Friday, March 26, 2010

What's Happened to TV?

Before I go into today's entry, I have a little confession...

No, not that kind of confession! Jeez. Do you really think I'd reveal something incriminating on teh interwebz for all the world to see? I don't think so, Tim. Yet, it is still something that's slightly embarrassing. I'm addicted to TV-on-DVD.

There. I said it. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Okay, it's not that much of a problem. I don't spend my entire paycheck buying DVDs. Heck, I might not buy two a month, but that doesn't stop me from buying shows that most people would think are either obscure or completely unmemorable. And that brings me to my latest purchase, one that probably have most of you racking your brain to remember it or saying to yourself, "Wait. Who in their right mind put that out on DVD?"

So, what is this mysterious and possibly forgotten TV show I'm referring to? Matt Houston.

*waits for everyone to run off to Wikipedia*

Y'know... watch this, too:

Back? Good. By now you know that Matt Houston was a detective show that ran on ABC for 3 seasons in the early 80s. It starred Lee Horsley as your run-of-the-mill mutli-millionaire who doubled as a private investigator. Not a totally unbelievable premise if, y'know, you really stretch the limits of your imagination.

And the thing of it is, I barely remember watching it during first run. I wasn't even a teenager when the show finished its run, and the last time I actually remember watching it was in reruns during the one year I spent at American University in D.C. That was in 1990 and 1991, kids, not exactly yesterday. And if memory serves, I also watched a lot of Hardcastle and McCormick that year.

*Mental Note: Look for Hardcastle and McCormick on ebay.*

So, why did I buy it the very week it was released? Hell if I know, but the second I saw it was out, I had to have it, just like I had to have Friday the 13th: The Series, Remington Steele, Ultraman, Get Smart, and Wonder Woman, among other shows.

See. I told you it was a sickness. The less obscure the show is, the more likely I'll buy it. You won't see The Simpsons or CSI or Law & Order or any mainstream show on my shelves. You'll see a show like Secrets of Isis and wonder if something's seriously wrong with me. Of course, I wonder that about myself sometimes, but I digress.

So back to Matt Houston. Surprisingly, even after being off the air for 25 years, the show's not too dated at all. Oh, sure, it does reek of the 80s at times, but it's not as dated as, say, The A-Team is.

My point (and I promise I do have one) is that broadcast television shows in the 70s and 80s were so much better than most of the shows on the networks today. Now, notice I didn't say TV in general. That's because the best shows on TV today are on cable.

Mad Men and Breaking Bad - AMC.

Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara - Showtime.

True Blood, Entourage, The Sopranos - HBO.

Justified, Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck and Damages - FX.

Southland (a show NBC dumped for Jay Leno - more on that in a bit) - TNT.

White Collar, Royal Pains, Monk, Psych - USA.

Heck, even Friday Night Lights (another NBC castoff) only airs in first run on DirecTV.

Name me one scripted network show that's garnered as much buzz as any of the shows I listed above. Oh, sure reality shows get a lot of buzz today, but if you wanna know a little secret, the main reason that reality shows have become so big over the last decade is that their cheap to produce, and we all know that the networks love to be cheap these days. Which brings me to the debacle known as The Jay Leno Show.

Look, I'll be the first to admit that I prefer Dave to Jay, but that wasn't a factor in my first-guessing that putting Jay Leno in primetime 5 nights a week was going to be a disaster of biblical proportions. Oh, there were a few people out there who thought it might work, but for the most part, no one did. So why did NBC do it? Because it was cheaper to pay Jay to do his show than to produce 3 or 4 scripted shows to air at 10pm. It was all about the money. So what happened? It tanked, big time. So much so that NBC pulled the plug on it before the Olympics. I won't go into the kerfluffle between NBC, Jay and Conan. Yeah, that's part of it, but I'm more concerned with the lack of patience most networks have with new programming these days.

I could provide a laundry list of really awesome shows left for dead by the networks (I'm looking at you, FOX), but the fact of the matter is that in this day and age, if a scripted show makes it past it's second year, it's considered something of a hit. Why? Because most shows don't make it past one year, let alone two.

Two years. Most shows don't even find their footing until their third season. A show like Cheers (which really didn't become a hit until later on in its run) didn't start to gel for at least three seasons. If Cheers would have been on the air today, it probably never would have become the cultural phenomenon it was during its time. Same goes for Friends or Seinfeld or ER.

I'm not saying that a lot of the shows that didn't make it past their first year didn't deserve to be canceled. And I'm also aware that there were cult shows out there like Veronica Mars that were given time to find an audience. But I have to wonder if the failure of so many shows that have never been given much of a chance to find an audience has put a crimp in the plans of writers and producers out there who have really good ideas for shows that probably won't even make it past the pilot stage.

I also think a big problem is the 22 episode season model that's the norm today. Most shows would be better served to have 13 episodes (or less) for a season. Think how watered down Mad Men would be if it was forced to produce 22 episodes a year. Frankly, I think the Brits have it right - seasons (they call them series) of between 6-13 episodes, and many of their shows have a clear ending in sight, even from the time the show first goes on the air. A fave of mine - Life on Mars - had two seasons of 8 episodes each. If the networks followed this model, I think we'd have a higher quality of TV on the Big Three and FOX.

For every cultural phenomenon like Lost there's a show like Firefly that didn't even air a full season, yet has cultivated an amazing following thanks to DVD.

Well, whatta ya know... it all comes back. See, I told you I had a point.

TV-on-DVD is a wonderful thing. It allows you to watch shows both old and new at your leisure and without commercial interruption. If you can't find a title, it's either not available or not yet available. I could go on and on about how music rights can put releases of certain shows into a permanent limbo, but that's another blog for another time.

So, do yourself a favor, head on over to and use their show search to see if that show you watched when you were a kid or that show you wished you could have watched as a kid is available on DVD. And then buy it. Indulge your inner geek. You won't be sorry.

Anyway, I'm off to watch Matt Houston. Have a great weekend, folks! See you Sunday.


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