The end of television as we know it?

In an age when the political, military, economic and cultural power and influence of the United States is very much on the minds of both friends and enemies, plenty feel relief that, in many countries, the American Empire seems to stop at the televisual gates. Figures show that Europe – both «Old» and «New» – is turning its back on television programs from the New World. In 1991, domestic products in five of the biggest EU countries (Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain and France) increased by 5.7 percent in comparison to the year before and have now grown by 43 percent of programming as compared to 1996 (The New York Times, January 1, 2003). A survey by Nielsen Media Research for 2001 showed that 71 percent of the 10 most popular programs in 60 countries were produced locally. Greece is no exception. Gone are the days when the streets used to empty when «The Bold and the Beautiful» and «Dynasty» were on. American domination of television belongs to the past, together with the extraordinary viewing figures for transatlantic soap operas and weekly series such as «Beverly Hills 90210.» A similar fate has befallen the noon-hour Latin empire, typified by shows such as «Esmerelda,» their place taken by daily Greek gossip programs («Fyllo kai Fthero» on Alter and «Superstar» on Star) or pop psychology («Akouse Me» on Mega, «Boro,» on Alpha). The removal of American television garbage would excuse this rather superficial sense of relief, if the viewing public turned to quality domestic and foreign productions. However, the predominance of reality shows does not lead to a televisual weaning from inferior American prototypes but to a homogenization on a universal scale, to a global «low art without style.» The negative effects are not to be met with only in Greece, but abroad as well. «British television is no longer the best in the world,» The Guardian announced on July 31, 2002. «At its best, it is top of the world in documentaries, biopics and costume dramas. But at its best, American television is unbeatable.» By that the writer means prize-winning series from the 1990s («The Sopranos,» «Sex and the City,» «The West Wing» and «Six Feet Under»), pointing out their superiority in scenarios, narrative flow and pace and the abundant time and money lavished on production. Their uncertain reception in Greece lies not so much in viewers’ «anti-Americanism» as in their addiction to easy, sure, predigested televisual food. Even when following foreign concepts, this is produced with domestic materials, on the thinking that local is best, even when it’s trash. This trend can be seen in the high viewing figures of soap operas such as Antenna’s «Kalimera Zoi» (Good Morning, Life) and «Lampsi» by Nikos Foskolos. It has been officially confirmed that channels prefer to play it safe, investing in programs that are certain to make money and avoiding risk, variety and innovation. The USA’s fall from its role as televisual world leader is due more to economic and less to aesthetic or ideological reasons. In the 1980s, the period of deregulation of television and the invasion of private channels, new channels urgently needed many hours of programming. The cheapest way to acquire it was by buying the rights to American series. Since then the possibilities for producing domestic programs have significantly widened. Playwright Eugene Ionescu once gloomily predicted that future theater-lovers would resemble early Christians who learned their religious duties in the catacombs. Good theater will not cease to exist, and neither will good television, whether American or not. But it will be watched by a minority of viewers, undermining the broad popular appeal, dynamism and artistic potential of the medium. Reality shows are not so much a danger in themselves, but their format will affect the rest of television, now becalmed in profitable, but stagnant, waters.