Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Junk on time

It wasn't martial law that imposed a discipline of sorts on the local television industry: it was cable television that did. True, there was a sudden acceptance of greater responsibility on the part of the stations and those who ran them. But the responsible outlook seemed enclosed and limited within specified network departments. Outside those departments, the local television industry hummed happily along, pursuing whatever it had designated as its path, seemingly quite unconcerned about much else.

This unconcern was not really about quality. The effort to achieve quality was--looking back at that time now--certainly there, certainly even more then than now. The unconcern was actually directed more toward the sensibilities of the television audience.

The root of this unconcern can be traced to the situation in the industry at unique times in our history. During martial law, the democratic environment that had previously dominated the industry became compressed into what, in every possible way, was a monopoly. After the breakup of the dictatorial regime and the so-called return to democracy, the industry opened up. But how can there be no real competition when--as economists love to say--there is no level playing field?

Now, the playing field is more level and the situation I wrote about below probably happens only rarely. I really wouldn't know. As I wrote in previous posts, I don't watch local television shows anymore. The ability of cable to lure audiences may have imposed discipline in that area on local television networks, but it also unleashed frightening forces in another area. Who wants to be fed with what you were promised when what you were promised was junk food? Oh, I'm sorry--the top two local television networks do love to trumpet at the end of every survey period that, yes, millions of Filipinos love the junk food they dish out.

What can sane people answer to that? There's the rub? Catch-22?

"Impressions," TV Times, 17-23 June 1979


It must have been a little after 9:30 p.m. that first Thursday of the month when I flicked the channel selector on to 2. I had left my watch in the study room and, for fear of missing even a second of what could be a great show, I decided not to check the time anymore. Wasn't it all relative, anyway? The important thing was to catch the action, and I expected a lot.

Still, I was a little late. The screen was already on a tight freeze, the title passing by my dislocated sight much like the spark of lightning that had just then broken out fiercely across the leaden sky. But wait! Was that not a familiar face, one I had seen many times before, walking hospital rooms some years ago?

YES! It was indeed a familiar one: Joe Gannon, moving heavily around his patients with that ever-anxious, ever-questioning look in his worried eyes, shuttling incessantly from room to room with precisely the prescribed attitude of determination sedated with politeness and concern. His patients, this time, were a football-playing husband high on uppers and the wife, whose mobility the husband had compromised in a car accident that badly damaged her spinal column. The husband had reasons for taking his uppers, his downers, his anything and everything: to keep him on his feet and scoring his goals; to keep his inflamed and diseased guts from spilling out, robbing his team of its star player and his family of its millions in income.

It was acceptable entertainment, perhaps a little too melodramatic, spiced with the American mania for winning, tinged with accusations about the prohibitive costs of hospitalization and rehabilitation, filled with the contemporary passion for accomplishment and recognition, highlighted by the monotonous earnestness of one doctor who never seems to make a wrong diagnosis and who goes through heroics with every patient and every case. It was a storyline in the true Hollywood tradition, so traditional you could almost hear the handkerchiefs softly fluttering in the background.

But where-oh-where was that publicized "totally new concept in prime time entertainment, that unique fine-tuned coordination among doctor, hospital and staff"? Where was the "authenticity of real-life doctors and nurses, of real-life cases"? Why were we watching all these screen stars trying to act like real people when what we were expecting to see were real people trying to act like screen stars? And where--we wondered through commercial breaks and return sequences-- was the announcement of the title of this f--- show?

Of course, I comforted myself, it is possible this is really the pilot of the announced series, indeed "picking up from where the fictionalized medical programs of the '60s and '70s left off." Dr. Joe Gannon was certainly a fictional character, as Dr. Casey and Dr. Kildare were and as Marcus Welby was. Even as Dr. Quincy is. It was a little far-fetched, but we could not allow ourselves to be accused of a marked lack of optimism.

There is surely nothing wrong with being optimistic, although my optimism had by then been redirected toward the hope that, sometime in the middle of the long hour, the station would mercifully announce that, yes, "the program you are now watching is not Lifeline" but some old resurrected episode from some dark and ancient vault filled to the ceiling with outdated television features.

Well, at the end of an hour, it did come--the announcement that what I was watching was, after all, Medical Center. By then, the announcement had become unnecessary. My remembrance of shows past may be spotty but still serves me. However, to other viewers--those lured by the promise of something else, of something different, perhaps of something better--who had missed the opening credits and who did not know until the end that they were not watching Lifeline, it may have come across as a crude joke.

Some of them would surely have appreciated an announcement, not only in the beginning and at the end but also somewhere during the middle of the hour. Provided, of course, that they can still be enticed to watch out for Lifeline despite the fact that it has already been postponed. And postponed. And postponed.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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