TV’s Overuse of Countdowns Is a Ticking Time Bomb

Melting TV Dali Countdown
Skip Sterling

Although “60 Minutes” opens with a ticking stopwatch every week, the sudden popularity of countdown clocks suggests the venerable newmag’s forward-thinking look at time runs counter to prevailing trends.

President Obama has spoken about the damage associated with governing around perilous deadlines like raising the U.S. debt ceiling, as Washington lawmakers dysfunctionally lurch from one manufactured crisis to the next. But TV — and especially cable news — is becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush. Indeed, at times their preoccupation with countdown clocks is about the only thing Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN can all agree on.

Then again, why not? As the AP reported, it’s good for business, with the cable networks enjoying a ratings surge during the 16-day government shutdown. “Whenever there’s a drama, people are interested,” CNN reporter Dana Bash told the service.

The problem is that the general desperation to get noticed has resulted in a nonstop barrage of similar deadlines — some legitimate, but most completely contrived. In the latter camp, consider OWN, aka Oprah Winfrey Network, which kept a running countdown on the screen for 24 hours to bridge the gap between the premiere of one new Tyler Perry series and the next.

Cable news networks, meanwhile, have recently careened through a series of countdown-clock-worthy moments, topped off by the near-default on the U.S.’ debt and the shutdown of the federal government.

Not to be outdone, sports networks regularly feature countdowns to kickoffs and first pitches of major playoff games. And since the NFL and NBA drafts became multiday television events, regular viewers have grown accustomed to hearing a team is “on the clock,” watching minutes and seconds elapse as management tries to decide which college dropout will become the next instant millionaire.

Major networks have gotten in on the act as well, counting down to the premieres of new series. In the “It’s never too early” department, NBC is actually initiating a late-October push for the upcoming Olympics, marking that the Winter Games are a mere 100 days away. Because seriously, why shouldn’t the screen be cluttered with more bugs and pop-ups and moving parts to distract us from the program that we actually chose to watch?

The allure of countdown clocks looks obvious at first. People have been programmed through years of televised events to expect something significant to happen when the clock hits zero, from the launch of a space shuttle to the explosion of confetti and good tidings that heralds the start of a new year. To quote “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” it’s a practice designed to make us quiver with antici … pation.

Today’s clocks, however, are sneakier than that — inasmuch as they are less about something scheduled to occur in the near future than they are a means to keep people watching right now, as anchors endeavor to kill time while nothing much is happening.

Sure, the U.S. government might default on its debt or shut down in a matter of hours. Until then, though, all we have to offer is Wolf Blitzer, breathlessly stringing together sentences as if he’s getting paid by the word. But don’t go away! See that clock in the corner?

Therein lies the darker strain inherent in this trend, which — given the hucksterism involved — dovetails with the networks’ newfound infatuation with “event” series.

Yet as more than one fusty old critic has opined, once everything becomes an event, we rapidly start approaching the stage where nothing is. In that regard, counting down to the premiere of ABC’s “Super Fun Night” does more than just irritate “Modern Family” viewers; it dilutes the whole concept.

The most corrosive aspect of these countdowns thus resides in a media that has become almost cavalier about crying wolf — and perhaps of more concern, a public gullible enough or simply so inured to hyperbole that it keeps falling for such transparent tricks. Either way, networks are not only increasingly reliant on these shoddy practices, they can apparently indulge in them with little fear of repercussions.

The question is, having fallen into a state of near-constant hysteria, can we back away from the precipice and regain a bit more reason and sobriety? As they say, only time will tell. Until then, the clocks are tick-tick-ticking.

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