February 22, 2013 – When inventor Philo Farnsworth presented the world’s first television broadcast at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in the early 1930s, he probably never envisioned the medium including programs like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”.
Rather, Farnsworth wanted to bring information (news) and entertainment (Shakespeare) to the masses. Romeo and Juliet, and Othello are on a different scale altogether than Honey Boo Boo, Sugarbear and Mama June.
So, how did we leap from his original plan 80 years ago to the television circus we have today? People and their tastes continually change, which is a factor, but the biggest reason most likely is greed. Television executives discovered reality-type shows are more cost efficient to produce over other quality programming that involves actual actors and writers. Plus, viewers don’t seem to mind that their programs are slowly being taken over by lower-quality choices, and simply accept what they are fed.
Growing up, before cable television existed, we had a choice of a few network stations, a UHF channel or two and PBS. My family had rules about television viewing. Not so much censorship rules, my parents were pretty open-minded about that, but we had to ask for permission before we put the television on during the day because my mother didn’t want to “use up” the television tube. I don’t ever remember being told no, I couldn’t turn the television on during the daytime, but it was a question I hesitated to ask because I didn’t want to do that either. To appease our daytime viewing, especially for cartoons, soap operas, and after school programming, my parents added a smaller television to the kitchen/dining room. We became one of those families who ate dinner with the television on, and it was my brother who always got to pick the program. Dinner became a different experience with “Ultra Man” playing in the background.
While I was in high school, the cable craze hit my neighborhood. The addition of all of those extra channels has been both a curse and a blessing to the medium of television. It not only gave the networks more competition, but it created the need to fill hundreds of channels, which made way for some of the strangest reality television programming.
And I have done my fair share of keeping this insane cycle going. This week alone I got sucked in to the ridiculous Brandy vs. Adrienne feud on “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and “The Bachelor Tells All”. Granted, no one forced me to sit down and watch these programs. I often rationalize it by thinking that while these shows aren’t exactly the type of quality programming that inspires me, there are far worse selections I could have viewed instead.
On the other hand, cable television has helped develop some of the most refreshing and original programming that has ever graced the small screen. Can you imagine a world of entertainment without “The Sopranos”, “The Wire” or “Dexter”? This week, I also tuned in to the third season finale of “Downton Abbey”, a program worthy of the title “Masterpiece Classic.” That sort of makes my viewing habits similar to a character on “Boardwalk Empire”, who praises the Ladies’ Temperance League for fighting to make alcohol illegal, and afterwards goes home and enjoys a stiff drink.
It was Farnsworth’s wife who said that he “saw television as a marvelous teaching tool. There would be no excuse of illiteracy. Parents could learn along with their children. News and sporting events could be seen as they were happening.” That seems funny when you consider that even television networks like The Learning Channel, a television station whose name suggests it is a teaching tool, features a top rated show with the “Toddlers and Tiaras” breakout star Honey Boo Boo.
The world of television began with high hopes, and in many ways has accomplished much of what it predicted to do. But as far as Farnsworth’s dream, it appears we’ve only scratched the surface. For now, that means we have to take the good along with the bad and the ugly.