Drowning in a Sea of Television Slush

MatlockWhen I was studying film production at Syracuse University, we had the chance to head to Hollywood for a week and meet with illustrious alumni from the university. Of all the people we met, Fred Silverman stuck in my mind the most. The man is a living legend of television, having helmed all three of the original US networks at one time.

I met him in the early 90s, when he had moved on to his own production company. Its shows then included Matlock and Jake and the Fatman. His offices were the swankiest out of everyone we met. I remember a huge stone table with an elaborate conch shell sculpture in the middle of it. I spent half the time sitting there trying to figure out if the sculpture was carved out of the same piece of stone–a rough, beige sandstone–as the rest of the table.

Silverman spoke about the explosion in cable channels that was happening at the time. When viewers have hundreds of channels to choose from, it segments the audience. He accurately predicted the end of truly mass television. Of the top 45 most-viewed television shows, the only one from this millennium is the 2008 super bowl.

Our host felt this was disastrous for “quality” television. He said that it cost so much money to produce good television that unless it could garnish a mass audience, we’d end up with nothing but low budget crap. I remember thinking that Matlock wasn’t exactly the epitome of quality, but didn’t mention it. My mother was a huge Matlock fan, and would never have forgiven me.

Fred Silverman was right… in part. Television has become a sea of sludge, endless cheap reality shows and low budget drama targeted at subcultures. But we also have some phenomenal programming, much of which doesn’t come from the three grand pappy networks. Cable channels, yes those very same stations that Silverman seemed to so despise, produce shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Mad Men which win far more awards than shows dredged up by the three old-boy networks.

At the time, I thought that what Silverman really resented wasn’t some uber threat to quality programming, but all the new kids on the block. Rather than having all of American television controlled by three networks, it had exploded across hundreds of cable channels. Today, as books begin to expand out beyond the dominion of the big six New York publishers, we hear many of the same arguments that I heard them from this television executive. We will all be drowned in a sea of slush, they tell us. We have no idea of the evils that await us.

I think just the opposite. With a level playing field, there will be a slew of small and independent presses that will produce some fantastic books. Yes, the mega best sellers may become a thing of the past. But do we really need to sell 40 million copies of a book for it to be deemed worthy?


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