Last week, my 20th anniversary in television came and went without any notice from anyone.
That’s exactly what I expected. In fact, I’d have been shocked out of my wits had anyone somehow magically realized that this milestone had taken place. These days, even those who work at the same place for two decades don’t receive recognition; there was no practical reason I could have expected anyone at my current station to know my hire date from my first one.
As is usually the case with such anniversaries, I can honestly say that in some ways, it doesn’t seem like it could possibly have been 20 years. In others, it feels like a life sentence that has already gone on at least 30.
Such is life.
A lot has changed for me during my 20 years in this crazy business. My first job, part-time, was to help assemble graphics that would appear over the shoulder of the anchor in the evening newscast. Those graphics were referred to in the station as DLSs. No one knew for sure what DLS stood for, although “digital library system” was the best guess. One anchor decided it must stand for “da little screen.”
The other half of that part-time job consisted of me sitting in a small, closet-sized room during a newscast and rolling the videotapes that played during the news. So whenever you saw a news anchor pitch to a prerecorded story from one of our reporters, that was me pressing play just a fraction of a second before you saw the first pictures from the field.
Believe it or not, it took something of a science to make that work. The anchor I had read at a pace that translated to a 13-syllable roll cue. That meant that I would take my copy of the script, and count backward from the point at which the tape was to begin. When I hit the 13th syllable, I circled it. When the anchor hit that syllable, I pressed play on the tape deck and you saw the video.
The following year, when I graduated college, there was one full-time job open: reporter. I took the job, knowing it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but also keenly aware of the fact that I needed an income and health insurance. So I did the job, and was good at telling both sides of a story, even if the story didn’t interest me all that much.
After another year or two, I managed to move back behind the camera, and worked in a variety of jobs including graphics, directing, and marketing. (Marketing is what I still do today.)
Still, in 20 years, and many different roles spread out across three different television stations in two different states, I have learned five seemingly-unshakable truths about television. So I thought I’d share them.
All this week, starting with this post, I’ll share my take on the state of TV. I begin with Rule #1:
Television is a better example of democracy than our voting process.
Every time an election rolls around, some sore loser complains about the Electoral College. Voters themselves don’t necessarily decide an election: their results are tabulated by state, then that state’s Electors cast their votes based on the voters’ votes. It seems an odd way of doing things, but it helps balance out some states having a lot more residents than others.
But television is a different story. In TV, there are ratings. A sample of viewers are monitored for their viewing habits. The shows they watch are tabulated. And the shows that get the viewers stay on the air. The shows no one “votes” for go away. Once in a rare while, a network might see that one low-rated show or another might have potential, or that they might have a different place coming open soon that could give the show a larger potential audience, but for the most part, if not enough people are watching, that show is history.
Likewise, the show that is getting all the viewers will soon be joined by as many clones as possible.
There are few other industries that listen to their customers that clearly. You may not like what the “majority” has chosen as the best show on TV; I certainly don’t. But you have to admit that the medium does listen to the masses.
And they program accordingly.
More’s the pity.