Of a Certain Age
It's funny that as we grow older, change often reveals itself in a series of small surprises. The familiar has a way of gradually becoming unfamiliar, and sometimes we just aren't sure why.
That is until we unexpectedly experience an "a-ha" moment that suddenly snaps the situation into focus. Then we get a revelation that, in fact, our world has changed.
One of those moments hit me recently while reading a Wall Street Journal story about the disappearance from late night TV of a generation of aging performers that helped define American culture over the decades from the 1960s through the 1980s.
It's not that I consciously missed seeing these familiar figures on the late night-talk shows. It was just that over time I had lost interest in television itself. As one who grew up watching Johnny Carson regularly, I found myself gradually tuning out. The programming became so irrelevant to me that I never thought about it enough to even question why.
IT'S THE DEMOGRAPHICS, STUPID
The WSJ story provided a big clue and I felt dumb for missing it earlier. The article quoted Robert Morton, who worked for David Letterman for 14 years and left him in 1996 as executive producer. It was about 1994, Morton noted, when late-night television shows began to emphasize luring younger audiences, rather then general audiences.
It was then, Morton said, that Jay Leno's bosses at NBC "made a big deal that they judge ratings on demographics, not households. Once demographics became what we were selling and being judged on, that was definitely a stumbling block for older guests."
Morton went on: "Now executives are terrified of not delivering the demo. If you put old people on, they think young people will turn if off."
Old people, it should be understood, are defined by the networks as those over 39 years old you know, as in the 18 to 39 demographic. So, if you're over 40, you're out to pasture as far as network TV executives are concerned.
Phyllis Diller, now 85 and long ago displaced as a staple of late-night TV, told the Journal: "They keep talking 18 to 39. That's my bra size." And Soupy Sales, 76, the TV clown who made pie-throwing a national art form, said "I'd put my dress on and go back on" if invited to be on a contemporary TV show. But, he said, "that's show business - or what's left of it."
What's left, it appears after a quick survey of the dial, is a celebrity-driven youth culture chiefly made up of disposable 20-something actors who line up to promote their latest movie or TV show. Whether or not the project of the moment is a financial success usually governs if we ever see their faces again.
In any case, most of these "guest" TV appearances are drained of wit and surprise. Gatekeeper publicists sap virtually any spontaneity out of the public appearances of their young clients. Too much money is at stake for taking risks, they'll tell you.
Of course, this makes for a lot of one-dimensional television. Doc Severinsen, bandleader for Johnny Carson during his run on the Tonight Show, told the Journal that Carson saw it all coming when he retired from television in 1992. Severinsen remembers Carson telling him: "Trust me, it's time to get out." Carson, said Severinsen, "wasn't interested in being on television the way television was turning out to be."
'SEAT OF YOUR PANTS' TV
I've been lucky enough over the years to have known or worked with Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Soupy Sales, Buffalo Bob Smith, Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, Les Paul and many directors and technicians who toiled in the formative years of live television. I loved their war stories about early program production and envied the incredible fun they had defining what became the best of the medium.
Each of these pioneers would tell you the same thing. Though it has always been important to deliver a big audience, the best television programming ever produced came from "seat of your pants," high-risk experimentation that was never dumbed down to cater to narrow demographics.
Milton Berle, who had to join a labor union in order to wield a hammer to help secure the shaky sets on his live weekly show, went full throttle with a form of physical comedy that appealed to all ages. Much of his humor was spontaneous and never vetted in advance by a network committee. I remember my entire family - adults and kids together - gathering in front of our black-and-white Zenith console TV to watch "Uncle Miltie." The shows were always unpredictable, precarious and very funny. And I don't remember his show ever pitching a book or a movie.
None of this is to say there still isn't plenty of great stuff on television these days. However, slowly but surely, we are now paying to watch the best of it. A decade from now, if single-channel terrestrial television is still relevant, I predict that programmers will continue the trend toward marketing goods and services to a narrow, young demographic. The corporate owners of broadcasting can see no other way.
Those of us who did have a taste of pre-1994 television, however, remember that it was different and more satisfying. Perhaps the change has been subtle, but - over time - it has become very real. And that's why I watch much less TV these days.
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.