by Jim Longworth
I've been in broadcasting for 42 years, and almost every week during that time, some high brow acquaintance has said to me, "I only watch educational TV. The rest is just trash". Mostly I just smile and say, "I understand", even though the airwaves have been replete with great comedies and dramas. But over the past decade, the broadcast industry has done little to acquit itself of the charge that it prefers to program trash over educational fare. Now, however, that parallel universe has converged. Suddenly, cable channels that were founded on a commitment to bettering the human condition, have, instead, specialized in cheapening it.
BRAVO, for example, was created for the express purpose of showcasing performing arts, but today, airs such artistic programs as "Bethany Ever After", Pregnant in Heels", and a growing number of "Real Housewives" incarnations. Meanwhile, A&E, who signed on in 1984 with good intentions of celebrating the arts, now boasts a line-up which includes "Duck Dynasty", American Hoggers", and "Hoarders". Even The History Channel has strayed a bit from its original mission, and now allows its schedule to be infected with the likes of "Harry Bikers" and "Swamp People".
But the worst offender of all is the outlet who has fallen furthest from its lofty ideals. Founded in 1980, TLC's original slogan was "A Place for Learning Minds", and its programming reflected that pledge. But poor ratings and the lure of easy money, led The Learning Channel to morph into a broadcasting whore, with programs like "Kate Plus 8", "Sister Wives", "Extreme Couponing", "Long Island Medium", "Sarah Palin's Alaska", "Toddlers and Tiaras", and its spin-off, "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo", a show that celebrates ignorance, and promotes dysfunction.
"Boo Boo" premiered last month and centers around the Thompson family and its youngest member, Alana (aka Honey Boo Boo). It's sort of the modern day, distasteful, redneck reality version of "Leave it to Beaver". The Georgia-based family rocketed to stardom when Alana appeared as one of the pint-sized beauty pageant contestants on "Toddlers and Tiaras".
For one recent episode, TLC promoted that Honey Boo Boo was going shopping, only her "store" was the local trash dump, where Honey and her family proceeded to "dumpster dive" for clothing and other items. Apparently, dumpster diving is a favorite past time of the Thompsons even though Honey earns an estimated $10,000 per episode. My personal favorite moment of the episode was when Honey's dad playfully wrapped his daughter up in a filthy, germ ridden rug, and rolled her around in it, Cleopatra style. Hepatitis and Tetanus never had it so good.
But hey, who besides TV critics would watch tripe like this anyway? Apparently lots of pitiful people, that's who. In fact, "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" had higher ratings than Bill Clinton's much hyped speech to the Democratic National Convention.
Like me, The Huffington Post's James Sims is offended by TLC's latest hit show. He writes that, "Jed Clampett was endearing ... Honey Boo Boo is exploitive...The producers are making a quick buck off of America's desire to laugh at the misfortunes of others". In fact, the contrast between "The Beverly Hillbillies" (a scripted, fictional comedy) and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" ( about a real, uneducated, redneck family) is spot-on, and it reminded me of how off-base some media critics were when comparing "American Idol" to "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour". The two shows are completely different. Mack showcased and encouraged talent, while "Idol" has made a fortune from broadcasting regional auditions, and exploiting the worst talent among them. The difference between the two is indicative of who were are, and how far we've devolved.
Today's television programmers don't seem to care that they are producing crap, or that the bi-product of their feces is a generation of viewers who will believe that the societal bar should be continually lowered, along with any expectations they may have for achieving excellence in their own lives.
TLC has come a long way since it first pledged to offer "a Place for Learning Minds". Now it's just a repository for trash, and the perfect place for millions of losers to go dumpster diving.
Jim Longworth is a columnist for YESWeekly.com, and author of the "TV Creators" series of books. He also serves as judge for the primetime EMMYs, and hosts a weekly TV show for Sinclair stations.
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