Sunday, February 08, 2009

Fourth Anniversary Of This Madness

I really hadn't planned to commemorate the beginning of this blog this year, but Jace over at Televisionary posted about the third anniversary of his blog and, well I decided that I might as well bring this up.

Today – February 8th – is the fourth anniversary of this blog. According to Wikipedia suitable gifts for the fourth anniversary are linen or silk (traditional) or electrical appliances. If you feel the necessity to send gifts in these categories, an up-converting DVD player or a laptop would probably qualify as an electrical appliance. Of course, if you have access to a female celebrity's silk undies....

But seriously folks, it was four years ago that I started this blog after years of hanging around at and discussing TV with a variety of people, not all of whom I agreed with. There were other newsgroups too, focussed on specific TV shows, including The West Wing (where discussions often descended into the politics with absolutely no linkage to the show), Due South (a warm little community that carried on far longer than the show), CSI, and of course The Amazing Race (where I did weekly recaps). I eventually started a blog that shared a title with my old Diplomacy zine, Making Love In A Canoe – and no, the title had nothing at all to do with Monty Python's Flying Circus (back when I was doing the zine, someone actually made that comment; it was apparently related to a sketch about American beer in their stage show – make up your own lines) – it was actually based on Pierre Berton's definition of a Canadian as someone who can make love in a canoe. That first blog was a general interest thing where I would hold out my opinions on various subjects including history and politics.

The trouble was that I kept wanting to write about TV and didn't think that my readership – whatever that readership may have been – would want to wade through the TV stuff to get to the "important" subjects. So I decided to start a blog entirely about TV. Pretty soon Making Love In A Canoe fell by the wayside and I eventually discontinued it. Well after all, one should write about what one loves. In a fit of what I thought was originality I named the new blog I Am A Child Of Television ... and immediately found out that Blogger doesn't exactly care if the name of a new blog is original, because Tony Figueroa already had a zine named Child Of Television – and a pretty good one at that.

Over the past four years this blog has evolved, as is the way of such things. Ideas have come and gone. Some of those never got beyond the dream stage; I've thought about podcasting, and about doing some sort of scheduled video presentation. They're good ideas, and others have done them, but they aren't something I feel confident in trying to pull off – a podcast featuring me going on and on about TV would not be a good thing. Other ideas have come and gone, and may come again. I did "Short Takes" about entertainment news, comments about the week's TV shows released on DVD, and my weekly PTC columns (the latter will be back but I've kind of temporarily burned out my ardour for the fight). These are good ideas, and I may revisit them in time, but "Short Takes" died because I thought others were covering the ground, and the DVD release posts died because I couldn't get them done in a timely manner.

Frustrations. I have a number of those. I get frustrated when I encounter real writers block. I get frustrated when I have trouble putting what I want to say into words and either miss the window of opportunity for writing about a show or can't get an article out that I think would be important. I have a huge worry about the state of television in Canada, where the vast majority of private stations are controlled not by local owners with local concerns who are actually doing programming in the local interest, but by a handful (three in fact: CTV Globemedia, Canwest Global, and Rogers Media) of mega-corporations based in Toronto, and there has never been government regulations to stop much more than one network owning more than one station in a city (so they company creates a second network. See E! and the A television system.). It's a cautionary tale particularly for Americans, and we're likely heading for a huge crash – Canwest-Global has a huge debt and is trying to sell its second network – but I find it hard to put into words and harder still to imagine anyone being interested in it even inside Canada let alone the world. I find it frustrating when I don't miss reviewing a show either because it's gone before I can get to it or because I fall into a viewing habit and that show isn't included – Pushing Daisies springs to mind immediately. I find it frustrating that it is very easy to write about shows that I really really love or really really hate but it's hard to write about shows that don't reach either of the extremes. I was extremely frustrated in trying to write a review of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. I was a show that I liked, but kept finding fault in because it came from Aaron Sorkin and it didn't measure up to most of his previous work either in TV or the movies. In retrospect – particularly given the stuff that has appeared on TV since, like Bionic Woman and Knight Rider – I find the show to be an undiscovered masterpiece that received nowhere near the respect it deserved.

That of course points out the biggest frustration that I have with writing about TV and that is TV itself. The American broadcast networks (and you will of course have noted that I mostly write about American broadcast TV – see my sense of inadequacy below) are getting worse not better. They are retreating from the daring and cutting edge towards the safe and predictable. There isn't a broadcast network today that would take on the headaches of an NYPD Blue, and I don't believe that most networks would take a chance with something like The West Wing. Thanks to the Writers Strike and the recession we may be leaving an era where network weasels cancel shows after two or three episodes – or at least banish them to Saturday night – but the combination of fears of FCC fines prompted by pressure groups like the PTC, and worries about being stuck with shows that are going to get killed in the ratings means that the broadcast networks are less and less likely to push the envelope when it comes to new shows. So they stick with procedurals (for our purposes defined as "television series which rely on an episodic format that does not require the viewer to have seen previous episodes")
rather than more continuity heavy fare, and they stick with cops, lawyers and doctors, rather than finding new areas of dramatic tension. Ironically the most daring of the networks right now may be NBC. Who else would try a series about a spy with a split personality (My Own Worst Enemy), a show about Robinson Crusoe set in the period (Crusoe), and a modern take on the story of King Saul and David (the upcoming Kings), not to mention a Texas high school football team and a Zen cop (Friday Night Lights and Life respectively)? Too bad the first two stank, the third probably isn't much better, and the other two are probably going to get cancelled because as good – great even – as they are they don't get the ratings they deserve.

I mentioned inadequacies and it's not just the normal ones, like seeing the men in porn (most men know exactly what I'm talking about, and those who don't either haven't seen porn or should be in it). No my sense of inadequacy in terms of writing about television comes from one area. I have essentially forced myself into the ghetto of reviewing broadcast television because I don't see most of the cable shows in Canada. Deadwood and Rome both aired uncut on the History Channel, at least a year after they had been cancelled by HBO. In fact even basic cable series can only be seen on the premium channels. I'd love to write about The Closer, Sons of Anarchy,
Crash or Skins, or just about anything from HBO or Showtime in the US, but they aren't available on the channels that I pay for. It becomes particularly frustrating when someone doing publicity for a show does promotion for a show that sounds like something that I'd love to write about but which is of no use to me because I know that I won't see the show for a year or two, if at all. Another source of inadequacy is the whole thing about screeners and press kits. It just points out how small a fish in how big a pond I am. I would love to be able to write reviews at a certain amount of leisure and still have them come out on time and with a more complete view of what the show is going to be. Oh well, a man in the desert can dream of water can't he.

Four years into this whole adventure of writing about TV as an amateur critic and the thrill hasn't entirely gone out of the gig. Sure there are times when I feel like it's a massive drag and I'd be better off doing just about anything else, but the truth is that despite all the frustrations and reinforced sense of inadequacy, the old fashioned irritation at bad series concepts, the (to me) idiotic decisions that networks make, and the sense that the part of the medium of television that is accessible to most people is not what it can and should be, I'm having a great time writing about TV and can't honestly think of anything I'd rather do to pass the time. Call it a hobby, call it an avocation, call it an obsession, I'm having FUN!

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