insatiability batters this tiny island where "TV is good."
Unlike "Nothing Sacred," the brace of sitcoms that ABC surrounds it with is consciously designed to say nothing about anything. And so nothing gets explained as one program after another suddenly materializes.
The formula is based on the theory of network tele-elitists that we nerds demand nothing from television. The effect of this is a wall-to-wall carpet of nothingness that rolls back a million years of cultural evolution.
There are no characters I really want to know in these sitcoms. They neither grow, nor shrink, nor have anything to teach me. The situations are as thin as eggshells.
In "Soul Man," Dan Ackroyd as an unlikely Episcopal priest has to indulge the sexual maunderings of an ailing, aged widow so that she'll leave her fortune to the church instead of her dog. "Hiller and Diller," a team of TV writers, improbably write a kid's history paper and are insulted when an improbable teacher grades it C-plus. The idea tank has hit empty when sitcom writers are forced to frame a concept around two sitcom writers.
In "Spin City," Michael J. Fox is a deputy mayor of New York who is stiffed when his girlfriend keeps going out socially with his female assistant. Fleeing from serious social content in a show set in New York's City Hall is like avoiding thoughts of food in a farmer's market.
I have no idea what the "Drew Carey Show" is about, except that it unfolds in some dematerialized Cleveland.
The comedy content in these sitcoms is no more rib-sticking than a bag of unbuttered popcorn - small. From horizon to horizon, we confront an unbroken line of one-liners based on banal insult and allusions to sex and celebrity that flow from the same sweaty pen. Changes of sexual orientation bring no relief from sweaty raunch, whether the heterosexual Dharma and Greg or lesbian Ellen. Nor is there any change in audience orientation: the same mindless WHOOOOO!
The audiences of whooping cranes are part of the cast. Many sitcom producers actually hire firms such as Audience Connection or Standing Room Only of Los Angeles to recruit full houses that will produce guaranteed laughs, whoops, and hollers. What they can't guarantee is viewership.
The fact is that some three million fewer viewers than last year are tuned in to ABC, NBC, and CBS during prime time. And ABC is in third place.
If "TV is good," why do these viewers relentlessly continue to abandon the networks, only to madly surf through the same wasteland on cable?
We can still catch re-runs from the epoch when TV was much, much better - when such delectables as Lucille Ball's "I Love Lucy," Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone," and Larry Gelbart's "M*A*S*H*" were setting the pace. It's self-evident that the creative spark has been quenched. Networks themselves now directly own most of what is aired. Standards are laid down by avatars of the bottom line.
Free-spirited storytellers are denied access to the TV stage.
How will they tell their wonderful tales to us now? Where will we go to hear them?
* Jerry M. Landay, a former network journalist, writes and lectures on issues of telemedia and democracy. He is honors professor emeritus at the University of Illinois' College of Communications.