We’ve occasionally talked on this blog (and its predecessor) about how great the last decade of TV has been. Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men: that’s a remarkable string of thoughtful, engaging, original drama. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why it’s happening now, and I imagine luck plays a role as well. But I’ve always thought that one factor is simply the expansion in the number of channels producing TV content. When it was just the big three networks, there was a strong market incentive to play it safe, to aim for broad appeal, to dumb it down a little. Things are different now. We have far more viewing options, and a channel like AMC has to be edgy just to get our attention. So, a thousand flowers have bloomed, and that’s a good thing.
But then I was watching TV this morning, waiting for the first set of football games to start, and I flipped through a few of the pregame shows. I know better than to do this, but I did anyway. They’re just awful: thoroughly, excruciatingly awful. Inane commentary by stupid ex-coaches and even stupider ex-athletes; the triumph of self-help clichés (apparently it’s important to believe in yourself) over serious analysis; displays of bravado over actual, honest debate. None of this will surprise the readers of this blog. But what I don’t get is why it’s all so bad. There are lots of channels doing pregame shows, but they’re all virtually identical. Shouldn’t there be a market incentive for some small channel (Versus, I’m looking at you!) to provide smart sport shows? There’s a ton of interesting baseball commentary on the internet, and I assume this is also true of other sports. So why does almost none of it make it to TV?
Everything I’m saying here about sports also applies to TV news. CNN’s ratings have tanked in the last few years, and their solution is to give Eliot Spitzer a show? What a failure of the imagination! For a free market industry, there seems to be a remarkable aversion to risk that leaves us with no channels willing to try something different. Any sense of what the economic or sociological explanation for this might be?