The Variety office is the sort of place where people engage in honest-to-gosh water-cooler chat about the latest Sunday-night dilemma — namely, too many good TV shows, and too little time.
Sundays have historically been characterized by higher viewing levels and intense competition, especially since HBO planted its flag there, and others (including Showtime and AMC) followed suit.
Nevertheless, the current logjam feels more pronounced than usual, with the recent return of “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Killing.” On top of that, there’s the trio of programs Showtime just brought back; last year’s lone broadcast drama to garner a best-series Emmy nomination, CBS’ “The Good Wife”; and an ABC lineup that includes the fitfully interesting “Once Upon a Time” and final leg of “Desperate Housewives.”
It took a sober splash of cold water from ratings guru Rick Kissell to point out this really isn’t a particularly widespread problem, but rather a time-crunching challenge experienced by the hearty few. After all, even the most popular of those cable shows are watched by only a little over 1% of the U.S. population in their first telecasts.
So let’s hear it for an otherwise much-maligned group, the One Percent. No, not the financial One Percent against which the Occupy Wall Street movement has railed. Lord knows they’re not particularly well represented in newsrooms, though they can certainly afford cable.
Rather, this refers to the Cultural One Percent (or COP for short), people with the good taste to get drawn into, savor and support TV’s abundance of riches.
Admittedly, the snobbishness that once defined the schism between TV and film has partially eroded, if grudgingly so. Writing in the current Vanity Fair, critic James Wolcott even declared TV superior, suggesting cinema has “lost its sanctuary allure and aesthetic edge over television,” which has become the medium “where the action is, the addictions forged, the dream machine operating on all cylinders.”
While this hardly comes as a breathtaking observation to anyone paying attention, given the source and venue, Wolcott’s full-throated endorsement is sure to trigger some renewed debate.
As for keeping pace with all the shows worthy of attention on Sundays alone, yes, you can DVR them and spread the wealth, or catch encore telecasts later in the week. Still, one does so at his or her peril — the Web having become a treasure trove of spoilers, especially in the Twitter age. Who wants to risk overhearing, digitally or otherwise, “Wow, I didn’t see that beheading coming” or “Who would have thought Kalinda would have hooked up with him (or her)?”
These programs exhaust so much oxygen in elite media and command such disproportionate interest in creative circles — especially something like “Mad Men,” or HBO’s soon-to-premiere “Girls” — it’s easy to forget how splintered TV consumption has become. In that context, we’re talking about a truly puny percentage of the population graced (or afflicted) with the patience and appetite to fully commit to multiple top-flight serialized TV shows at once.
If nothing else, this discussion also provides a helpful wake-up call regarding how misleading it can be to gauge success strictly based on anecdotal evidence. It’s why the poor souls who orchestrate “Save our show” campaigns, which have become an annual spring ritual, sound so delusional: Because everyone they know — or at least everyone in the chat rooms they frequent — shares their passion, they misconstrue the collective noise as being louder than the tiny Who voices they represent.
While NBC’s “Bent” might not have deserved being tied to the railroad tracks, there’s little point in shouting, since no one is coming to “save” it.
So what are the signs you’ve joined TV’s Cultural One Percent? To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, if you wake up Monday with circles under your eyes — and 20 minutes of “The Killing” left to finish, because you passed out, mid-clue, some time around midnight — you might just be a COP.
Granted, becoming this sort of One Percenter isn’t nearly as privileged as the other kind. But those feelings of superiority in knowing your tastes are more cultivated than most of the rubes who aren’t? Priceless.