The so-called "wasteland" of US television has generated drama that puts Britain to shame. But the networks' golden era may now be at an endby Andrew Billen / August 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
On 9th may 1961, Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, rose to address the most powerful men in American television. Since 1934, the FCC had been charged with protecting the American public interest from the excesses of a broadcasting free-for-all, the likes of which Britain, partly for reasons of Reithian paternalism, had never known. “When television is good, nothing-not the theatre, not the magazines or newspapers-nothing is better,” Newt (as he was known) told his Washington audience. “But when television is bad,” he went on, “nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, or newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you, and keep your eyes glued to that set, until the station signs off. You will observe a vast wasteland.”
The phrase “vast wasteland” stuck. US television’s self-image never recovered; nor did its reputation among intellectually aspirant Americans, many of whom confidently (and often truthfully) assert they never watch it. In Britain, by contrast, we have our complaints but we acknowledge television’s place in the culture. In the contest between Lord Thomson’s infamous off-the-cuff about an ITV franchise being a licence to print money and the much repeated platitude that Britain has the best television in the world, smugness won.
Until recently, at least. These days I find myself explaining to bemused Americans that the programmes my peers most enjoy are almost all theirs. There are, it is true, bright Britons who do not “get” American sitcoms, but few have resisted forming an attachment to at least one of the following dramas: in the 1980s, Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, Moonlighting and LA Law; in the 1990s, thirtysomething, NYPD Blue, ER and The X-Files; and, currently, The West Wing, Ally McBeal, The Sopranos, CSI and Six Feet Under. Our enjoyment is not ironic-the so-bad-its-good glee we afforded Dynasty and Dallas. Emotionally and intellectually, these programmes provide all we need from television drama. If US television is a wasteland, why does it feature so many towering achievements?
It is important, first, to contest the premise of this question. Spend an evening in an American hotel room with only basic cable available, and “wasteland” is still, quite likely, the word that will come to mind. We get a distorted view of the standards of American television. Only…