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.
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
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
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
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.