Turmoil on the tube

Culture | Could it be an opening for Christians?

Issue: "Midterm elections 1998," Nov. 14, 1998

The fall of the networks
Will the last person to quit watching network television please turn off the lights? The once-major networks are staggering around, looking for something to salvage their sagging fortunes. As more and more people walk away from broadcast TV, hope is slipping away. NBC, for example, is so mad for ratings that it brought in New Age guru Deepak Chopra to hold a seminar for programming executives in California earlier this month. He told them about living up to their potential, recognizing opportunities, and grasping the importance of television. The seminar came as two of NBC's top entertainment executives, Don Ohlmeyer and Warren Littlefield, were getting ready to leave the company. NBC won a week last month with a 9.4 rating, which would have been death in the pre-cable days. The quarterback slot in the Thursday lineup, Seinfeld, switched to Frasier, whereupon the ratings dropped 27 percent. Over on Fox, the World Series registered an all-time low. New hit shows are scarce, with broadcast viewers scattered across seven different networks. The days when Americans came together in front of their TV sets to watch Walter Cronkite are ancient history. What once was a technological unifying force is now another engine of postmodernity, as audiences are split up among dozens of cable channels. The Internet is already having an impact on TV. There's not much full-motion video, but the diversity is endless. More media avenues are open today than at any time in history. For Christians willing to seize the moment, there is no time like now. The public square of today may still be as naked as it was 50 years ago, but it could easily shift. The right guy with the right idea, good Web design, and a little savvy can help make a difference. The free market of ideas is open today as never before. Christians once again have opportunity. A great picture, but nothing's on
Are you ready for HDTV? Are you ready to buy a new TV within the next eight years? When John Glenn launched into space, CBS launched the digital TV revolution by broadcasting the shuttle liftoff in a new format that will soon take over American TV. HDTV uses a picture of movie-theater width and CD-quality surround sound. An FCC mandate requires many stations to start going digital next year and turn off the stations we know today sometime in 2006. Right now, the new TV sets that receive HDTV are mega-expensive. The lowest-priced models sold by the Good Guys chain run $3,399; buyers need an additional tuner that costs $1,500. The Tonight Show is going into HDTV soon, along with some sports and movies. For a while, most TV stations won't carry the programming, and cable companies haven't figured out what to do about it. Whether this will delay the downgrade of the networks is anybody's guess. A new TV format is great for manufacturers who get to sell new equipment to every couch potato, TV station, and production company. Whether Americans will buy sets when the prices come down isn't known. Conventional TV sets are like phones, treated like furniture and seldom replaced. And if you think normal TV is intrusive, think about having a box with multiplex-style width. It's coming. HDTV's advantages are great. It brings high-quality sound and picture to the masses. Some programs will let viewers interact with what they watch and change camera angles. Internet integration will be much easier. TV channels will be able to carry four or more programs simultaneously. The problem is that we will be stuck with much the same situation as today: dozens of programs with nothing to watch. More channels in a completely new format will mean an enormous demand for new programs. Who's going to fill it? Back to Oz
We're off to see the Wizard again. Warner Bros. is dusting off The Wizard of Oz for the first major big-screen re-release in 25 years in a digitally restored version. This movie may have put more one-liners into the American idiom than any other: "Lions, and tigers, and bears!" "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!" "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." Though many have tried to read hidden meaning into the film (and L. Frank Baum's books), it probably exists best in the realm of nonsense. Made today, it would seem too corny and not edgy enough. Yet it never fails to mesmerize. The film has inspired everything from rock albums to Las Vegas casinos. Only a handful of minor cast members are still alive, notably Jerry Maren, one of the Lollipop Kids. Everybody knows the story. Kansas farm girl Dorothy (Judy Garland) gets swept away in a tornado to the magic land of Oz and must go find the wizard to get home. Along the way she meets an endless assortment of unusual characters (Who can forget Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley?), and the soundtrack is filled with songs guaranteed to keep the kids happy. Also, the movie displayed the difference between black-and-white and color. The stories of a few connected to the film aren't as joyful. Judy Garland's self-destruction is the stuff of legend. Lyricist E.Y. Harburg's Communist connections were exposed in the 1950s, eventually putting him on one of those famous blacklists. The curious wondered if the land "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was actually the Worker's Paradise. Still, no children's movie compares to Wizard; perhaps none ever will. It was made at the dawn of movie blockbusters (at the same time as Gone with the Wind) but before the kidfilm formulas took over. In 50 years, Oz will still be a land of wonder, but how many people will be enchanted by The Lion King or Mulan?

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