The Unending Filibuster
By CHRISTOPHER BOOKER
AMERICAN TV is, for the most part, appallingly bad; but it is particu- larly depressing in one or two surprising ways. When I went there, I ex- pected to find it a racy, round-the-clock, slick and highly superficial reflection of all the zing and chromium plate in the American way of life; an endless mish-mash of panel games, Westerns, old movies, the Bob Hope Show co-starring Bing Crosby, the Bing Crosby Show co-starring Bob Hope and all leavened as the nearest approach to seriousness, with innumerable Messages from our Sponsor just as the boiled-down-to-twenty-minutes version of Macbeth is crying 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . ('Why wait till tomorrow when you can get Wonder New Bloomex TODAY?') But all put over with the informal verve of an AFN newscast, and, because it was set in the context of America, all somehow vaguely all right. It isn't all right, by any means. And by that I don't just mean the endless mish-mash of panel games, Westerns, old movies, etc. After all, we see much of that over here, eventually. Indeed, what one isn't prepared for, more than anything, is the number of serious programmes— political discussions, theatrical symposia, profiles, interviews, talks. And it is in the character of ' these serious programmes, as much as any- where, that the whole key to what has gone wrong with American TV can be found. It isn't all right, by any means. And by that I don't just mean the endless mish-mash of panel games, Westerns, old movies, etc. After all, we see much of that over here, eventually. Indeed, what one isn't prepared for, more than anything, is the number of serious programmes— political discussions, theatrical symposia, profiles, interviews, talks. And it is in the character of ' these serious programmes, as much as any- where, that the whole key to what has gone wrong with American TV can be found. Just what is lacking Is the verve. And as for the idea of Macbeth being boiled down, if any programme in America can run for thirty minutes it is stretched to run for sixty. Let me take just one programme at random—a lunch- time discussion on Cyprus, in a series entitled The Long View. Certainly the view could not be longer. The protagonists are, on the one hand, Harry Psomiades, Assistant Dean of the Faculty of International Affairs, Columbia University; on the other, Kemal Karpat, Assistant Professor of Comparative Government and International Relations at the .University of New York. Two earnest men taking half an hour to put forward Points that, in this country, would be covered by a six- or eight-minute discussion on Tonight. Or, to take a programme from Channel 13 (which runs entirely on such 'serious' material) entitled Court of Reason. Here four journalists and academics are spending a full hour in dis- cussion of the law of presidential succession with a law don and a cliché-minded Congress- man; not surprisingly, the whole programme wanders round and round the point in a sort of dazed and mindless attempt just to fill in the time with words. Even a filibustering Southern Senator is allowed to read passages from the Bible to give some relief from the matter in hand. But the promoters- of CBS and NBC and ABC must keep their filibuster going for ever, ?ay in, night out, till Armageddon kills off the last advertiser in search of a vehicle. It is hardly surprising, in face of this infinite desert (last Saturday's CBS schedule, for in- stance, ran from Sunrise Semester at 6.30 in the morning to All Quiet on the Western Front at five minutes past five the next—and if you Plink Milestone's classic was a worthy offering let me remind you that you would have had to stay up through a two-hour 'Late Show' and two other 'Late Late Show' movies to see it), that the TV companies have all but given up in despair, become sleepwalkers filling a reknit- less conveyor belt with the easiest thing that comes along. Thus, apart from movies, the cheapest and easiest sort of programme is a serious discussion. Just hire a few academics to gabble away for an hour and everyone's happy— or asleep. (Incidentally, the reason why so many British scientists go to America is not to do research; it is presumably so that they can spend all their time drawing TV fees.) But the malaise has spread to every sort of programme— even the commercials have a sort of deadened unsubtlety. Another favourite device, of course, is something like the Jack Paar show, where one celebrity just introduces a whole lot of other celebrities to get rid of their otherwise unusable cabaret material. Interviews with nonentities— such as a fashion model whose only claim to interest was that she had appeared three times on the front cover of Vogue—stretch on for what seems like hour after hour, when any respectable programme in this country would have disposed of them in two crisp minutes. How one longs for the form and conciseness of even Panorama or Monitor at their worst; for one cannot imagine that most American programmes have been given any forethought or effort at all. The best thing, in one' sense, that ever happened to American TV was the death of President Kennedy; after the four-day telecast that ran almost non-stop from the shooting of Kennedy through the second act of the shooting of Oswald to the funeral pageant, there appeared a rash of articles crying,-`At last American TV has come of age.' At last they didn't have to think what to put on themselves; they just had to stick their cameras in front of events and let them run.
It was noticeable that such articles two months ago betrayed a general despair about. the normal everyday standards of American television—but, on the other hand, there seems to be a total lack of the sort of ferment of in- formed criticism and speculation as to the role and progress of television that still exists in Britain. There is still a feeling here that television is going somewhere and has a long way to go; that it is still very much evolving, still searching for new techniques that aren't just novelties—and that the function of press comment is to act as a sounding board and as a spur to that development. In America, however, television programmes play nothing like as much part in the conversation of intelligent people as they .do here. One feels a general assumption that television has found its role, that it will just continue to plod on, much the same, for ever. Please God it never happens here—but I'm afraid that in certain respects, the slide has already begun.