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The following is the preface for my book titled “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television,” the story of one man’s career — me — covering the television business. Thank you for reading.
People reacted to my job as if it were a joke. You get paid to watch TV, they would remark, mocking the idea that a person – an adult – could have as his job something nearly everybody else does mindlessly at their leisure.
Most people watch TV in the evening, when they’re tired and the idea of engaging in something more challenging is not an attractive option. They could not comprehend a job – in my case, a job writing about TV – in which a grown man would be required to sit around watching television for the better part of his workday. They concluded the job of TV columnist must be easy. They assumed it must be fun. They were correct on both counts, but also very, very wrong.
Sure it was easy. Of course it was fun, sometimes. Few people would try and argue otherwise. Many times, I would imagine other people at work in the surrounding office towers of midtown Manhattan – people I could see from my 10th floor window, staring into computer screens in their offices and cubicles in the buildings across West 47th Street. Maybe they worked in finance and were scrutinizing columns of numbers. Or maybe they were attorneys researching precedents and writing briefs. Isn’t that what such people do?
Meanwhile, I’m sitting at my desk, a man in his 40s, watching “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Or maybe I’m channel-surfing, stopping briefly to watch a brawl on “Jerry Springer” or a shouting match between talking heads on Fox News Channel. Perhaps I am positioned before my computer trying to determine how to provoke the greatest possible number of New York Post readers with a new column that will nitpick and complain about the most recent episode of “The Sopranos.” Or maybe I’m sifting through the day’s delivery of preview DVDs or, previously, videocassettes of upcoming shows sent over by the publicity departments of the broadcast and cable networks, wondering what I should sample and whether the shows I eventually choose to spend the next several hours viewing will make for interesting columns, whether I will be entertained, bored or sickened.
“If you think it’s so easy, then you try it,” I wish I’d said when confronted with derision for what I do. All those people who assume how much fun it must be to watch TV for hours on end everyday, year after year, cannot comprehend the side-effects of such an occupation. At times, when the day’s commitment to watching television would stretch over many hours, I would end my workdays in an irritable half-stupor, my eyes smarting. I would rise from my chair in a groggy state of depletion though I had exerted no physical effort for the greater part of the day.
Most of TV today can be boiled down to one word: Conflict. It’s an essential ingredient in drama – whether scripted or unscripted. On TV, conflicts erupt in a variety of ways, the most prevalent being extreme violence, but also fits of temper – heated debates on the cable talk shows, fistfights on “Jerry Springer” and “Maury Povich,” and tantrums thrown on “reality” TV shows by struggling addicts (“Intervention,” “Celebrity Rehab”), stressed-out brides (“Bridezillas”), high-strung housewives (“The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” “Wife Swap”), aspiring models (“America’s Next Top Model”), D-list celebrities (“The Surreal Life,” “Celebrity Fit Club”) and non-celebrities (“Jersey Shore”).
Sometimes, watching so much TV was like absorbing all the ills of the world in concentrated form. “When television is bad, nothing is worse,” said Newton Minow in 1961, newly installed as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the fledgling administration of President John F. Kennedy, in his “vast wasteland” speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. The phrase — “vast wasteland” — is famous; the context in which it was delivered is not.
“I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit-and-loss sheet or a rating book to distract you,” Minow said, addressing the station managers and network executives gathered at the NAB’s annual convention in Washington. “Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
“You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials – many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”
Nowadays, few stations or networks actually “sign off” anymore. Today, they offend 24 hours a day. And with all due respect to Chairman Minow, if we had the quaint procession of “mayhem, violence, sadism [and] murder” that he observed in 1961, we would all be marveling at the miraculous chastity of television. Dated though it surely is, Minow’s speech gave TV critics (and anyone else) a handy, accurate phrase – “a vast wasteland” – for describing television in virtually any era. But overall the speech was a failure. It is doubtful it persuaded any members of Minow’s audience to actually engage in the exercise of self-evaluation that he suggested, much less come to personal epiphanies about the woeful state of television that Minow was sure they would experience.
Those who heard the FCC chairman’s speech likely saw no way in which they could profit from keeping their eyes “glued” to their sets. They also likely felt, if they bothered to contemplate it at all, that watching television in such a marathon fashion – from sign-on to sign-off, as the old broadcasters once referred to the broadcast day – was not a realistic reflection of the way most people watched TV. Only shut-ins, or other individuals nursing incurable addictions to TV, would watch TV in this manner. Other than the lonely and the addicted, the only group of people who have ever come as close to consuming television in the manner prescribed by Minow are TV critics.
When Minow delivered his speech in May 1961, I was not yet 2 years-old. It would take me about four decades before I found myself in a position that required me, more or less, to take up the project Minow proposed to the station managers and network executives – to watch TV for hours on end, perhaps not from dawn ’til dawn, and definitely not one single station at a time, but to watch so much, spread over so many programs, channels and networks, that over time, I would come to conclusions about the nature of its contents that would fall somewhere in line with Minow’s own conclusion that the medium, taken as a whole, constitutes a vast wasteland.
It does indeed, except that today the dimensions of the wasteland have expanded in direct proportion to the number of channels that have been created over the last three decades. Plunging everyday into this even vaster TV wasteland is not the fun and easy occupation that most people assume it to be.
The fun part, if there is a fun part, is writing about it – criticizing it and lambasting it, identifying its faults and folly, its mediocrity, its insolence, its lack of manners reflected in the insulting way in which it invades people’s homes and coarsens their lives. Most of what is produced for television is so woebegone that writing TV criticism is like shooting fish in a barrel.
When confronted by people who assumed my job consisted of little more than vegetating in front of the boob tube – perhaps in the same manner in which they themselves watched TV – I was quick to point out that watching TV was not the job. The job was a newspaper job – writing columns of criticism, often the harshest possible criticism, about a powerful, pervasive and wealthy industry. The job required that opinions be formed quickly and transmitted in writing in the clearest possible way, often on extremely tight deadlines. Then, you were forced to deal with the consequences of what you had written, which often meant absorbing the body blows of complaint – from those you wrote about, of course, but also your readers.
Writing opinion columns for a pugnacious New York City tabloid was a combative exercise. It could be exhilarating, but also disquieting, especially when I would find myself on the unpopular side of a cause and facing the unrestrained wrath of those who hotly disagreed.
Such conflicts were generally short-lived. They flared up and then died down with the production cycle. Constructed from scratch each day, a newspaper is obsolete the moment it hits the newsstand. Its pages are soon read, then tossed away and forgotten, to be found imprinted with the outlines of dirty soles on the floors of subway cars, crumpled atop piles of refuse in corner trash bins, or soaked and filthy in curbside gutters, discarded after their use as protection from sudden rains. There – in the gutters, streets and trashcans – I would spy my columns, each graced with my grinning photo, now become just soiled rubbish.
All the work, all the focus, all the concentration that went into researching and writing a newspaper column – yes, even a TV review – was rendered meaningless in 12 hours or less. And then you did it again. A newspaper is a creature with a voracious appetite. Pressure was on to feed the beast.
“All must turn with the clock-tick,” wrote a Chicago newspaper editor in 1922, describing the newspaper production cycle. “It makes no difference whether the day be dull or thrilling. The relentless machinery waits for its injections of human intelligence.”
It was no less true nearly 80 years later at the turn of a new century. “He is enraged at life,” wrote that Chicago editor of the newspaperman of his generation, “but he is deliriously happy.”
“Enraged at life”? Probably.
“Deliriously happy”? Sometimes. But not always.
Definitely not always.
To be continued …
Copyright © 2014 Adam Buckman
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