Let’s take a little trip through time, back to the bygone days of the late ’90s and early ’00s. Back then, TV Land was still showing the top television shows of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and regularly airing special programming blocks like “Box Set,” which dug up TV obscurities. Local stations and basic-cable superstations were filling the afternoons and late nights with the best of ’80s and ’90s sitcoms, while Trio had its “Brilliant But Cancelled” series, in conjunction with a daily schedule of television curios. Game Show Network was staying true to its name, almost exclusively showing beloved old game shows, along with packages of rarities. And the major studios had just figured out that fans would rather buy complete seasons of TV series on DVD than slim “best of” collections. In short: If you were a TV-phile 10 years ago, you were in clover.
Jump ahead to now, as cable channels are developing more original series, and buying packages of more recent TV hits, at the same time that a general slump in DVD sales (coupled with an emphasis on Blu-ray) has significantly stemmed the tide of vintage television making it to market. True, the news isn’t entirely dire. Shout! Factory, Timeless, and a few other niche DVD companies are doing their best to keep classic TV alive in the home-video arena, and there are some shows—like M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Andy Griffith—that remain perennially popular. Also, some local cable companies carry the likes of Me-TV and Retro Television Network, both of which offer programming a lot like the TV Land of a decade ago. Still, as someone who fervently believes that television is now and always has been a vital art form, I worry that a major part of our pop-culture heritage is being consigned to the archives and going unseen by the younger generations.
So here’s my proposed remedy: What the television medium needs is its own version of Turner Classic Movies. We already have an AMC for TV; that would be TV Land, which mixes original programming and recent hits with a smattering of the actual canon. What we don’t have is a channel that treats television with the respect that TCM affords to cinema. The programmers at TCM have access to an impressive library of movies to begin with, and they work to make deals with other media conglomerates so that they can air an ever-changing variety of quality films, arranged into little mini-festivals, frequently introduced by people who are knowledgeable and passionate about movie history. Why doesn’t TV have its own Robert Osborne to come out and tell us about the episode of Columbo we’re about to watch?
Look, I’m no naïf. I understand that TV Land and GSN and the rest of the home-entertainment industry are trying to maximize profit. And I understand that TCM survives in part because of its connections to the larger, more profitable Turner Broadcasting empire, and in part because it draws an affluent audience more likely to be impressed by Ernst Lubitsch than The Joey Bishop Show. If there were money to be made from filling up the cable spectrum with old TV, then all those channels I mentioned in the first paragraph wouldn’t have changed their programming models years ago (or wouldn’t have gone out of business, in the case of Trio).
But no one’s ever done a classic television channel the way I think it should be done. The emphasis in the past has been on nostalgia as an end in itself, where I’d rather see the “fun” side of TV integrated more closely with the “quality” side. There’s a misperception among many that television came of age as a medium the moment HBO aired the first episode of The Sopranos, and while I love that show—and mostly love what’s happened to TV in its wake—I find it short-sighted and insulting to suggest that TV producers didn’t know how to make a realistic cop show before The Shield or a smart sitcom before Arrested Development.
It’s that same mentality that’s re-imagined what constitutes “good TV”—considering it in terms of a long-form novel, not a weekly short story. These days, if I recommend a show like The Rockford Files or NewsRadio and I name a good mid-series episode to start with, I’m met with blank stares. If the show’s really a classic, shouldn’t a new viewer start with episode one and just watch the rest in order? A close analogy for this would be the way the late ’60s changed the way music-lovers think about albums. The albums-over-singles snobbery—well-meaning though it may be—means that if I tell a fellow rock fan that a greatest-hits collection is the best place to start with some artists, my friend assumes that either the band must not be very good or that I’m a dope. I don’t want that attitude to become the norm for television. There’s nothing wrong with a sitcom or a drama that’s better at stand-alone episodes than slow-building, serialized stories.
That’s why my ideal retro-TV cable channel would de-emphasize completism in favor of highlights. Not 100 percent, because some shows really do play better if they’re watched from start to finish, and some shows have such a high batting average that it’d be silly to reduce them to their best 10 or 20 episodes. But I’d dispense with the mindset that says we have to air every episode of Bewitched at the same time every day until we complete the series (at which point we start all over again); and I’d definitely ditch the newer variation on this, which has TBS showing three hours of Family Guy on Monday nights, three hours of The Big Bang Theory on Tuesday nights, and so on, ad infinitum. What’s wrong with showing WKRP In Cincinnati, The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, The Slap Maxwell Story and Lou Grant in prime-time one night and then Green Acres, Police Squad, Mannix and Homicide: Life On The Street the next? And what’s wrong with changing that lineup every month or two?
I know that part of the reason why cable channels are programmed this way is because of how syndicated packages are sold. If TV Land pays a big chunk of cash for the rights to Roseanne, it’d be wasteful for it to air only a handful of the episodes it paid for—and at varying times and dates, to boot. It would take some re-thinking of how these kinds of deals get done to make my dream a reality.
But there are practical reasons why I think my cable channel should go a different way. Simply put: There are 24 hours in a day, and if my channel were to show the same shows at the same time every day—every episode, in full cycles—then my channel would only be able to run about 30-35 series at a time, assuming a mix of half-hour and hourlong shows. The channel would then be stuck with those same shows for months—and even years, depending on how many times the same batch of episodes needed to be repeated. And in the history of television, I’d say there have been more than 35 good shows.
I don’t want to limit this channel to sitcoms and dramas, either. Part of what got me thinking about this subject was interviewing Marlo Thomas earlier this year, and talking with her about the groundbreaking TV movies she starred in—many of which aren’t on video and haven’t been aired in years. It made me think about the TV classes I took at the University Of Georgia, in which we watched ’70s TV movies like The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman and The Law, which are both, to my mind, in the same league as much of the classic American cinema of that era.
And then there are the talk shows, the one-off specials, the sports broadcasts (at least the ones that ESPN Classic doesn’t have the rights to), the game shows, the documentaries, the variety shows, the live TV anthology series, the Saturday morning TV, the news magazines… Well, you get the idea. There’s a lot more to vintage television than just The Brady Bunch and Matlock, over and over.
Why am I so passionate about this subject? Because for all the respect that television has begun to receive in the critical community and the academy, I still feel like the medium gets a bad rap too much of the time, even from its defenders. “This isn’t your typical procedural,” a fan of Terriers might say, as though the show would be worthless if it were more like The Mentalist. (Not that I’m knocking Terriers, mind you; if I had my own version of TV Land that’s the first show I’d license, and I’d never let that license lapse.) That’s not the kind of mindset that cinephiles have. On any given week of TCM, viewers see masterpieces of world cinema side-by-side with goofy short subjects, weird cult films, forgotten silent movies, matinee serials, and recurring series featuring the likes of Dr. Kildare and Andy Hardy. Movie buffs are encouraged to go mining for gold.
Frankly, there’s so much gold gathering dust in the vaults of the TV networks and the production companies right now that it wouldn’t even take that much mining to fill 24 hours a day. And it’s not like the veins are tapped either. There’s so much good television on the air today that it’s hard to keep up sometimes. They just keep making more of this stuff, even though they haven’t yet figured out where to put it all.