- - Tuesday, May 27, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Nielsen’s March 2014 Cross Platform report noted that Americans watch an average of more than five hours of television per day. Are we really seeing anything today, though, that will be memorable tomorrow?

We are witnessing the sad deterioration of modern TV. Certain programming such as news, sports and documentaries remains solid. Today’s sitcom and dramatic TV series, with but a few exceptions (including “The Big Bang Theory,” “House of Cards” and the recently concluded “Breaking Bad”), have declined dramatically in recent years, however.

Meanwhile, many classic TV shows (“The Jack Benny Program,” “The Burns and Allen Show,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners”) remain as fresh and lively as ever.

Here’s an example. I recently purchased a DVD collection of Groucho Marx’s quiz show, “You Bet Your Life.” It was first broadcast on radio in 1947, and simulcast on TV in 1950. The legendary comedian would hold court for each 30-minute episode, trading one-liners and lighthearted jabs with contestants. Cash prizes would be awarded to the winners. If anyone guessed the secret word (usually a common word like “house” or “nose”), a duck that looked like Groucho would drop down from the ceiling with $100.

Guest appearances were made by luminaries from the world of sports (Joe Louis, Chuck Dressen), music (Harry Ruby, Gladys Bentley), literature (Richard Armour, Mark Harris) and entertainment (Phyllis Diller, Johnny Weissmuller). Even Groucho’s ever-silent brother, Harpo, made a memorable appearance.



The humor in “You Bet Your Life” is rather tame by modern standards. Even so, each superb and memorable episode has lasted the test of time — and will hopefully be watched by future generations.

For the record, I’m not slamming all TV shows made after, say, the Cuban missile crisis. There have been many great programs, including “M*A*S*H,” “Barney Miller,” “All in the Family,” “Taxi,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Cheers,” “Frasier” and “Night Court.” Unfortunately, today’s modern programming pales in comparison to these shows, too.

My personal feeling is some significant societal changes and differences have helped weaken the U.S. television industry.

The age of innocence has long since disappeared, for example. The softer, gentler humor on early TV has become much rougher and coarser on modern TV. Jokes aren’t as playful any longer; rather, they are more direct and pronounced. While some people prefer this edgier style, I’ve often felt it weakens a show’s overall dialogue, storyline and character development.

There has been an increase of violence, sex and tasteless humor in the entertainment industry. I’m not saying they should be removed from our TV shows, as I strongly believe in freedom of speech and expression. Yet I don’t feel it’s necessary to overload an audience with these things, either. Some programs, especially on cable, go above and beyond the boundaries of good taste and intelligent humor and commentary. One doesn’t need to be a Puritan to understand what it means to go overboard on an issue.

We’re also witnessing the diminished status of so-called “icons.” Authority figures, both in public and private life, command far less respect than they did in previous generations. The hedonistic lifestyles of Hollywood stars have also played a role in the American public’s changing mindset. Main and supporting characters in many modern TV shows are therefore portrayed as flawed individuals with less command over a particular situation. While this may make them more “real” to the naked eye, it’s also helped make them appear more dark and brooding. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good tradeoff.

Finally, the high demand for reality programming has helped dumb down modern TV. The appeal of programs such as “American Idol,” “Big Brother,” “The X Factor” or “America’s Next Top Model” is beyond my comprehension. Most contestants have minimal talent, education and oratorical skills. The competitions, if that’s what you want to call them, could only appeal to those who enjoy the thrill of mind-numbing, brain-dead activities. If reality programs are what Americans want to watch during their five hours of daily viewing, no wonder modern TV’s current state is so sad and thoroughly depressing.

My criticism of today’s TV shows could certainly be chalked up to the fact that I’m a 44-year-old man trapped in much older body. (My wife would certainly agree.) It could therefore all boil down to a matter of personal taste.

Regrettably, the taste in my mouth for modern TV resembles something much closer to the Gobi Desert.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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