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The promise of a new TV year

Rooted in childhood, hope survives -- even in a complex world.

September 14, 2003|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

We are creatures of the seasons, sowing and reaping according to the rain and the sun; there is a time to tan and a time to refrain from tanning, turn turn turn. In the fall we harvest the bounty of the summer's toil, and in more senses than the agricultural. The Roman calendar and the tax system notwithstanding, this is when the real human year begins, on the far side of Labor Day, when the white clothes go back in the closet, and the kids go back to school, and the new cars go on sale, and television offers up its fall line.

There was a time when television was the biggest thing in my world, so big that, like cars or Jell-O or other ubiquitous adult inventions, it seemed to have existed always, to be as necessary and natural a part of the world as the air. And so you may picture me on a fall day of yore, biking to the Food King to purchase the TV Guide Fall Preview Issue on the day of its publication. I don't want to say that this was the biggest day of my year, because that would be, after all, sad. But it might have been.

I would ride home as fast as I could and settle down to read about my new friends, about their worlds and relations and missions and time slot, and think of all the fun we were going to have together. I would read the color-coded nightly grids, playing a game of mental hopscotch as I planned my new year's evenings. My tastes were particular, but like all children I was a creature of my era, and so my era supplied my needs: Anything to do with spies was fine with me, and practically any comedy at all. (You will understand that I loved "Get Smart.")

And yet as huge as TV seemed then, it was, like everywhere else in the world, a smaller, less populated place -- three networks, a few local stations devoted mostly to reruns, cartoons and old movies, and what was then called "educational television" fighting the static on the UHF dial. That was not necessarily a bad thing: By the laws of scarcity, what was available felt more valuable, even though clearly -- as TV Land daily reminds us -- much of it was garbage. (It was said in those days that television was on the average keyed to the mind of a 7-year-old; but of course when you're 9 that's not too much of stretch.) Perhaps because there was less to compare it to, it all seemed better than it was. Nowadays, by contrast, there is too much television; the grid has become incomprehensible. Constant, compulsive flipping is the understandable response, or defense.

A harsher reality

It may just be the same sort of delusional nostalgia that makes some people believe that this used to be a country where everyone lived in a house with a porch and loved his neighbor like himself, but I seem to recall that there was indeed once an inviolable TV year, in which every new series got a real chance; this season lasted all the way to summer, which was taken up with reruns and "less good" replacement series. (This was based on the sensible if questionable assumption that people would find better things to do in the summer than watch television.)

Though it is still routinely celebrated, the fall season is not the monolithic onslaught it once was. New shows appear now in dribs and drabs, trickle out over weeks and months; some won't arrive until winter, some will arrive with different casts, and some will never arrive at all. Cable TV, meanwhile, plays by different scheduling rules altogether. All this makes it hard for me to love the Fall Season Preview Issue as I did. I mean, it feels like a lie.

We have lost our innocence. Where once we might have known that there was a family called Nielsen whose watching habits might eventually kill a show we liked, we have come to a dark time when following the actual business of the entertainment industry is a popular entertainment in itself, when the meaning of "opening weekend" is known to every schoolchild, and "overnights" are published in general interest newspapers. And so to love a new TV show nowadays is to live constantly in the awareness of its potential imminent demise.

The hair-trigger mentality of the modern programmer, or program canceler, makes it hard not to grow cynical about the TV business, where the worth of a series -- and every series has at least the potential to become a work of art, just as every child might grow up to be president -- is reckoned by how efficiently it targets and saps the sales resistance of the "prized 18- to 49-year-old demographic." If farmers planted their crops according to this method, you would never be able to buy Brussels sprouts anywhere again. And though I personally would not lose any sleep over that, I know a few people who would feel rightly cheated.

Still, the seasons come and the seasons go. In the vast forest that it is modern television, new shoots poke through the mulch of half a century of old dead shows; some worthy ones will survive. And hope -- the great gift of the seasonal world -- springs eternal. Even for the lovers of Brussels sprouts.

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