Is Television Deliberately Terrible?

Over the last twenty years technology has driven a shift in TV-viewing patterns. We used to watch shows self-contained weekly episodes, but now we tend to binge serialized stories and entire seasons of TV. In the course of watching and re-watching shows, I’ve noticed that some programs were just never meant to be ‘binged.’ I’ll start with a show I like (eg cop shows or sitcoms) and as I watch them I get progressively more frustrated. I think the flaws and weaknesses in the show get magnified when you watch them back-to-back. When we had to wait a week between episodes, it was easier to overlook how formulaic and repetitive these things are. Then I read an article that mentioned how cop shows are deliberately made formulaic so that busy housewives can follow them even when they are distracted with some other task.

This was kind of an epiphany for me. I had always assumed that the goal of making a TV show was to make the best show possible. In my mind, this means every TV show should aspire to be ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Game of Thrones.’ If a show was bad, (repetitive, formulaic, etc) it was probably because the production was inept. It never occurred to me that these shows were deliberately aiming low.

So I thought that was interesting until I was in the hospital the other day watching daytime TV. Their was some kind of stupid house-flipper renovating show, and I was thinking ‘Who actually watches this?’ I mean, it’s not like there’s some kind of dramatic reveal or cliffhanger ending to compel us to watch. Same things goes for the ‘Price is Right.’ That show just baffles me.

Then it clicked in my head. Those kinds of shows are deliberately crafted for hospital waiting rooms. They don’t play serialized dramas during the day because that’s not what the target audience wants. They deliberately make these shows as bland and inoffensive and forgettable as possible, because places like hospitals and dentists and old folks’ homes want something mindless to occupy people without requiring conscious thought or emotional investment. It’s like the TV equivalent of elevator music.

Has anyone else noticed this? Am I correct in my thinking here?


I heard the same story when they cancelled Leslie Neilson’s Police Squad. The show was just so good and so innovative that you really had to concentrate to get it, and people don’t want to actually have to watch TV when they watch TV. It’s too much work.

I don’t think that’s altogether true. Once of the best TV series of relatively recent vintage to me was HBO’s Rome, and that was cancelled because it was too expensive. They say Game of Thrones was gained from Rome’s budgetary mistakes, but I wouldn’t know. I don’t watch Game of Thrones.

In my opinion, it’s the writing that counts, first, last, and always. The technical crap is uninteresting to me. A good story is what matters.

Most waiting room type situations play the news from what I’ve seen, either CNN or fox news.

Is some TV designed to be inoffensive? I’m sure it is.

But TV itself has gotten a lot better in the last 20 years. Shows that were considered incredible in the 90s are fairly unremarkable in today’s marketplace (NBCs lineup for example). There is so much more competition that shows have to be good just to survive.

I’m sure some TV is deliberately bland and inoffensive (one thing I look for is how much military worship they try to throw in. The more military worship, generally the more bland the TV show is) but for the most part TV is much better than in the past.

Music on the other hand. I don’t think music got better.

This is something I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older. The other day my wife wanted to watch “American Horror Story,” but I realized I just wanted to listen to mindless bullshit while I do my hobbies. Sometimes I just want to relax without actually needing to think about the show I’m watching.

Oh, definitely. I’m always torn on that. I certainly appreciate some pro-veteran programming, and its definitely a step up from people throwing dogshit at us. I’m sure they have good intentions. But it’s practically guaranteed to be some mindless schmaltz that’s not relevant to actual veterans.

Chewing gum for the eyes.

The goal of a TV producer is to deliver a consistent product on time and on budget that conforms to the guidelines set by the network. Quality is nice to have, but not to the point where you have to sacrifice time or budget.

Certainly some shows are designed to be bland, inoffensive and forgettable because they are simply a delivery system for advertising.

Having said that, as Wesley noted, TV has gotten better in the last 20 years. And it was better then than it was 40 years ago. There’s an evolution at work.

Heh. That’s exactly what the OP made me think of.

Moderator Action

Moving thread from MPSIMS to Cafe Society.

My breast surgeon’s office has HGTV on all day, because it’s programming that is all-ages friendly and not likely to offend anybody, unlike the news. I recently had my oil changed at a place that had it on that same channel, which was kind of nice. I wouldn’t want to have that on all day, but for a few minutes in a waiting room? I’ll take that over the news any day of the week.

As for overall programming getting worse or better, I really can’t comment because I don’t watch much network programming.

TV has changed, in part, because technology has improved. Before about 1980, if you wanted to watch a show, you had to be there in front of the set at that time, and if you missed it, too bad. Shows with complex season long storylines weren’t made - the fear was that people would miss a few episodes, not be able to catch up, and then stop watching. So shows were self-contained half hour comedies or one hour police shows. Those shows still exist, but with DVR and On-demand, we also have Game of Thrones.

The most obvious flaw in the reasoning is that for hospital waiting rooms, prime time is during the day – not at night.

But TV hasn’t been particularly concerned about quality sing the 1950s. Sure, it was great to do a well-written and clever show, but that’s irrelevant. What’s important is ratings. If people are willing to watch something, you give it to them.

I remember back in the early 90s when a network executive talked about the show Dear John. His comment was basically, “Yes, I know it’s pretty bad, but it gets solid ratings, so we’re not going to cancel it.”

Remember: broadcast networks are not about entertainment. They’re about advertising. You have to keep that in mind when discussing their programming decisions.

Very true. I remember when Babylon 5 was on, it was HARD to keep up on everything, since it was a multi-season story arc show- kind of like GoT, only larger scale, 17 years earlier and shown in syndication on UHF television.

I ended up making a point to try and watch it live, and also videotape it in case I couldn’t make it. I STILL missed a few episodes and had to read synopses in order to be caught up for the next week. I imagine less dedicated viewers would have just given up.

Also, with long running shows, it’s often not at all about the actual plot; it’s about the characters and how they interact. I mean after the first few seasons, nobody watches NCIS for the awesome plots, it’s because they like the characters and their interplay, and oddly enough, the cast turnover seems to enhance that- it affords opportunities for new and different interactions relative to the static old ensemble. So they come across as fairly bad, even though in the ways that they’re actually good, they’re very good indeed. Take NCIS for an example- it’s not a particularly great cop show, but it’s very good at likeable characters that the audience gets invested in.

There’s also a pretty big market for entirely mindless formulaic shows- like the HGTV shows that follow a template, or Hallmark movies, or things like that. Some of the people who watch them are plenty intelligent and insightful, but watch them because they’re mindless; they can turn their brain off and watch while eating popcorn.

I also think (pessimistically) that a great number of people out there don’t like to really think, or they can’t think, and these kinds of shows are about what they can keep up with and understand, and that shows like Game of Thrones would just be really confusing to them with all the people, locations, plots, etc…

The goal of making a TV show was to sell advertising and thus make money. The goal of the people behind may be to make the best show possible, but I’m sure that’s not true for everyone and every show.

Twenty years ago, you couldn’t binge TV. And forty years ago (pre-VCR), since it was super hard to watch any show consistently, most shows barely cared about things outside of basic continuity or consistency.

Amusingly (to me anyway) the shows that did have continuing story lines were ones that were shown more frequently - Soap Operas. But even those were produced in such a way that missing an episode or two or three wouldn’t make a viewer get lost and stop watching.

bump mentioned it above - Babylon 5 was one of the first prime time series to do a continuous, over-arching storyline that basically required the viewer to see virtually every episode. In a big way, B5 is one of the grandparents of the Battlestar Galactica, GoT, Lost, etc., world we have today where binging is a frequent thing.

Without B5’s effort to push for that continuing story, showing it was at least somewhat possible to do, do well, and make money, it’s unlikely we’d have the feast we do now.

But when you pull back the curtain, the real reason TV is able to do the rich, involved, lengthy stories we have now is because the DVD made it cheap & easy to purchase entire seasons of shows for a minor outlay of money.

I remember looking for VHS tapes of shows like Star Trek TNG or B5 back in the 90’s. They were expensive with generally only 2 episodes per tape. So they were expensive and took up a huge amount of space - a season would be 12 or 13 VHS tapes. You can now get that as a set of 4 to 6 DVDs in a package roughly the size two of those VHS tapes, for easily <10% of the price of the set of tapes.

DVDs are what led to binging, and the combination of the “binge” movement with shows with continuing storylines like B5, the final 1/2 season of Deep Space Nine, parts of The X-Files (and I’m sure others I’m not aware of) led to producers/studios realizing they could create a double whammy and thus let creators/producers create bigger, more epic, season-spanning stories.

One other thing not mentioned that’s probably also played into this is the shrinking of the TV season. In the 80’s and 90’s, a 24- or 26-episode season was the norm. Sustaining a story over that over 7-9 months of the normal TV season was hard. Sustaining it over 8 - 13 episodes (e.g. GoT) is a lot easier, both in terms of creating a story as well as keeping your audience involved and not having them peel away after missing an episode or two and “getting lost”.

The thing to remember is that the business model determines everything important.

In traditional broadcast television, the companies (networks) deliver a product (the audience) to their customers (the advertisers). Shows are simply tools used for delivery of the product, they aren’t the product. We sometimes lose sight of this fact and treat the shows as if they are a product being delivered to the audience as the “customer”.

Now, HBO, Netflix, Hulu, etc. have a different business model. In their business model, the product is the shows they deliver to customers (the audience) paying them for that product. The need for quality and responsiveness to the customer creates better television.

Not that there is no quality in broadcast television. Some of the tools used to deliver specific, valuable audiences require higher quality (The Americans, Fargo, The Good Place…). But we need to keep in mind that this is just use of a more specific tool for delivery of the product to the true customers.

Except soap operas.

No. The fact YOU don’t like a given type of programming doesn’t mean that it is poorly made. For a simple example, game shows like “The Price Is Right” have been on television for decades without much change in quality. They exist like they are because they are a genre people love to watch at home (believe it or not) during the daytime morning hours. My dad in the 60s came home to watch “Jeopardy!” at 11:30 am every day. I’d assert that there isn’t any significant quality deterioration in game shows from the 60s to now (though one can assert that there is a “deterioration” in the sense that game formats that wouldn’t have been considered in the past are now found on TV).

I would argue that whatever story you read about “formulaic” cop shows is probably junk. After all, a cop show started its life being watched not by daytime housemoms, but by prime time viewers. So either you mis-read what was being said, or someone was trying to spin something.

The difference between TV back in the day and modern TV has more to do with the quantity of television available. When all we had were three networks, there was heavy competition among show possibilities to get aired. If you didn’t do well in the overall ratings for your time slot, you were shoved aside for something that might do better. Think Star Trek, which was a ground-breaking show at the time, yet did poorly in the ratings, and only lasted 3 seasons (two, really, until a whole bunch of letters showed up at CBS headquarters that summer). It did poorly because it wasn’t a particularly well-made show a lot of the time. It had a low budget, which hampered it, given its genre, and it tended to rely much too much on the chemistry of the main characters, rather than having excellent plots with creative writing.

With the explosion of channels available, thanks to cable, shows no longer have to compete for such narrow windows of opportunity. Instead, the goal is to show you can pull a specific demographic in regularly. The later iterations of Star Trek showed how this works. The original series, launched twenty years later, would have lasted at least the same seven seasons that ST:TNG did, because science fiction fans would have flocked to the show, since they love to gobble up shows that focus on their mania. This means that modern TV shows across all platforms aren’t forced to be “good” to maintain their existence, where “good” means good quality production, writing, and acting, as measured on a general basis. Good shows still exist, but a show doesn’t have to be good to survive.

But what was “good” at the time back then was relative to what was being shown. In the 60s and 70s, the standard fare was some sort of locally produced morning news, followed by a morning network show, maybe followed by game shows, followed by soap operas, with a break for lunch news, then more soap operas, then either game shows or afternoon talk shows, then local news, then national news, then game shows, then the evening network shows, then the news, then the late night shows, then the station shut down until early morning (rinse, repeat). Each of those categories had a relative level of “good” that was needed to survive. For example, Dark Shadows lasted only 5 years on ABC in the 4 pm time slot; when its ratings fell in the 70-71 season, it was removed and replaced by re-runs of Love, American Style. Eventually, The Edge of Night filled the time slot. By comparison, General Hospital started in 1963, and still runs to this day; it usually had the time slot around 3 pm. Many consider it one of the best soap operas ever.

Before B5 (and concurrent with it- think ST:TNG) they might do 3-5 episode mini-arcs on your standard 22 episode show, or maybe revisit a concept from a previous season or episode later on. But it wasn’t anything like B5, where once the show got past most of the 1st season, it was a fairly tightly scripted ride from then until the end of the show 4 seasons later.

I also think cable series like “The Sopranos”, “Sex and the City” and “Stargate SG-1” paved the way- while all of them were at least partly episodic, they all had a LOT more call-backs to earlier episodes than your average network show at the time did (late 1990s/early 2000s). And they typically had more grownup subject matter and standards than networks as well in terms of violence, adult themes, nudity and language.

I’d actually be curious what the first 10-episode tightly plotted cable network show was.

I think the DVD had something to do with the rise of the new style of cable TV series, but I think streaming had more to do with it.

The effect is less now with multiple channels, streaming and on demand, but when it was only the big three networks, if viewership during a certain timeslot was dominated by a particular show or event, they would often put less successful or new shows they don’t think would succeed against the blockbuster competition. No sense airing a heavily male-oriented audience show during the Superbowl, but a show that appeals to females may be aired during that slot.

As for being oriented for waiting room viewing, it’s more a matter of choosing programming that will won’t offend (never mind appeal) the mass audience. In addition, they don’t want something to compelling since the person waiting may be called at any time. You don’t want a patient telling the doctor to wait until the next commercial comes on. Channels like HGTV are entertaining and neutral enough to be viewed in snippets without any real interest or attachment in what’s going on.

I’ve talked with people about show like Everybody Loves Raymond. Trite, predictable, been done before. I hate those kinds of shows. Give me something original like Community any time.

But these shows have fans. A lot of fans. They like trite, predictable, been done before. They don’t want anything new or makes them have to think, etc.