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Wednesday October 3, 2007 2:04 pm

The TV Viewers’ Bill of Rights

TV Viewers Bill of Rights

Lots of people watch television.  That may seem like an obvious statement (especially to somebody reading a site called TV Envy), but I think we viewers tend to forget how strong of a lobby we are.  “Cane,” for example, had a little more than 11 million viewers for its first episode, a number that most newspapers called good but not great.  But if a movie had 11 million people go see it in one night, it would have grossed somewhere around $90 million dollars.

That’s $90 million dollars in one day.  That’s a big fat, Spiderman-Harry Potter-Transformin’ hit.

And yes, I know, movies aren’t TV.  TV is free (mostly), and you don’t have to leave your home to watch TV, but it’s still a pretty frickin’ big audience.  And that was just for one show, while there were two other broadcast networks (and hundreds of cable channels) competing against it.  And “Cane,” by the way, wasn’t even the most watched show in that time slow.  That was “Law & Order: SVU” (and more about that in a little bit.)

So … you would think that with such a big audience, such a mighty and powerful audience, the people who are making television would do what they can to not make us angry.  And they do, to some extent.  But they think “not making us angry” is the same as “not putting anything slightly controversial” on television, forgetting that all of us watched shows like “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Nip/Tuck,” and even “Seinfeld, which I’ll remind you had episodes that got humor out of killing George’s fiancée and a contest to see who could refrain the longest from self-pleasure.

Ignoring that, though, what they’ve done to make me and a lot of the television-watching population angry is treating us like we are stupid.  Here’s the thing, television networks: we’re really smart.  I know, I know, some of us still watch “Two and a Half Men” and “According to Jim,” but even more of us don’t.  We follow the intricate plots of “Lost,” we laugh at the cringe-inducing humor of “The Office,” we delight in the brilliant references, call-backs and jokes of 30 Rock, we even find a way to separate the good reality shows (The Amazing Race & Survivor) from the horrible ones (Pirate Master & The Bachelor).

In short, we’re smart.  We’re very smart and we’d like to be treated properly.  So I propose a TV Viewers’ Bill of Rights.  Bills of rights, be they for airline passengers, internet users, or consumers, are very popular these days. (Ironically, the actual, original Bill of Rights?  Not so popular right now.  Or enforced, really.)  Here goes…

Article I: Stop trying to fool me with the editing on reality shows.  On the first episode of “Kitchen Nightmares,” Gordon Ramsey (who, I’ll admit, is pretty fantastic) sat down with a family who runs an Italian restaurant on Long Island.  Somebody would start talking about what was wrong with the place and then another family member would start talking over them, and then another family member and so on.  No wonder these people are having trouble with this restaurant; it’s complete chaos.

Except, not really.  I noticed that when two people were talking at the same time, I could only see one person on the screen talking.  In fact, when people were being interrupted, they never took offense to someone else talking or even appeared to notice there were other sounds in the room.  So, basically, it was all edited to make it look bad.

But here’s the thing: they didn’t need to.  The brother who managed the place was a train-wreck all by himself.  He ate customers’ food, yelled at waitresses, gave away free wine, made scenes with “bill collectors” (whom, I’m certain, were not bookies or loan sharks.)  You didn’t need to have a chaotic table conversation to convince me the place was in dire straits.

And I feel like that’s most of the reality shows I watch.  They’re piling on when they don’t need to.  My fellow viewers and I can pick up on things really quickly and we don’t forget easily (as anybody who kept asking about the Russian in the woods from one episode of “The Sopranos” can tell you.)  It’s like the Patriots having the best team in the NFL and still taping other teams’ signals.  It’s just not necessary.

Article II: You can only show me something once. Now by this I don’t mean you’re not allowed to rerun television shows; no, I mean that in the course of me watching an episode, you’re only allowed to show me the same scene once.

This is, in many ways, a reality show-centric problem, and often it’s Fox reality shows.  On the aforementioned “Kitchen Nightmares” (which was much better as a BBC show,) the producers feel the need to show me:

  1. What’s going to happen tonight on the show
  2. A scene that ends when we go to commercial
  3. That same scene when we come back from commercial; and often
  4. A flashback to that scene near the end of the episode to prove a point

We may have even seen this scene (as I throw around homonyms) last week when they previewed this episode, but I’ll give you a pass on this.

Remember when I said that we, as viewers, are smart?  We are.  We can remember the thing that happened, oh, three minutes ago pretty well.  You don’t need to refresh us on this.  The VH1 dating shows are egregious offenders in this vein as well.  I don’t need to see Brandi throw up three or four times in one episode of “Rock of Love,” especially if it’s the same vomit sequence.  I’m just going to end up watching it again on “The Soup” and “Best Week Ever” anyway.

Article III: No drama is allowed to use multiple personality disorder plots ever again.  I hate to make that big of a blanket statement, but…it’s just tired now.  Whenever a show, like “Law & Order: SUV” did in their first episode of the year, includes a guest star with multiple personalities, this much is certain:

  1. That guest star, no matter how subtle of an actor he or she is, will ham it up like they’ve never hammed it up before.  I love you, Cynthia Nixon, I do, but you were chewing scenery like it was made out of 5 Gum (which rocks, by the way)
  2. The multiple personalities will include at least three of the following: foreign person with accent, small child, tough-talking adult (aka the protector), womanizer or slutty lady (depending on the sex of the guest star), intellectual type, and a raging loon
  3. The phrase “who am I talking to now,” will be spoken at least four times
  4. The guest star will go bananas and change personalities at an inopportune time, such as a trial, competency hearing, etc.

And, yes, if you watched this “Law & Order: SVU” episode you know there was a “twist” at the end, but it didn’t change the fact that 99% of the episode was a paint-by-numbers story line for people with multiple personality disorder.  That makes for boring television, and that (in case you didn’t know) is bad.

Article IV: Stop putting big stars in new shows and wondering why they don’t succeed.  It’s this weird dance that the networks do every year where they say something like, “Hey, we’ve got Bette Midler to star in a sitcom.  It’s sure to be a hit!”  And for the most part, TV writers seem to latch onto this idea and are befuddled when it doesn’t work. It’s odd.  Television has always been accused of seeing something that works in one season and then making twenty copies of it the next season.  But these big star-driven show almost never work (and they cost a lot too), and yet they still keep getting copied.

TV doesn’t thrive on stars; TV creates stars.  Let’s look at three wildly popular TV shows, all from the same network, all airing on the same night: “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “ER.”  When Seinfeld started, if you stayed up and watched the comedians on Carson and Letterman, you knew Jerry Seinfeld.  But that’s about it.  None of them were huge stars, but the show was good and they were made into stars.

You know who the most famous person was on “Friends” before it started?  Courtney Cox (then sans –Arquette), because she was on “Family Ties,” was in “Ace Ventura,” and danced with Bruce Springsteen.  Unless you were a huge fan of the ill-fated Ferris Bueller television show, you didn’t know who Anniston was.  But the show made them stars.

“E.R.”’s most famous person before the show started?  You could argue Clooney if you were a “Facts of Life” fan, but I go with Anthony Edwards, the sidekick Goose from “Top Gun.”  Hardly somebody you’d build a show around, and yet, the show was crazy successful.  Maybe because it was just a really good show (before it went off the rails six years ago and people started destroying the E.R. every week).

Article V: Joss Whedon and David Simon should always have shows on the air.  This really has nothing to do with the demands of smart viewers in general, I just miss Buffy & Angel and I dread losing “The Wire.”

Article VI: Reality show contests must watch all previous seasons of the show they are going on. We’re all tired of the people on “Survivor” being shocked, shocked, that others lie and form alliances and break them on a whim.  For those of us who have been watching, though, it’s par for the course.

You know how good dramas raise the bar among TV writers and they, in turn, write better shows?  Don’t you think the same thing would happen to reality shows if the contestants paid attention to what happened on previous seasons?

Article VII: All the broadcast networks have to have a rerun channel.  This is kind of a strange idea, but you’ll like it, trust me.

Have you (the viewer) had the situation where you go to work and your coworkers tell you about the good show you missed last night?  And then you go home and realize, hey, they’re never going to show that episode again.  Sure, you could watch it on a computer, but it’s kind of a pain, especially if you want to watch it with a loved one.  So you don’t watch the episode, or the show, ever.

Well, what if there were an NBC 2 or a CBS-Reruns channel, and it broadcast the same schedule as the original network, just one day later.  Nielsen combines the ratings, and now you’re hooked on the show you missed, and everybody’s happy.  Word of mouth helps with movies because they play for a few weeks and you can catch the movie you missed.  With a rerun channel, you’re giving people the opportunity they missed.

Article VIII: You can’t create a new “Elite-team-of-investigators-solve-a-specific-type-of-crime” show for five years. There’s way too many of them now as it is.  Let the bad ones die off naturally, let the good ones stay, and force your execs to greenlight (and market well) shows with a little imagination.

Article IX: Just because something is old, that doesn’t make it a classic.  NBC kept trying to tell us that their new “Bionic Woman” was an update of the “classic series with Lindsay Wagner.”  Really, it was a classic?  Like a good classic?  Or is it just old?

Yes, we watched something when we were little, but that doesn’t mean we want to see a new version of it as adults.  Viewers, do you really want to see an updated “A-Team?”  Of course, you don’t, because you’re not 8 anymore (and, honestly, it wasn’t that good in the first place).  Remember what the last great remake of a 20 year old (or older) show was?  Me neither.

Article X: Um, I kind of ran out of rights.  Let’s go with “no cruel and unusual punishment,” since it’s always nice to remind people that that right still exists.

In other words, don’t renew “The Pick Up Artist,” VH1.  You were fooled by Baio; don’t fall under Mystery’s “charms.”

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Comments:

Love the list, David.  Sadly, so many of these articles transfer over to the movie industry as well; I cracked up when you mentioned the ubiquitous multiple-personalities plot that has plagued TV (and film) since the success of <i>Sybil</i>.  Now moviegoers are forced to sit through terrible re-hashes of the same cliche, most recently in <i>Identity</i>, <i>Secret Window</i> and, to some extent, <i>The Number 23</i>.

Send this to directly to the TV execs, but tell them to pass it on to their film departments.

Oh, and keep up the good work!

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