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TV’s wasteland is sprouting oases

Sunday, March 14th, 2010



Is television still a vast wasteland? In today’s Center Square essay, Chris Satullo begs to differ.

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I have a few quirks.

Here’s one: I confess to a hair-trigger impatience with snobbery, with people who parade a refinement of taste they seem to think makes them superior beings.

Few topics trigger the snobbery reflex more than television.

A certain breed of educated person can’t wait to tell you they never watch television.

Then there’s that type of parent who wants you to know THEIR child NEVER watches TV. Apparently, before bathtime, little Madison instead translates a few verses of Beowulf out of the original Old English.

Here’s my message to people who are so proud never to watch TV:

You’re missing the golden age of the distinctive art form of modern America.

Sure, in the digital cable universe, your TV delivers an avalanche of dreck – TV shoutfests, lewd sitcoms, bad reality shows.

But there’s another avalanche: of great stuff, clever, daring, well-written, well-acted.

You see, Newton Minow was wrong when he famously dubbed TV a “vast wasteland.” In those three-network days, it was really a narrow wasteland. Today, it is a vast territory, with both barren wastes and stunning peaks.

Digital cable is a treasure trove of sustainable niches where quality can flower. Every night it offers shows which, as mirrors to the times, or examples of sheer quality, will bear up under the study of future generations the way Restoration comedies or 19th-century realist novels do today.

Any future scholar of politics and media might well begin their study of 21st century America with a look at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

My beloved Lost, just like the splendid St. Elsewhere long before it, is a tour-de-force of intricate narrative arc over multiple seasons. On FX, Damages is devilishly well-crafted fun, with Glenn Close extraordinary as the malevolent protagonist.

And that underlines a key point: TV dramas today take bigger risks – like a complex, morally dubious lead character – than do studio-release movies, which live or die based on the votes of teenagers.

Friends whose taste I trust extol many shows I’ve not yet sampled. Some adore Mad Men, Breaking Bad or Big Love. And, as a Netflix procrastinator, I haven’t even seen The Wire yet. Everyone assures me it’s the best thing ever on TV.

Yes, television has never been better, even at the same time that it’s never been worse.

If you tell me you never watch it, I’m not going to admire you. I’m going to feel sorry for you.

Chris Satullo is WHYY’s executive director of news and civic dialogue.


14 Comments

  • Paul Pierlott says:

    ” your vision may be restricted by the walls of your private world.”

    Dear Chris Satullo,
    Often I catch your comments and when I do I have always agreed with your opinions regarding so many issues. Then one day I heard you share with us your opinion on the merits of TV. Actually, I agreed with most of what you said until you came to your closing statement of how you pity those of us who don’t watch television. As I recall, you seemed to imply that we were some kind of elitists and snobs.

    The problem with this conclusion is it misses the other reasons we may choose to forgo TV land. Aside from the obvious humble income that may not justify the cost of cable or the lack of acceptable aerial reception there is one that occurs to me. It occurs to me for it is the overriding reason my TV is off and the plug is pulled so as not to drain that trickle of electricity TVs sip, even in the off position.

    Chris, in case you have not noticed there are twenty-four hours in a day. When you subtract the hours needed to make a living (or for many of us, not quite a living) as well as the hours to keep up with our chores and family relationships, what remains at best is a few hours each day. Now, as wonderful as WHYY TV is, as wonderful as some of the most artful, creative, funny, serious, even useful public and commercial TV shows maybe, there are some of us (and I think it is a growing number) that find more pleasure, more healthy activity, more comprehensive leaning, more emotional and spiritual rejuvenation in other arenas than sitting on a couch and watching other peoples best works. Turning a small piece of wood on a lathe in our tool shop, contemplating our celestial ceiling of stars through binoculars or telescope, painting a picture on canvass, photographing what we love and rendering our digital image as a tangible expression, reading books and magazines that almost always go much deeper into subjects than even Front Line can, writing our own thoughts and ideas. The list of interests, hobbies and passions goes on and on.

    Now perhaps you may rebuttal we can simul-task some of these interests. I beg to differ with you. Yes, right there on WHYY Radio, this very week research concludes we can’t do both well. Perhaps we can wash dishes and clean while the TV is on but if your interest lifts to the level of a passion distractions compromise (with the exception of listening to uplifting music, in my opinion. And on this point I hope I am right.)

    With those precious few hours left in our days to do something other than watch what others have done, a growing number of us have silenced the visitor that never shuts up unless we pull its cord. You failed to see that. If you had I am sure you would not have stated from your myopic view that you pitted us. Chris, it may be hard to imagine but for some of us even listening to the songs of our natural world and thinking about creation may be more useful and rewarding than the best of TV. Not to have considered this reveals, as enlightened as you may be, your vision is restricted by the walls of your private world.

    I think you may want to think about this and perhaps offer us an apology.

    Paul Pierlott 3/24/2010

  • James Bingley says:

    This is fascinating to me. There was a Chris Satullo who used to write for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was thoughtful, intelligent, measured, reasonable and always a compelling read. If WHYY thought they were hiring that man, well, someone pulled a bait-and-switch on them, because the Satullo they hired is an arrogant, condescending jerk. I guess he does deserve our thanks for riding to television’s rescue- I’d hate to see that august medium suffer the same slide as newspapers and written material in general.

  • cheaper tv says:

    Once you get past insults, i agree wholeheartedly with the content of this editorial. There are so many great shows on tv, that one has trouble keeping up. Most of the best tv shows are available for free on broadcast tv. “30 Rock” and “The Office” are inventive and hysterical, “Caprica” and “The Terminator” are a SciFi dream, and “Frontline” and “60 Minutes” are informative and unbiased news shows. About 2 months ago my family gave up cable and I’ve been blogging about the experience at http://www.cheaper-tv.com.

    I subscribe to the old adage “everything in moderation.” This holds true for tv watching. You can watch good shows without being a dunce. Conversely, you can read books without watching tv, and not be a snob.

  • Deb Levine says:

    Do we have any editors to glance at what goes on the air at WHYY? This piece needed one. When I hear Chris Satullo’s voice, I prepare to be insulted. Drive a green Volvo? Don’t waste hours every night watching innane programming? Ah, Chris will single you out for a smacking before making his point.

    Why am I a snob because I don’t care for TV? I think The Wire is extraordinary in every way, but I didn’t watch it on TV. I’ve enjoyed it after it made its way to DVD. But, I never get a chance to buy into a Satullo argument because I’m usually too insulted to listen carefully.

    I beg for a change in Chris’ style. I love having my mind opened to a new point of view, but it’s hard to absorb an argument when it’s wrapped in the speaker’s condescension.

    For the record, my kids didn’t watch TV growing up. You’d be mighty impressed by their educations…and their scholarships. Too bad they missed Lost, eh?

  • David Sanchez says:

    This piece was completely offensive. As another commenter noted Chris starts the segment talking about snobs, and then he proceeds in an extremely condescending and snobbish tone to actually promote watching television.

    The American television needs no further promotion. In this day and age where obesity is almost the rule rather than the exception, where people want a magic pill or something to help them lose weight rather than actual exercise, why on earth would someone on WHYY talk down to those that try to better themselves by avoiding as much television as possible?

    And seriously… I should stay glued to the idiot box so that I don’t miss Lost?!?!?! Please cancel this joker’s segment, it has no place on our beloved WHYY. His tone alone is enough to make me tune away.

    And I apologize for my tone, but it is days later and I am still gnashing my teeth over this segment.

  • David Moore says:

    There goes the “Director of Civic Dialogue” again. Well, if nothing else he’s amusing…kind of like Colbert, only for real.

    Me, I’m too busy having dinner, and talking to my wife to watch television.

  • David Smith says:

    Thanks Chris for helping me realize what a waste my evenings are because I’m not watching TV! Geez, maybe I’ll spend several hours tonight scanning the channels to find something worthwhile, some show that you approve of. Yeah, I’ll spend tonight glued to one of your mindless & puerile shows instead of talking to my children or – god forbid – reading a book!

    If we’re all very lucky, Chris Satullo will become Cultural Czar so he can instruct the nation on how to improve itself and become better through more television! That surely is the ticket to happiness and a better society! I’m a convert….where’s the remote?

  • Phil Racshan says:

    I wonder why these essays by Chris Satullo get so much reaction. Maybe it’s not only the content but also the tone. There are a few commentators heard on WHYY that occasionally put a sneer into their voices – maybe once in a while the linguist on Fresh Air, maybe a critic of film or pop music on All Things Considered. But it’s as rare on PBS as it is commonplace on Fox hate radio and television. In any case those who want to learn how to show disgust, scorn, and contempt with just tone and inflection can do so right here on 90.9 FM.

    Now about the content – maybe Chris is right – maybe there are folks who take inordinate pride in turning their noses up at whatever the mass market goes for. This needs a well-funded study at a prestigious university. Without hard data we are just groping our way through the dark cave of the human soul.

  • Karen says:

    Well, hmmm, I don’t watch t.v. because, well, I don’t want to watch t.v. It’s certainly nothing to brag about or get snobby about. BUT PLEASE ALSO CONSIDER: I don’t have the discretionary money to pay for cable – and it shouldn’t be assumed that everyone does. Like my time, I need to make choices about what I spend my money on. I’m sure there are good shows on t.v. – but I’ve made the choice to spend my time and money on other things I’d rather be doing. And, while we’re at it – I got one of those digital converter boxes for my analog t.v. – it nets me two fuzzy channels. Unfortunately, neither of them is WHYY.

  • Oculata says:

    How’s this for a wonderful example of hypocrisy and overall rhetorical weakness:

    Satullo writes, “I confess to a hair-trigger impatience with snobbery, with people who parade a refinement of taste they seem to think makes them superior beings,” and then six sentences later he writes, “Sure, in the digital cable universe, your TV delivers an avalanche of dreck – TV shoutfests, lewd sitcoms , bad reality shows.”

    Chris, your are clearly just as much the snob that you condemn. Your “lewd sitcom” may be someone else’s favorite show. And what defines “bad” reality show? One that you don’t watch? Are you above all of the network TV staples (besides Lost)? Too much of a TV snob to descend below scripted dramas to wallow with the masses?

    Good god, you’re really terrible at editorializing. WHYY should be embarrassed by you. I’m certainly embarrassed for you. You know, I’ve got a hair-trigger impatience with louts and hypocrites. That’s why I won’t give another dime to WHYY until they replace you.

  • Dave Wright says:

    It’s so nice to learn that such a complete moron holds a high position at WHYY. So you feel sorry for people who don’t watch TV? Well, thanks so much for your pity. I feel sorry for you for not realizing the verbal diarrhea spewing out of your mouth. Are you just a pompous ass, still insecure over a bed-wetting issue in childhood, or just completely stupid? TV is a wasteland, and it’s certainly not hoped by stations like WHYY who profess to be the intellectual alternative to regular TV, but spend most of their airtime whining and shilling for money like a cheap whore. But seeing the kind of employees WHYY evidently hires, it’s no surprise. You should be embarrassed for writing this, and WHYY should be embarrassed to have you on the payroll. Learn to respect others and not look down on their choices from your lofty ivory tower. You might even develop some self-esteem and respect from your peers along the way. Until then, keep spewing your drivel–it makes it pretty clear what a braying jackass you are.

  • Paul Simons says:

    First a disclaimer – I must not have much of a life if all I can do on Sunday morning is write opinions that no one asked for or cares about one way or the other. Now the comment – the problem with most TV is commercials. Even Jon Stewart’s show has them, the format is just like Letterman or Law & Order – you get a few minutes of pretty people or brilliant conversation, and then nearly as much time with the orders about what car or skin cream to go out and buy. Thanks, WHYY, for great programs with the bare minimum of commercials!

  • bobsyeruncle says:

    My goodness, Chris. Another editorial revealing your insecurities. Are you so weak in your rhetoric and your writing skill that the only way you can attempt to make a point is at the expense of people who you don’t like? Three weeks ago it was people who expressed their desire to keep religion and politics separate. This week it’s people who indicate that they don’t like/watch television. Which is it, Chris? Is it that you’re so insecure in yourself and your beliefs/preferences that you feel compelled to defend them by making fun of others? Or is it that you’re simply a hypocrite of epic proportions — that you don’t want to hear others preferences, but feel fine broadcasting yours on the radio. Did you learn this particular skill by being glued to FOX News? It sure seems like it.

  • Mike Smith says:

    wow. well said.

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