Television's Culture of Stupidity
(December 2004)

“I think that the perception of dumbing down stems partly from the massive proliferation of TV output that has occurred in the past 10 years. Not all of it can be good, and when you sample 200 channels, 10 seconds at a time, with your remote control in hand, you can be forgiven for thinking that most of the output is of dubious quality.”
-- Gavyn Davies, former BBC chairman, March 2002

Watching television is not an intellectual exercise. TV requires the viewer to put the mind on cruise control and soak up inane dialogue, smiling news anchors and continuous commercials. In 1984, FCC Chairman Mark Fowler said that television was nothing more than a "toaster with pictures" and did not need to be regulated more than any other appliance. Under Fowler's tenure, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission started to re-regulate the industry so huge media conglomerates could purchase and control more of the TV industry. Fowler's view was: "We let the marketplace and the viewers decide what goes out there. Some people love watching wrestling. It's terrible programming, but some like it. That's the marketplace." This statement, however, is not true. The public has little input into programming choices and will watch whatever slop is broadcast. Television programming is not voted on by the public, but dictatorially chosen by network executives. In a sense, TV is an example of supply side economics -- where it is the manufacturer who creates demand by controlling supply.

As a result, television has gotten pretty stupid. The "toaster with pictures" comment endures because that part of Fowler's theory is true. Though TV has a greater impact on the world than a toaster, it is a simple appliance that doesn't really do much. A toaster toasts bread -- you can turn it on and off and change a few settings. A television turns on and off and you can change a few settings.

If bad television is dumbing down society, then good television is dumbing up society, either way the effect is the same. Someone who reads a lot may sound intellectual or knowledgeable -- but someone who watches a lot of TV looks and sounds like the two stoners from the movie Dude, Where's My Car? (see below).

As movie director Woody Allen said, "In Beverly Hills, they don't throw their garbage away -- they make it into television shows."

"Paris Hilton, that meagerly talented blonde heiress without enough curves to make it as a standard-issue bimbo, and allegedly so dumb or so ritzy that she thought Wal-Mart was a store that sold walls. But after her porn video, pedaled by a former boyfriend, appeared on the Internet, little Paris practically became a superstar. "You can't pick up a newspaper or magazine without seeing her. She's doing movies and books and perfumes, and she is, right now, fascinating," Barbara Walters gushed to Charlie Gibson on Good Morning, America, last week while promoting her "Most Fascinating People of the Year" special."
-- Myrna Blyth in the National Review Online, December 2004

To the surprise of no one, Great Britain's Broadcast magazine voted Baywatch as the worst American TV show in history. "The appeal to a certain demographic of a series about a muscular lifeguard and his crew of pneumatic young helpers with raging hormones was enough to sustain this show through 12 years, despite a script of mind-numbing predictability: beachgoer is saved from drowning," Broadcast said in November 2004. Though dumb, the show has been seen by an estimated one billion viewers in 140 countries across the globe.

How has Baywatch become such a stupidly successful program? A quick link over to revealed a book titled Planet Baywatch. The description notes that the show "is not a part of culture ... rather, it is culture." Apparently the book's authors point out some of the important aspects of the show: " that all fat people and those without all-over tans are Evil. Also noted are the bizarre preponderance of midgets, the sad fate that awaits those who answer C. J.'s siren call, and the many subtle variations on the Slow Motion Montage. But don't think that all this heavy hermeneutic analysis precludes discussion of Baywatch's greatest asset: breasts."

The fact that Baywatch is a success because it features prominent female breasts is not a shock. Broadcast magazine, however, rated the other nine awful American TV shows and interestingly enough, the others also feature prominent female breasts. How odd.

1 Baywatch
2 Anna Nicole Smith Show
3 Dukes of Hazzard
4 Wild Palms
5 Manimal
6 The Jerry Springer Show
7 Knots Landing
8 Falcon Crest
9 The Bold and the Beautiful
10 Extreme Makeover

Source: Broadcast Magazine

Worldwide, TV is engaged in some unusual trends. In Great Britain, the BBC reports that viewership is at an all-time low and announced sweeping job cuts in December 2004. The public-supported network blamed the loss on the rise of multi-channel availability in Britain. Throughout Europe as a whole, a study published by Jupiter Research the same month noted that 27% of European Internet users said they prefer the web and 40% of broadband users across Western Europe said that they spend less time watching TV.

In Japan, a report noted that the basic academic abilities of Japanese elementary and junior high school students in science have been declining over the past few years and found a connection between the amount of time spent watching television. The study found that Japanese children watched the most TV programs and videos in the world (Japanese 8th graders watched an average high of 2.7 hours a day) followed, of course, by American children.

In the United States, a research study published in the journal Science found that American women would rather watch TV than take care of their children. "Women rated TV-watching high on the list, ahead of shopping and talking on the phone, and ranked taking care of children low, below cooking and not far above housework." [NYT, 12-2-04] If watching television is the happiest someone can get -- our society has some serious problems.

The ratings for December 2004 show that Americans continue to watch TV at a constant rate. Even with many other alternative home media services such as cable-on-demand, DVDs, Internet, and digital radio, network TV maintains its popularity.
Below are the Nielsen Media Research ratings numbers for the week of November 29 to December 5, 2004. The Nielsen ratings estimate that the United States has 105.5 million television households. A single ratings point represents 1%, or 1,055,000 households.

Program Name
1 CSI CBS 15.5 17,027,000
2 CSI: MIAMI CBS 14.5 15,940,000
4 E.R. NBC 12.0 13,176,000
5 SURVIVOR: VANUATU CBS 11.7 12,788,000
6 WITHOUT A TRACE CBS 11.7 12,874,000
7 TWO AND A HALF MEN CBS 11.6 12,749,000
9 ABC PREMIERE EVENT-12/5(S) ABC 11.2 12,286,000
10 60 MINUTES CBS 10.8 11,792,000
11 APPRENTICE 2 NBC 10.8 11,877,000
12 LOST ABC 10.8 11,787,000
13 LAW AND ORDER:SVU NBC 10.5 11,523,000
14 NCIS CBS 10.3 11,235,000
15 LAW AND ORDER NBC 10.2 11,142,000
16 CSI: NY CBS 9.8 10,696,000
17 NFL MONDAY SHOWCASE ABC 9.6 10,528,000
18 COLD CASE CBS 9.1 9,963,000
19 WEST WING NBC 8.9 9,724,000

The top rated TV show is CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on CBS. The series' 100th episode aired on November 18, 2004 and captured 31.46 million viewers, making it the most watched episode in the show's history. For the season, CSI averaged 29.18 million viewers a night. The 100th episode was titled "Ch-Ch-Changes" and involved the investigation of a murdered transsexual.

The show's two main characters are Gil Arthur Grissom (played by William Petersen), the head of CSI, a forensic entomologist with a degree in Biology who knows sign language and has inherited his mother's otosclerosis, a disease which was causing him to slowly go deaf but was countered with surgery. His hobbies include his work, cockroach racing, reading and roller coasters. His partner is Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger), a blood spatter analyst from Bozeman, Montana who used to be a stripper in Las Vegas clubs to pay her way through college where she studied medical technology. She has a young daughter. Tragically, after her ex-husband was murdered she was unable to find evidence convicting his killer. The series is known for its unusual camera angles, high-tech gadgets, detailed technical discussion, and graphic portrayal of bullet trajectories, blood spray patterns, organ damage, methods of evidence recovery (e.g. fingerprints from the inside of latex gloves), and crime reconstructions. (descriptions from Wikipedia)

The photo to the left shows CSI's winning combination of breasts and blood.

TV may be stupid, but it is also profitable. Broadcasting & Cable magazine estimates that the television networks generated $52 billion in revenue in 2004 (with the top 25 networks cashing in on nearly 80% of that total). The big-money winner in 2004 was General Electric's NBC network with annual revenue of $5.1 billion and an average nightly audience of 13.3 million.

2004 Revenue (in $ millions)
1 NBC $5,062
2 CBS $4,449
3 QVC $4,150
4 ABC $3,325
5 ESPN $3,223
6 Fox $2,405
7 HBO $2,398
8 HSN $1,880
9 TNT $1,590
10 Nick $1,300
11 MTV $1,150
12 USA $990
13 TBS $985
14 Disney $977
15 CNN $887
16 Lifetime $850
17 Discovery $824
18 Showtime $800
19 The WB $700
20 Fox News $675
21 ShopNBC $646
22 A&E $620
23 Cinemax $605
24 Univision $591
25 FX $575
SOURCE: B&C research; industry and company reports.

Golden TV Award 2004
: TV Of The Year

Television is now entering a new golden age -- literally. Korean electronics manufacturer LG Electronics is now selling a 71-inch gold-plated plasma TV. For a price of $75,000, this TV is not only the largest PDPTV manufactured to date, but also the most expensive. The set features 24-carat gold plated screen casing, receiver, speakers and subwoofer. Shortly after its introduction in November 2004 all of human civilization rejoiced and embraced a new era of peace, prosperity and global cooperation.

Television Hell Award 2004: Ad Of The Year

(Editors note: when I saw this ad, I wanted to throw up.)