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Why TV & Radio Suck So Bad

by The Cranky Media Guy

Uh, ever wonder why your local radio stations suck so bad? Wonder why professional wrestling is so huge on cable? You can thank the same guys who have pretty much trashed network television. Yes, I'm talking about the Beancounters.

One of the problems with "consolidation" (as the industry likes to call it. It's just "mergers" to you and me) that you never hear about is that it makes the audience less and less important in the overall picture. See, back in the olden days, the way it worked was, you put on a show you thought would get a large audience and then you convinced advertisers that they should buy ads on your highly-rated show. That was back when the competition really was your competition and not just another branch of the same company you work for. At the Turn of the Century, we don't do things that old-fashioned way anymore, of course. Nosiree Bob.

The problem with real competition is that sometimes you don't win! Hell, we can't have that, now can we? Nowadays, you just buy up as many properties as you can. That way, if someone isn't watching your main network, there's a decent chance they're watching one of your other channels. It's kind of like if you had kids on both teams in a Little League game. Assuming that one of them wasn't a hideous troll you hid in the attic, you'd probably love them both equally, so no matter which team won, you'd be happy. Ooh, I think I just came up with the ultimate rationale for management to use when they're accused of being a monopoly (as is that ever happens!). "It isn't monopolistic business practice; it's just that we here at Big Biz Co. love ALL our corporate children equally and we just can't bear the thought of letting any of them go." You laugh now, but you won't laugh when you hear Rupert Murdoch or one of those other jumbo-sized slimeballs use that rationale at some hearing in the future.

Anyway, back to my premise. In order to fund the acquisition of what used to be the competition, it takes Big Money. Big, Wall Street-size money. This is where the trouble comes in. The Wall Street money is potentially even bigger than what you can make from advertisers. Now, what Wall Street likes to see is big profits. That means keeping costs down. Ever wonder why you see so many shows like America's Funniest Hip Replacement Surgeries on the air? It's 'cause they can make about 50 of those shows for what each cast member of Friends got as a Christmas present last year ($600,000. No, I am not making that number up). It doesn't matter that the show sucks. All that matters is that it didn't cost diddly to produce, so even if it isn't in the Top Ten that week, the profit margin on it is huge. And that, my friends, makes Wall Street happy.

The FCC has helped in the destruction of show biz, too. Until a few years ago, the networks were limited as to the percentage of the shows they aired that they could own. Well, we've thrown that little obstacle out the window. They can now legally own as many of their shows as they want, up to 100%. Let's see now, would you guess that they make more money on the shows they own or the shows they have to buy from outside producers? Do I even need to answer that for you?

Steven Bochco, the producer of NYPD Blue, got a little lesson in the new economics of network television the other day when he found out that ABC wasn't going to put his show back on in its Thursday 10 PM time slot. Instead, they scheduled some steaming piece of audience repellent that drew flies in an earlier airing. I'll give you one guess as to who the producer of this neutron bomb is (and you'll only need the first three letters of the alphabet to figure it out). Now you know why NBC doesn't can those alleged "comedies" Suddenly Susan and Veronica's Closet. Who could be so cruel as to fire their own children, after all? (If you listen very carefully between 8 and 9 PM, you'll realize that what you thought was crickets is actually the sound of millions of Americans changing the channel on their TV's from NBC.)

Beancounters program this crap. Beancounters are not show biz people. Beancounters are not creative types who want to take chances or "make a statement". Beancounters like a sure thing and the best chance to get one, they figure, is to copy something that's worked in the past. Hence, you get all these shows about young, attractive women in the Big City "just trying to make their way in the world". Hey, it worked for Mary Tyler Moore. It ought to work for Christina Applegate, right? Uh, no 'cause people liked Mary Tyler Moore. Mary also had a funny supporting cast and good writing. Beancounters sometimes miss those little details when they're busy looking for the Magic Formula, you see.

OK, radio. Basically, the same situation. A year and a half ago, you had four big companies that have since been allowed to become one even bigger company, Clear Channel. They currently own something like 900 radio stations, more than any company has ever owned in the history of radio. Yeah, they're gonna have to divest some of them, but they'll still be the biggest radio group owner in the world. They're faced with the same problem of how to keep that Wall Street money flowing. Same problem, same "solution": reduce costs.

Whether you realize it or not, many of the radio stations you thought were "local" are now actually programmed hundreds or thousands of miles away from the city they transmit from. Gee, no wonder the disc jockey never takes your requests, huh? Through the miracle of what they call "voice tracking", some guys are on several stations simultaneously, even though it sounds like he's right there in your town. If the guy rarely or never mentions what's happening in your city, chances are he's voice-tracked. It isn't good radio, but it doesn't have to be. It's cheap! Besides, if you aren't listening to one of their stations, chances are very good you're listening to one of their other stations in your market. They've got you by the ears, Buddy.

Finally, why is professional wrestling so popular right now? Yeah, I know TV critics say it's because it's incredibly lowbrow and it represents the collapse of American society and all that. As much as I like wrestling, I'd be the last guy to say that it isn't lowbrow. Sure, it's lowbrow. So what? I have to kind of laugh when I read the critics in the Washington Post or USA Today attacking wrestling for being lowbrow. I mean, it isn't as if the other channels are running the Metropolitan Opera opposite the WWF. Besides, I honestly think there's more to the current popularity of wrestling than saying that America is populated with troglodytes.

First, it's exciting. Wrestling (I'm speaking primarily of the WWF here) has become a huge spectacle. Especially when contrasted with the low-budget "reality" programs the networks offer, it looks BIG. The shows are performed in front of 20,000 fans whose participation is vital to the overall feel of the show. No expense is spared in wrestling (again, as opposed to some of the crap the nets put on). A few weeks ago, Stone Cold Steve Austin drove a tractor-trailer into an ambulance outside the arena, live on camera. Even if you're not conscious of it, some part of your brain registers that that had to cost some serious money to stage.

Second, in wrestling, the performers are larger-than-life characters who look as if they really want to perform for you. They risk their health (and even their lives) to entertain both the people in the arena and those watching at home. How many times have you seen some bimbo actress come on the Tonight Show to plug her stupid sitcom and act as if she was incredibly bored to be there? Even without Johnny Carson, the Tonight Show is still a pretty big deal. You could at least pretend that you're excited to be on it, you know? You don't get that hip "ennui" crap in wrestling. They give their all every time out of the box. I honestly think the audience realizes that on some level and appreciates it. Call it the Wayne Newton Effect. Wayne comes out on stage, sings Danke Schoen and eleventy-seven other songs, plays fourteen instruments and is a sweaty mess by the time he's done. And the audience loves him for it. Maybe you're a hipster and you think Newton is a hack. Well, there's a lot of people who adore the guy and keep him financially comfortable. Same thing with wrestling. You might think it's a joke but there's millions of Americans who love it and appreciate seeing performers bust their ass (sometimes literally) for them.

Third, in wrestling, you get storylines that the audience can actually relate to. Despite what the business reports would have you believe, not everyone in this country loves their job and feels fulfilled in it. Most people don't have a "career", they have a J.O.B.. There's millions of people who are just making ends meet and really, really enjoy it when Austin knocks his boss, Vince McMahon, on his rich ass. They wish they could do the same thing. By contrast, much of the rest of television would have you think that the work place is just One Big Happy Family. Yeah, right. The critics get hung up on the notion that wrestling isn't real. It doesn't matter whether it's "real" or not--it's the fantasy of kicking the crap out of your boss that's appealing. Since you'll probably never be able to do that, Steve Austin does it for you.

That's the irony of the whole thing--wrestling, which is supposed to be so "phony", actually resonates better with a lot of people, because of its working class story lines, than that "reality" crap. There's a moral in there somewhere. The beancounters will never figure it out, though. They'll be too busy trying to find a guy who looks like Steve Austin to put in a sitcom with Delta Burke.




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