The fall TV season is upon us again, with 33 new network shows debuting in September and October. And already, the question: Which will be the first to get canceled? There’s just way too much TV for us to consume, and America’s judgment is swift and harsh — last season Made in Jersey and Do No Harm were killed after just two episodes aired.
This fall, some big names are coming to TV, including Robin Williams, Andy Samberg and Michael J. Fox. And escapist fantasy seems to be the flavor of the season, with Dracula, Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Television reflects who we are, and in America we like a buffet. And we’ve got lots to choose from — more things to watch than ever before, and unprecedented new ways to watch them. You can watch a Netflix-produced, original series on your smartphone, catch up on Parks and Recreation via an iTunes rental on your iPad, or watch the season premiere of something high-minded like South Park on a 65-inch, 1080p screen with HD sound. Is that overkill? Yeah — did I mention this is America?
Some say we have the attention span of a gnat, but did a gnat ever wade through the 62 hours required to watch every episode of Breaking Bad? Our TV has become much more demanding than back in the salad days of The Rockford Files and Columbo. Yes, there’s some amazing storytelling on television today — but there are also plenty of commercial-laden, season-long time-wasters like The Voice. It can be quite a commitment, all this “appointment TV.” Still, we seem to manage: According to Nielsen, Americans spend more than five hours a day watching TV. Really, it’s kind of a miracle that we get any work done around here at all.
There’s one thing we aren’t spending as much time watching: the news. The average audience for all the evening network newscasts today is just around 22 million per night; in 1980, that figure was north of 50 million.
Maybe we want to erase the unpleasant realities of our world by basking in that comforting glow. The TV menu from 2003 seems to confirm that, as just two years after 9/11, mindless stuff like American Idol, Survivor and The Apprentice topped the ratings. We didn’t tune out as much during Vietnam, as sitcoms with heavy doses of reality like All in the Family and M*A*S*H were popular in ’73. But by 1983 (when envy-the-rich soaps like Dallas and Dynasty ruled the airwaves) and 1993 (when Seinfeld, the show about nothing, defined the decade about nothing), escaping was the reason we tuned in.
Old Philo Farnsworth, the pride of Rigby, Idaho, who invented TV and ultimately banned his kids from watching it, might not be resting peacefully. But then, he never had a new season of the latest CSI/Law and Order/NCIS spinoff to look forward to. He probably had to read a book or something.