What Ever Happened to TV?

by L. Neil Smith
[email protected]

Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Ihaven’t had cable TV for years, owing to a nasty little bait and switch routine one of the big companies tried to pull on me. As a sort of historian—or at least a close observer of the human condition— I’ve been fortunate, because of this, to witness the collapse of an American institution that has deserved to collapse for a long, long time.

I refer, of course, to broadcast network television.

For a while, I had something to look forward to every day of the week. I’m a big science fiction fan, far from impossible to please. To my daughter’s dismay and embarrassment, I’ll happily watch Dr. Who if there’s nothing better on. (My wife knows me and quietly leaves the room.) One local station played reruns of Star Trek, the original series, nearly every night for thirty years, and I was willing to watch until the pictures wore off the celluloid. Although it was their bread and butter for decades, they treated the series with incredible contempt, moving it around or preempting it without notice, and even worse, carving time out of it for extra commercials, the way shady merchants in classical times clipped the edges off of gold and silver coins.

Star Trek the animated series came and went so fast that most people today don’t even know it existed, although it retained most of the same actors, and the writing was often better than the original series.

Star Trek: the Next Generation came along and I watched it, too. In many ways it was a tremendous improvement over the original series, although the world it was set in would have been a fascist nightmare to live in, the hero was more bureaucrat than ship’s captain, and the “final frontier” was being settled under strict military and political supervision, after the timid Canadian or Australian models—which is to say not much at all—instead of the robust and energetic American model.

The best episodes of the series were those involving the Klingon civil war, when it became clear almost immediately that the Klingons were the only decent, honorable, heroic, and worthwhile people in the galaxy. Maybe that’s why the socialist creators of the series had it terminated. There has to be some reasonable explanation. To this day, Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) says that she doesn’t know why they did it.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine displayed for us, in its unguarded moments, the only thing socialist societies are good at: waging war on other socialist societies. It sneakily reintroduced money—in the form of “gold-pressed latinum”—to a silly future that had snottily given it up. DS9‘s treatment of security versus privacy, during the Federation’s war with the shapeshifting Founders, was absolutely prophetic.

Reruns of Star Trek: Voyager are all we have left, now, of the 23rd and 24th century series. This program had its charms (not the least of which was Jeri Ryan’s pointy but poignant portrayal of the former Borgette, Seven of Nine). It was also perfect proof of a theory I heard once that the most successful TV programs are simple retelling life within a family or in a high school classroom. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were brothers. Janeway was the Our Miss Brooks of the Delta Quadrant.

Now Roddenbury’s crew have given us Enterprise. (For some reason they don’t want the words “Star Trek” associated with it.) In my view, it’s the very best of the lot. I plan to write specifically about this series soon—Scott Bakula’s Jonathan Archer without question is the most authentic captain of all the Treks, and T’Pol, his Vulcan science offer is the best of her kind, as well (everything I ever extrapolated with regard to her decadent, racist species has been confirmed on this show). In the meantime, I’m grateful it’s come along when it’s badly needed.

On Saturday nights in the not-too-recent past, I used to look forward to watching Adrian Paul’s after-Highlander syndicated series Tracker, followed by The Invisible Man. Admittedly both programs were minor efforts, compared to Star Trek,but they definitely had their moments. They were both full of interesting characters and ideas.

Now they’re gone, along with the excellent Brimstone (I like John Glover very much and wish he’d do a movie with his brother), the wonderfully daffy Space Precinct, Alien Nation, Lois and Clark, Kung Fu: the Adventure Continues, Firefly, Dark Angel, Forever Knight, and a host of splendid entertainments. Buffy, Angel, and Charmed still have their regular slots in prime time, but it’s harder and harder to find Andromeda and Stargate SG-1. Babylon 5 is still being run on cable, I think, but I don’t know about Red Dwarf.

Which brings me to the point of this essay.

What are these programs being replaced with? For the most part, police state “reality” shows in which “heroic” police officers pursue despicable badguys, smash their cars up, smash their doors down, and smash their teeth in—and a neat if mendacious disclaimer at the end of the program assures us that nobody’s rights were violated in the process of enforcing unconstitutional laws. I’ve always believed that the real purpose of such shows is to desensitize the American public and get them accustomed to living under a vile, violent, and absolute despotism.

John Walsh is a plague all by himself.

There are also civilian “reality” shows, in which the producers do their damnedest, for example, to break couples up by tempting them with fresh flesh and flashing teeth, families are pursued by video cameras recording the most disgusting and idiotic aspects of real life, and repulsive bar-singles are thrown at each other’s heads until they end up in the sack or getting restraining orders against each other.

On top of that, we get cop and lawyer and doctor dramas coming out of our ears. I’ve lost track of how many shows there are about law firms. Now they’re glorifying the CIA and the FBI while Jeri Ryan is wasted on an incredibly ordinary show making heroes of public school teachers.

There are also perfectly horrible situation “comedies” in the style established by Roseanne Barr, in which everybody on the show hates everybody else and you wish they’d get a chainsaw and kill each other. For Married with Children, I’d gladly pay for the chainsaw, myself.

But I’ve saved the worst for last: Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer, Sally Jesse Raphael, Maury Povitch, and uncounted other parasites, offering us vast, billowing oceans of fat, sweaty, dirty-looking women screaming at fat, sweaty, dirty-looking guys onstage, with their ball caps on backwards, because they got their fat, sweaty, dirty-looking girlfriends pregnant—and the girls’ fat, sweaty, dirty-looking mothers. My daughter asks that I add sweaty, dirty-looking 200-pound toddlers. The spectacle makes Geraldo Rivera look as respectable as Ed Sullivan.


What purpose do programs like these serve? To start with, most of them require no writers, saving money. That’s also why sports are so popular.

None of these programs offer heroes, or set standards to aspire to (except those considered necessary in Soviet Man). Instead, they act constantly to lower the bar by showing us carefully-selected specimens of failed humanity—or in some instances hiring actors to portray them — in an effort to convince us all that human beings are animals, unfit to live their own lives, and that everyone must be watched by the government, nurtured, and kept from hurting ourselves and each other.

Bill Clinton would approve of such a goal. So would both George Bushes and other would-be dictators. Can anything be done about them? Experience has convinced me that writing to networks and producers won’t help. They regard our letters complaining about their shows as trophies. Senate and congressional aides will just laugh sarcastically and circular file your letters before their bosses ever get to see them.

Write to the sponsors, instead, whose ads precede and follow each program segment. The connection between sponsor and program isn’t as direct as it once was. I don’t think that matters. Don’t be specific. Tell them you find the current program revolting and that you want to see something better. Send a copy to the Federal Communications Commission.

That’ll wake up the sponsors if nothing else does.

What this project really calls for is a website of its very own, featuring address lists of sponsors, lists of programs, disgusting and otherwise, sample letters, and occasional alerts and editorials. After a while, there will no doubt be responses from sponsors, and progress reports.

I’m writing two novels at the moment and six columns a month. I can do nothing but offer ideas. However the folks who steer The Libertarian Enterprise through the political ion storms of 21st century space will be broadening their approach in the near future, and this is just the sort of undertaking they’ll be interested in pursuing. I will help as much as I can, as time and energy allow me to.

You can help by contributing ideas, observations, and reports. Monetary contributions, large and small, will be extremely helpful. As I once suggested with regard to antigun propaganda on TV, keep a coffee can by your TV-watching chair and throw in a penny, nickel, dime, or quarter every time you see something on TV you never want to see again. When the collection amounts to something, write TLE Editor John Taylor and he’ll be able to tell you by then where you can send it.

I once said “You can’t fight a culture war if you ain’t got any culture.” Now is the proper time for our culture to begin displacing theirs.


Reprinted from The Libertarian Enterprise for February 17, 2003

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