Tuning Out

January 21, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Is anyone still watching television? I suppose people are - ratings are down but not out. In my view, watching television is more of a habit than a form of entertainment. We watch bad shows not because we think they're worthwhile but because they're on. For years, my parents would sit in their easy chairs at 8:00 and watch TV until 11:00, when they went to bed. Some of the stuff they watched was dreadful but the experience was about relaxing and winding down from the day's stress more than it was about enjoying quality programming.

I come from a different generation and my mindset is different. I only watch TV shows that I genuinely enjoy, and that usually means only three or four prime-time shows each season. I will readily admit there are good shows I miss, but I don't think there are any bad shows I endure. I also don't generally watch TV "live." I use my DVR to record everything then view it when I want to - not when the networks say I should - and skip through the commercials. It's a pleasant experience not to have to wait three minutes for a story to resume. Back in the '60s and '70s, hour long TV shows contained between 48 and 50 minutes of content and 10-12 minutes of commercials. There were five commercial breaks (:05, :15, :30, :45, :55), all about two minutes long. Today, content in an hourly program is between 42 and 44 minutes. There are still generally five breaks (:07, :15, :25, :40, :50), but they're all at least three minutes long. The DVR is the great equalizer.

A strange thing has happened, however, since the effects of the WGA strike have crept beyond Hollywood. I have lost interest in scripted TV programming. Once House stopped new episodes (although I believe there are still three more in the can, awaiting February sweeps) and Pushing Daisies finished its inaugural season, there was little else to watch. I stopped watching TV. (I should also mention that I stuck with Journeyman throughout its entire short life. It had potential. Toward the end, it began to realize some of that as the plots started to explore the paradoxical nature of time travel, but its cancellation means we'll never know whether the show was really headed in the right direction.)

That doesn't mean the TV does nothing more than provide a dark, dusty mirror. I have a fondness for some of Discovery Channel's programs - Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs in particular. My favorite approach to them is to watch them after midnight and fall asleep while they're on (this inevitably happens during a commercial break). There are dozens of Mythbusters where I have seen the first 30 minutes but not the last 30 minutes. However, with the exception of Discovery Channel and election coverage, I haven't been watching TV. This has been such a lackluster football season that I haven't been bothering. Maybe when baseball resumes...

I have fallen out of the habit of watching television, even on my terms. The Sarah Connor Chronicles debuted last week to a huge audience, but I wasn't among the viewers. I liked all three Terminator movies but couldn't generate any interest in watching the series. I recorded the Tin Man mini-series back in December but haven't watched it yet. The desire simply isn't there. It has gotten to the point where I'm forcing myself to watch TV so I don't develop a bias against it. So two weekends ago, I endured the rather lackluster adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion on Masterpiece Theater (the '90s movie was much better), and yesterday I watched Northanger Abbey (the only Austen novel I have not read). Next Saturday, I'll watch Torchwood. When House airs its remaining episodes, I'll record them for viewing at some point and I'll stay with Battlestar Galactica whenever it returns. But TV doesn't seem as vital as it once did. It's more of an afterthought at this point.

And that's what the WGA strike is doing. It's slowly and surely eroding the current TV audience. The longer people get used to seeking other forms of entertainment - video games, the Internet, DVDs, etc. - the less likely they will be to fall into the habit. People adapt. In the late '60s and '70s, the impact of a WGA strike would have been seismic. Network TV was everything in those days. Not today. Now, there are too many other things vying for our attention. TV is hurting itself by allowing viewers to tune out. They may never come back.

In principle, I agree with the writers but what has happened in this strike is more about power than fairness. Both sides want to claim a decisive win, and with the balance of power being what it is, that results in a stalemate. Consider how quickly the DGA negotiations closed. Yes, the dynamic is different, but the rancor was also absent. Both sides were interested in reaching an agreement - something not evident in the WGA situation. Now, writers are flocking to the few companies that have signed interim agreements and the studios are beginning to hire non-union and foreign writers.

But, as the power struggles continue, one thing is clear: when the dust settles, the situation may be the same at the multiplexes but it won't be business as usual for the television industry. With the habit broken, quality shows will be needed to win back some viewers. And quality is a rare characteristic for small screen productions. Tuning out means moving on, and many who take that route won't be willing to look back unless there's a compelling reason to do so.