Nets’ desperate measures

Guest Column

The fall TV season has brought a glut of reality TV, and enormous ratings for shows like “CSI” and “Desperate Housewives.” But there’s little in the way of quality family-friendly programming.

As a producer of television programs for almost 40 years, I can’t help but bemoan this trend. I’ve been on all sides of the fence in my career, shepherding one of the most family-friendly shows in history (“Little House on the Prairie”) and one of the most controversial of its time (“Laugh-In”), as well as having been a network “suit” for many years in charge of special programming decisions and supervision.

That said, the overused retort that “we’re just giving the people what they want” is more than just a copout. It is inexcusable.

In the early days of television, when there were just three dominant networks, the audience wasn’t large enough to justify very large budgets for programming, resulting in a plethora of TV gameshows. Even these inexpensive shows had some social value, as they stimulated the audience’s minds.

Now almost 60 years later, with hundreds of channels to choose from, the three major networks have lost their dominance and usually are doing little more than catering to the lowest common denominator. They have reverted back to low-budget entertainment programming.

In the formative ’50s and ’60s, television news reached its audience with dignity, integrity and the true meaning of news. The purveyors of this excellence were Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, among others. Today, TV news has mostly been reduced to exploitation and sensationalism, driven by “who can get the largest audience.” This philosophy seems to dominate so-called news programming.

Throughout history, popular art has sometimes been dumbed down for the supposedly unwashed masses, but just as often, it has helped to elevate the national consciousness. Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Ernest Hemingway are among the brilliant minds who found huge success on their own terms while still respecting that the audience could accept — and was hungry for — challenging ideas.

In a reality-TV world, even the term “family values” has become little more than a political slogan. But television has given birth to many enduringly popular programs over the past 50 years that did celebrate such values, without condescending or being coopted by partisan agendas. From “Little House on the Prairie” to “The Andy Griffith Show,” from “The Waltons” to “The Cosby Show,” television has celebrated bonds between people based on respect, trust, understanding and love, as did such personalities as Steve Allen, Jack Parr, Bob Hope and Danny Thomas.

An audience raised on eating worms on “Fear Factor” may still believe in such family values, but they surely aren’t going to find them very often on the networks. I also wonder how many times audiences will continue to put up with the many versions of “Law & Order” or “CSI,” let alone the simple-minded, sex-driven sitcoms.

I of course do not advocate that the many morally empty programs on the air today be banned — I simply hope the audience uses the remote to find something better, smarter, more challenging and more likely to feed the mind.

Luckily, there are many promising signs on the horizon. Some reality shows are slipping in the ratings, while shows like “Angels in America,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “The George Lopez Show,” “My Wife and Kids” and “The West Wing” offer audiences messages of hope without malice.

Hopefully, the cycle of trash TV will diminish and, once again, quality television will become “must-see TV.” It is my fervent hope that the three original networks make a sincere attempt to regain their dominance by presenting quality and mind stimulating programming. On that note, my sincere congratulations to the Emmy Awards for recognizing so many quality programs.

Friendly is the executive producer of both the original and the upcoming version of “Little House on the Prairie,” as well as co-creator of “Laugh-In” and executive producer of “Backstairs at the White House.”

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