IF TELEVISION had a golden age, when would it have been?
Many nostalgic people with flawed memories date it around the time Edward R. Murrow was making a legend of himself in the '50s. The legend, sadly, comes across as a fuzzy, pompous bore when rerun today. The situation comedies of the '50s cause the eyes to glaze before the first commercial.
There followed in the '60s and '70s the glory days of broadcast networks, when they were overstaffed, spent money like drunks, killed good shows like homicidal maniacs, owned the airways, owned the Federal Communications Commission as well and first started paying their anchors seven-figure salaries.
Then came the exfoliation of satellite and cable programming and the invention of the all-news channel. But this caused the stunning realization that 800 channels of drivel can be as tiresome as three networks of drivel. It also confirmed that TV news, which used to be crammed into 15 minutes, later expanded to 30 (or 22 without the commercials) can be just as vacuous when it is practiced -- shrieked may be the better word -- in 24-hour segments by Fox or MSNBC.
Most of us who used to dream of the possibilities of an expanded TV universe, duplicating the quality, diversity and choice of a large bookstore or newsstand, have sadly concluded that whenever TV's golden age occurred, it isn't now. Or is it?
What may turn out to be the most significant development in the history of the television industry has quietly occurred in recent years. Suddenly the young are watching less of it. Viewership among children age 2 to 11 has declined 6 percent in the past two years. And of greater immediate financial peril to the industry, more viewers age 18 to 34 are turning off their sets as well, according to Nielsen.
This is the group most prized by the industry and by advertisers, probably because these young adults still have the most to learn about the cheesy quality of so much of the stuff advertised on TV and are less resistant to the hypnotic suggestion they must have it to be cool.
Pursuit of this coveted audience is why so much of your TV news is babbled to you by fetching blondes and blow-dried hunks whose life experience doesn't extend much beyond the Reagan administration. It's also why Nielsen's findings have so upset the industry that, instead of hiring more wrinkled crones to yell the news, it has threatened suits and questioned the figures.
But the decline in young viewers suggests some exciting and hopeful possibilities. Maybe television will become what it always should have been -- a geezers' pastime. The "mature audience" may become prized, courted and pandered to, not as people who like to drool over writhing, naked bodies, but as people with high incomes who have reached an age where they're less susceptible to having their intelligence insulted. Or it is possible that, as today's disaffected young viewers age, everyone will simply start doing more interesting things with their time?
If so, it may be recorded that TV's true golden age occurred when people of every age started watching less of it.
Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.
Pub Date: 2/21/99