I have always had a close relationship with my television. As a latch key kid she was the big sister I never had. She kept me company in the afternoon and taught me about real adult relationships with General Hospital. Along with her best friend, my VCR, and a copy of Purple Rain, she enlightened me with lessons of love, sex and the importance of masturbation. Roseanne showed me what other families were like and Cheers taught me how to drink responsibly. Living in New York, Seinfeld was my neighbour. Ellen was my first friend to come out.
Nowadays, information technology abounds, and various forms of entertainment are readily available in the metropolis, but nothing compares to the comfort TV offers me with a few episodes of The Simpsons. This may sound obvious to some, but I am writing to tell you how this day-to-day relationship has been taken for granted both by me, the viewer, and them, the producers.
I grossly misjudged what would be the most painful part of leaving the USA. My dependence on FOX and NBC was more than I could admit. When I arrived in London it became clear just how much I had taken my para-social relationship with Mulder and Scully for granted. Where were my Friends when I needed them? All the BBC had to offer me was Eastenders. This English style soap opera, where everyone is “skint”, most have “dodgy” jobs, and all look like you just saw them on your way home from work, is indeed a quality programme with gripping story lines and comic relief. Developing a relationship with those living on The Square was difficult; I never knew where to find them. The show runs four times weekly but never at the same time. Homesickness gripped me at Prime Time. But thanks to Mr. Murdoch, I am now back in touch with Bart and Lisa as well as all my ER doctors from back home.
The true importance of satellite and cable was lost on me as a New Yorker. I often complained there was “nothing on” my 97 channels. I won’t make the same mistake here. Sky Digital made me proud to be an American. I may now live in the land of BBC documentaries, ITV game shows and Channel 5 soft-core porn, but now I can choose from the best in American exports: Alias, 24 and The West Wing to name a few. These shows keep me in my imagined community of American viewers.
The Murdoch-provided TV viewing has gotten to the point where almost every night is taken up with one or two new imports. For months prior to seeing it, I read obsessively about Alias, but only now can I truly appreciate the brawn that is Jennifer Garner. During a visit back home my sisters had to force me on to the plane after I had witnessed the first in the 24 series. Tapes were sent but it wasn’t the same . . . I needed the week’s anticipation. Biting my nails absentmindedly mid-morning, wondering if Keifer would be all right, is almost as enjoyable as watching his story unfold. Thankfully, BBC 2 has caught on. They even broadcasted a 24 marathon last week. Digital channel E4 has the classic Thursday night line-up of Friends and ER. At last, Must See TV hits the UK.
It’s not that English television is all bad. Smack the Pony, an all girl sketch comedy show, hardly ever lets me down. And this winter we had the full soap opera experience a la Dallas in Footballers Wives. This show offered so much gratuitous sex and cliff-hanger plot lines that Mrs. David Beckham, aka Posh Spice, supposedly took offence and asked them not to make fun of her and her soccer star husband anymore! I guess she did not want anyone to confuse truth and fiction. The end of Footballers Wives left several affairs unfinished, a kidnapping in progress, and an attempted murder unsolved. My anger at reports that ITV may not make another series was slightly out of proportion, but I wasn’t sure if I could live without knowing weather Gary’s mother would convince him to adopt her baby and pretend it was his and new wife Chardonnay’s. Have the networks enslaved me?
When Tom Cruise walked onto the Oscars stage in LA and into my living room (a day later), he reminded me how important my contribution as a loyal viewer is to Hollywood’s success. I am empowered! My choices matter!! But I must have know that already deep down inside. I had voted during Pop Idol. The assumption that TV viewers are homogenized and pasteurized like milk is outdated. Critics, like John Fiske, now celebrate television’s natural ability to create resistances to its own power. Western culture has been spread around the world via satellite and cinema, but it has not taken over. Choice has given us the ability to choose. Obviously, if Hollywood knew what a hit show was it wouldn’t need TV executives. The saying “everyone’s a critic” is true now more than ever. No better example of this can be seen than in the UK’s Pop Idol, a talent contest that captured the nation for months, and soon to be coming to a country near you. Pop Idol succeeded in monopolizing the coveted family viewing hour on Saturday night. A nationwide search by a panel of expert judges resulted in ten all singing, all dancing finalists. From then on, the audience had control. Every week, after performing two songs chosen by the judges, one of the ten contestants was eliminated based on votes coming in on telephone lines. Voters chose whom they liked best and the contestant with the least amount of support went home. This process of elimination prevented a bloodbath. If it were about voting for a loser, I am sure many of those young entertainers would have fast tracked to the drugs/alcohol/depression downfall that we expect from our Pop Idols.
The media was mad for it. Each finalist had support, usually from his or her region, but as the show progressed, it seemed clear that a young cutie named Gareth Gates would triumph. He endeared himself to the press and to millions of teenage girls when it was revealed he suffers from a terrible stutter but could sing like an angel. His interviews were painful, but showed him to be a deserving underdog something England loves. He sang classic pop songs just like the Westlife boys. Girls screamed and cried. A star was about to be born. But in the last week, his remaining competitor, a 23-year-old man with a big smile and Sinatra style pulled in front with half a million more votes. Clearly, the audience was not content to sit back and let the favoured horse win. The nation’s media was shocked. One of the hosts cried.
Perhaps more shows should allow for audience participation. I would vote for Rachel to have a girl. I would vote for Carrie Weaver to go on vacation. I would vote for Sydney to sleep with her CIA contact. I would vote for Mulder to come back. I would cast a ballot to see Behind the Music everyday. I would vote for the Oscars to be shorter and the Grammys to be cooler. I would vote for more shows to be like 24 in quality and execution. I would definitely vote for Eastenders to be on at the same time every day!
Am I a sad case, to care about TV programming this much? Maybe, but it sure beats worrying about the vote I do have that doesn’t seem to make a difference, anyway.