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The Fox, the Mouse, the Peacock and that Big-Ass Eyeball

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Ahh, May…the dying days of spring gently carrying us into the beckoning arms of summer and three or so months of lethargy before we reap the harvest of what we planted what seems like only yesterday…

Yes, friends, it can mean only one thing– May sweeps are upon us.

And that means the Big Four broadcast networks are on their semi-annual prowl to nurture their more hearty offspring and kill their weaker children in order to appease the Lords of Advertising. In times past, it often seemed a brutal, albeit necessary, ritual of electronic life. Some series were just born weak and some had grown old and irrelevant. But a balance was maintained.

This year, it’s more akin to the decline and fall of any given empire, replete with inbreeding and even cannibalism. If Law and Order is flailing, bring in Michael Imperioli, dress him in cop’s clothing but keep his Sopranos persona intact, and call it a “groundbreaking” performance. If House needs a boost to score in the ratings, stretch a mundane episode over two nights, have the second part be the lead-in to a ho-hum boot episode of American Idol and hail it as an “event” (and then top off the entire mess with the utterly asinine Unan1mous). And what better way to drag out the impending demise of Will & Grace than to bring back Bernadette Peters, Kevin Bacon, Harry Connick, Jr.and whatever celebs aren’t busy that week and put them in bit roles?

In short, the networks are doing what decaying empires have always done –serve up bread and circuses to the populace in lieu of substance. And we, awash in fear and loathing of the bogeymen that never actually storm our cultural gates but might at any given moment, lap it up. We make American Idol the rating juggernaut it is because we’ve been duped into believing that we can make or break the next singing sensation, that we, by god, are going to decide the path culture will follow.

The sad thing is — we do. We’re the networks’ enablers, telling them it’s okay for them to be sedentary and bloated, we love you anyway. And like the emperors of old, they seize upon our complacence and serve us pablum like Deal or No Deal because something like The West Wing just makes the brain hurt.

But the networks do know that they can’t survive doing business as usual — even if they pretend to be offering “must see TV,” as NBC still does. (Did anyone ever consider Joey something worthwhile?) There are simply too many alternatives, and more are evolving. The age of the guerilla is dawning.

The networks know this, and their advertisers certainly do. The May sweeps just ain’t what they used to be — without 24, Lost and (shiver) American Idol , there would be no buzz. My Name Is Earl , while amusing, doesn’t exactly make you just have to know what his #1 payback is. So what’s a bedraggled peacock, an upstart fox, an ancient mouse and an omniscient eyeball to do?

Turn to the internet and tabloids, of course.

The Mouse got a headstart back in April when they announced that fans would be able to watch, at their leisure previous episodes of programs such as Desperate Housewives, Gray’s Anatomy and Lost via the internet. Brilliant! Finally, television was recognizing the shift in our culture (although cable has had similar on demand initiatives for some time now). What ABC didn’t mention, however, was that while they were rolling the program out, they are also pulling it back in after the sweeps are over. Not to worry, between the travails of Teri Hatcher and the tribulations of Star Jones, the Mouse should have enough fodder to hold us rapt through the month.

Not to be outdone, the Peacock leaked the bombshell that Katie Couric would be jumping the Today ship at the end of May to serve the venerable Eyeball that is CBS as the nation’s first female network news anchor. Who oh who could possibly replace her on Today? Anne Curry?..Natalie Morales?.. no wait..of course! the blonde from The View. On a roll, NBC, through Matt Lauer, announced that the first hour of Todaywould be available any time through their MSNBC site. No explanation was offered why those insightful fashion and cooking segments would not be available.

CBS, the eternal, all-knowing Eyeball, seems committed to original online programming with its newly launched Innertube, an add-on to their site that thus far mostly promotes such drivel as Survivor but is said to be committed to offering up original programming as well as classics online. Innertube has already piqued my interest with their airing of an impromptu, 45 minute Pearl Jam mini-concert taped after their appearance on Letterman. There may be hope for network TV after all.

The Fox may have the best website of the Big Four, even though it’s bereft of original programming. Still, it’s interactive and animated, befitting the network that brought us The Simpsons. It’s entertaining on its own, and dishes out more trivia than any but the most rabid devotee would ever want. FOX was the upstart that nobody thought had a chance. What the naysayers didn’t count on was that it was also the network working from whole cloth. And they do know how to work the cliffhanger better than any of the other three.

The networks aren’t dead by any means. But May is almost halfway done and its been pretty anticlimactic thus far. In fact, the most noteworthy broadcast this sweeps period was Steven Colbert’s brilliant performance at the Washington
Press Corps Dinner — and that was on C-SPAN.

These are interesting times indeed.

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About Ray Ellis