|Life and Death and American Television|
|Brian J. Smith|
Issue #65 (April 1987)
Because of the success during the past decade of various quiz shows and TV blooper shows, such series as "Real People," "The People's Court," "That's Incredible!" and many others, it seems obvious that a trend has emerged. Simply [quoteright]stated, people want to see people like themselves on TV. It doesn't matter if the subjects involved are significant, or, in the case of the People's Court, anything is really at stake (read that disclaimer at the end of the show some time). Network programmers are very aware of this trend and don't be too surprised if the next decade shapes up like this:
1988 — Following the lead of "People's Court," ABC announces the inclusion of "Superior Court" in the Fall lineup. The show will feature a different case each week, with all proceedings to take place within the show's half-hour time span. Fearing protests from defense attorneys that their clients may be unfairly convicted with such strict time limitations, a deal is struck guaranteeing that all recipients of guilty verdicts will have the option of being retried at a later date or accepting a maximum sentence of five years on probation. After a slow start, ratings soar with the hiring of retired Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and the inclusion of such celebrity suspects as Richard Ramirez.
CBS quickly follows up with "Parole Board", featuring bi-monthly guest spots by Charles Manson.
1989 — Disturbed by the plummeting ratings of cop shows "Hill Street Blues" and "Miami Vice," NBC attempts to cash in on the realism boom by placing its actors in real-life situations, utilizing hidden cameras. Ratings rise, but the experiment is only a mixed success as actor Don Johnson is machine-gunned to death by a Colombian drug smuggler.
Although this episode eclipses all Nielsen rating records, the rest of the cast resigns and production is shut down. Fearing for their safety as well, "Hill Street" cast members refuse to work outside the studio and ratings drop off considerably, forcing NBC to indefinitely suspend production. NBC runs the Johnson death episode in both the "Blues" and "Vice" time slots every week until the end of the season. Although ratings dip slightly, the episode manages to average a 19 rating and never once drops out of the Nielsen Top 20.
1990 — NBC renews "Blues" and "Vice" but replaces all cast members with real police officers and continues the hidden camera operation. Ratings again soar.
George Schlatter and Dick Clark co-produce "Real People Bloopers and Practical Jokes" for CBS.
ABC counters with "Real Life With Genuine People", the first show made "for, by and about genuine people." No television crews or actors are employed in any way. "Genuine people" are encouraged to send in their home movies and videotapes to be aired on the show. Preference is naturally given to the most action-packed segments, with the episodes on wife-beating and teenage suicide achieving new Nielsen heights.
Domestic violence rises 300 percent within three months as more and more genuine people try to cash in on television fame.
1991 — Entertainment unions SAG, AFTRA and IATSE disband as the majority of their members give up their union cards in an attempt to qualify as genuine people and gain access to the airwaves.
"The Joker's Wild — Live from Las Vegas" with host Don King knocks off "The Cosby Show" as the top-rated Thursday night show.
Michael J Fox is discovered auditioning in drag as a contestant for "The All New Price is Right" and is replaced in the cast of "Family Ties" by an apprentice carpenter from Morristown, New Jersey.
Producer Steven Spielberg rescues the sixth season of "Amazing Stories" from the Nielsen cellar by employing Cathy Lee Crosby as a weekly narrator and changing the series name to "Really Amazing Incredible People Stories". After the series breaks into the Top 40 for the first time since season one, NBC orders 142 more episodes.
1992 — American intellectuals, disturbed by the quality of the current TV fare, organize underground television societies where old reruns of "Three's Company" and "Scooby Doo" are shown. Viewers are often brought to tears by the quality of production and writing.
"60 Minutes" is cancelled.
"Real Terrorists" sets new ratings records until the entire crew is blown up by a bomb placed on the set by a guest during the segment on Libyan suicide squads.
1993 — The last professionally produced TV series, ABC's "Wide World of Sports, "is cancelled. In his farewell address, Roone Arledge speaks of always wondering what the agony of defeat really felt like and stabs himself to death with a ski pole.
1994 — The United States government capitulates as all politicians resign their offices with the hope of becoming genuine people and possibly television personalties.
BRIAN J. SMITH is a freelance screenwriter who commutes between Hollywood and his home in Oakland, CA. He has been a Mensa member for a little more than a year.