Network TV's Big Dive


Verne Gay reviews the good, the bad, and the really atrocious programming that makes up this falls line-up of TV shows.

Network television as we know it turns 50 this year and, as the new fall season starts rolling in, one has to wonder Has the medium lost its marbles?

The “Big Four”—ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox—seem stuck in a spiraling cycle of one-upsmanship, and the shot they spar with is the shock to the senses. As a result on their watch, a once-great business of ideas and ideals has deteriorated into a despicable dung-heap of vulgarity and prurience.

I am neither a prude nor a moralist; in fact, I've seen a lot and I'm not easily offended. Yet I think I'm stating the obvious when I say that the very act of watching television these days can be dangerous to a person's moral, if not mental, health.

What makes today's prime-time TV so toxic? For starters, a steady parade of out-of-control libidos. New shows this fall include “Wasteland” (ABC, Thursdays at 9 [all times listed are Eastern]) spotlighting a young woman who mulls losing her virginity—and tries to lose it; “Law & Order: Special Victims Victims Unit (NBC, Mondays at 9), a cop show about lurid sex crimes; “Love & Money” (CBS, Fridays at 8:30), whose first episode features a suggestive encounter between two young people in a bathroom; “Manchester Prep” (Fox, Thursdays at 8) about a prestigious prep school whose students weave webs of sex, scandal and betrayal; and “Popular”(WB, Thursdays at 8), all about the sex lives of a group of high schoolers.

And then there is the language. Night after night, forcing its way into living rooms like an obnoxious neighbor, comes a constant barrage of the kind of talk that used to get people tossed out of public places—and not a few homes.

I could easily fill this space with additional documentation of network TV's descent, but suffice it to say that, this fall, the networks will continue pushing the envelope further beyond the borders of modesty and good taste than this longtime observer ever thought they might go. And they'll keep doing it in the hours when millions of impressionable young minds sit in rapt attention before the tube, passively consuming what they're fed by adults who ought to know better and care more.

To be sure, the pressure to hold viewers against unconstrained cable networks, such as HBO and Showtime, has been a major spur in this unfortunate slide into the moral sewer. But that doesn't excuse these old, formerly trustworthy, behemoths of American media from their responsibility to the national health.

With that said, each of the four networks will continue to offer a few half-decent shows that raise only minor objections. Among them: On ABC, “The Wonderful World of Disney” (Sundays at 7) and “Whose Line is it Anyway?” (a harmless game show Thursdays at 10); on CBS, “Everybody Loves Raymond” (TV's best sitcom, Mondays at 9), “Cosby” (Wednesdays, at 8), and “Touched by An Angel” (Sundays, 8); on NBC, “Freaks and Geeks” (high-school high jinks with a minimum of offensive language and activity, Saturdays at 8); and on Fox, “Malcolm in the Middle” (Sundays at 7 starting this January—a funny show about a precocious child, though some viewers will take offense at the language and unconventional household).


Verne Gay. “Network TV's Big Dive: Still some acceptable entertainment survives.” National Catholic Register. (Sept. 26-Oct. 2, 1999).

Reprinted by permission of The National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Verne Gay writes about television for Newsday.

Copyright © 1999 National Catholic Register

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