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TV 101: Do we have more TV channels than we do TV talent?

by Jay Black, posted Jul 15th 2009 2:05PM
Geico CavemenIn the 90s, one of the most popular (and annoying) memes that circulated through the geekier magazines was that we were only a few years away from having "500 channels" on our cable systems. Unlike most tech predictions, this one actually came true. Sure, it took 1200% longer than they thought it would, but that's still pretty good considering most of the stuff Wired talked about in the 90s was made up by the editorial staff after downing a couple of those schizophrenia-inducing Transformers 2 pot brownies.

Having recently installed Verizon Fios, I've spent the last few months ignoring my wife and young son so I could explore what the 500 channel landscape looks like. Like Charlton Heston in the Forbidden Zone, I was shirtless, on horseback, and ready to uncover some sad truths about the world.

Here's the question I've come back with: what if there isn't enough talent for humanity to adequately fill 500 channels?

This article is the logical extension of two axioms:

1. There is a ton of really bad TV out there.

More to the point, there's an even greater amount of mediocre TV out there. You know what I mean, the kind of stuff that appears simply because something needs to be on the screen. TV like this is like a late-in-life first marriage: of course you're settling, but you're 39, what the hell else are you gonna do?

2. The people who produce bad TV don't want it to be bad.

They work really, really hard on it, extending their talents as far as they will go. Further, the networks these shows appear on do everything they can to make sure the shows are both well-executed and popular. After all, the suits are firehosing money on these creative endeavors; it's in their best interests to make sure they're as good as humanly possible.

A quick story to illustrate this second point: my good friend and screenwriting partner is Brian Herzlinger. One of Brian's side jobs was as a correspondent on Jay Leno's Tonight Show and during an LA visit, he invited me on the set to watch him film a 60-second sketch with former model/current-insane-person Brigitte Nielsen.

To film this 60-second scene required the attention and hard work of literally dozens of people. From the lighting to the sound to the director to the prop guy to the producer in charge of wrangling the reality-challenged Nielsen, it took an insanely high number of man-hours to produce this little piece of TV fluff.

By any measure, these people worked hard at their jobs. From the perspective of a guy like me, who makes his living by talking on stage for 45 minutes three times a week, that studio in Burbank might as well have been a Soviet labor camp.

Multiply that over the face of thousands of TV shows across hundreds of channels and you know that the crap we're watching isn't for lack of trying. The people working behind the scenes on a TV show comport themselves with the seriousness of a Lifetime movie -- even when they're working on something as terrible as a Lifetime movie.

We're therefore left with this quandary: if everyone who works on TV does their best to make it good, then why is there so much bad TV out there?

There's only one logical answer. Their best just isn't good enough.

Consider this: from 1965 to yesterday, the world population doubled from 3.5 billion people to 7 billion. In that same time, the number of national TV networks increased from three to about a hundred (not including all those HBO 2s and The Movie Channel Extremes); a 3000% increase.

The smaller number of TV shows in the 60s meant that only the cream of the crop had an avenue to exercise their talents. If you were one of the ten writers on the Dick Van Dyke Show, it's a fair bet that you were probably one of the ten best TV writers in the entire world.

The recent explosion in bandwidth has opened the door for a lot of people who wouldn't have gotten a shot at producing TV 40 years ago. In many cases, this is a good thing -- odd shows and unconventional talents (I'm thinking of pretty much everything on Adult Swim) that would have been lost to the conformity-pods of network TV have been allowed to flourish on the cable box.

Beyond that small bubble of the offbeat, however, you start being forced to pick less-than-stellar talents.

Some back-of-the-envelope math bears this out. If you average ten writers a show, times three hours of prime-time, times three nights a week, you get something like 1,200 working writers in 1965. Today, you'd need approximately 42,000 writers to fill all the air time on TV.

To put this another way, if some bum applied for a job in 1965 and was so awful the producer in charge of hiring said, "Yeah, I'd hire him, but only if 40,000 of the more qualified guys in front of him were killed by Gemini mission rocket debris!" -- that bum would have a job right now!

This is even more frightening when you consider that even in the 60s, with only three national channels to fill, producers still found ways to create slop like My Mother the Car and The Flying Nun. If the thousand best writers of 1965 couldn't fill three networks worth of prime time, what might we expect from the 39,000th best writer of 2009?

According to Jim.

When you watch insider-y industry satires like David Duchovny's recent The TV Set, the blame for why we're adrift in so much forgettable mediocrity is almost always placed at the foot of the "The Suits." Even if you haven't seen the movie, you know the paradigm: soulful, creative type gets his script greenlit only to have it turned from quirky minor masterpiece to fart-laden lowbrow junkfood by meddlesome corporate ninnies whose idea of "art" is a solid showing on a P&L spreadsheet.

We've seen this story so many times, we all regard it as truth (like how I've convinced my wife what the "average" size for a guy ought to be).

Here's what I'm getting at: what if that isn't the case at all? What if the problem isn't studio interference or focus groups or star demands or any of those things, but the simple fact that the ability to create good TV is limited to just a select few? What if we're literally stretched beyond the limits of our capacity to create great art?

In a lot of ways, TV has over-expanded the same way pro-sports has. The NHL used to be six teams, then the owners realized they could get a one-time cash infusion by allowing more teams into the league. Now there are something like thirty NHL teams in every American city with a population over 200,000 people. With the dilution of talent, the teams all evened out, quality stopped seeking quality, and the NHL went from being a viable fourth sport in this country to being slightly behind than co-ed badminton in the public conversation.

I'm not arguing for TV to contract, like the NHL should, but allow me to break out the bong for a moment and spout off a crazy freshmen-dorm-style idea to counter the effects of "peak talent":

The major networks should admit to themselves that we've maxed out the talent levels of our country and instead of trying to overwhelm the American people with quantity, they should focus on collecting and maintaining the elite few who can create quality. They can do this by re-framing themselves as "the major leagues" of TV.

They ought to use their company-owned cable channels (as well as YouTube, Hulu, and the other various online entities) as the "minor leagues" where new shows are vetted. When a show has reached a certain pop-culture critical mass, it "gets the call" with great fanfare.

Now, would this solve any problems? Of course not, but what it might do is readjust our attitudes toward the people creating this stuff. No one goes to a minor league park and expects major league play. We like to moan and complain that the TV we watch is mediocre and awful, when maybe it's just being made by a group of Triple-A players who might not ever crack the big time.

Why can't we put them in a smaller park and let them have a few cheers too?

I'd like to hear your opinion on these issues in the comments. Do we have more channels than talent? Would you like a majors/minors style for the way TV is presented? Is it fair to blame all the people who worked on ABC's Cavemen for what that show turned out to be?

And of course, the most important question of all: what does it say about me that even in a world where they need 40,000 writers to get all the crap we watch on TV, I'm not one of them?

Actually, you know what? Don't answer that last one.

(Jay Black is a writer and comedian who is best known for going over his allotted word count. For more information about Jay or to catch his live show, go to www.jayblackcomedy.com.)

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I would've referenced Sturgeon's Law here, but moreartplease beat me to it.

Han Solo's more than adequately covered the homogenization of niche channels, so I'll just add a thumbs up to that.

I do have some other points, though.

What I hear you saying in advocating using Network-owned cable channels as "minor leagues" is that you'd like to see a move toward the BBC system, where series move up the chain as they prove themselves.

Let's use Torchwood as a current example. It started off on Three and got the big ratings. Seeing that, Auntie Beeb moved the show to Two, where it continued to pull in the numbers. Consequently, Series 3 ran on One, which is considered their "high-prestige" channel.

A problem with this, as I see it, is the differing levels of censorship between Cable/Satellite and The Networks. S&P is -much- stricter for Networks than for even the basic cable channels they own. Just as an example, what would have to be done to most of FX's lineup to make it Fox-Network compatible?

That doesn't even get into the issues of shows from Pay Channels moving to Network. Anyone remember the press debacle when CBS showed the first season of Dexter a couple years back?

However, as I've said in the past, the situation should certainly work in reverse. One of the Networks has a quality show that isn't raking in the numbers? Move it to one of their owned cable channels. Or even use them as publicity.

For instance, last weekend in addition to Sci Fi, Warehouse 13 was showing on Bravo, USA and UNIHD. Why can't Chuck get that kind of blanket coverage? Why couldn't Pushing Daisies be moved to ABC Family? I think the success NBC's had in moving L&O:CI from their home network to USA certainly shows proof of concept.

To answer your basic question - yeah, we probably have more channels than we do talent. However, I think you're laying too much blame at the feet of the writers. Just as much culpability lies with The Suits, S&P, Nielsen Co., etc. as it does with those who created the shows.

July 16 2009 at 6:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to RobynM's comment
Jay Black

Really great response Robyn.

I wasn't aware that the BBC moves shows up and down their lineup like that. I'll have to look into this (do the bigger channels have more reach like they do here in America? Or is it just a prestige thing?)

July 16 2009 at 2:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tim McCleese

Another point to add: Look at all the garbage released weekly on dvd. Yet I (like so many) can name dozens of quality tv shows (from the past) that deserve to get released but remain ignored.

I think there still is a lot of talent out there, but I sometimes wonder if the tv people think it is not in their best interest to provide meaningful, wholesome, and quality entertainment to the audience at large. It almost seems they want to keep dumbing down the masses. And yes, pro sports is similer. I used to love to follow baseball for example, but now MLB has increased the # of teams, broken up the league formats, installed interleague play, and introduced wild cards. It's all watered down now.

There are still a few great shows out there (Battlestar Galactica for example) but I think Mr. Black is correct in his analysis, just in case anyone gives a tinker's damn.

July 15 2009 at 10:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Han Solo

Anyone remember when these channels all had unique content catered to a specific niche and reflective of their names?


Now they are nothing but the SAME crap....lame reality shows, and reruns of Rosanne.

They should re-name ALL of those channels to Spike2, Spike3, Spike4, Spike5, Spike6, Spike7, Spike8 etc.

The only ones left are Food Network, and HGTV. And I am pretty sure that any day now I will turn on FoodNetwork to watch Alton Brown and be treated to a rerun of Everyone Loves Raymond.

We might as well get rid of about half the channels, they are all the same.

July 15 2009 at 8:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Han Solo's comment
Jay Black

I actually wrote about this issue:


One of my favorite articles.

Also, are you the real Han Solo? I know chances are against it, but I felt compelled to ask!

July 16 2009 at 2:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So true..
TV is so out of touch with everyone. So hard to relate to the Real Housewives of New Jersey.. ya know? Im still waiting for Channel THC? ;)
Only channel I watch is the XBOX channel, where I can take my frustrations out.
We should be able to vote on what we see on TV. Putting these 'suits' in control is where it all goes wrong! Bring back RSA BBS!

July 15 2009 at 8:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mike's comment
Jay Black

An RSABBS reference on TV Squad -- I never thought I'd see the day. Any other RSAers read this site, I wonder?

July 16 2009 at 2:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When a show like Arrested Development gets a) knocked around the schedule like a bad smell and b) doesn't get watched, there's got to be something wrong with the world.

But I digress, strong arguments there, Jay

July 15 2009 at 5:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Brigitte Nielsen "current insane person"? Sorry but who are you? Jay Black? I mean, who knows you? maybe your mother?? I'm not a particular fan of her but I had the occasion to meet her a couple of times and she seemed everything but insane. This mean that you really don't know her and never talked with her. She is in the show business for over 25 years, I mean, you? you should think about funny and clever sketch an jokes insted talking bad about people you don't know. I love clever comedians!

July 15 2009 at 4:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to brad's comment

I was hoping the explosion in channels would be like the early internet, many unique places dedicated to quality.

Instead it turns out just like the internet everyone posting the crap and shoving personal beliefs over content.

Anyone remember early BRAVO before the pandering?

There is no reason why Pushing Daisies or According to Jim can't continue on ABC Family if even a fraction of the audience is there.

In a day where actors can multi-act, no was is restricted to one show .

Didn't I see Jeffery Dean Morgan on 3 shows at once this didn't diminish his acting cred instead it boosted it.

Maybe TV should be like the minor leagues 400 farm-channels to raise and grow talent.
When ready bring to the top 100.
If they're great they get to go to the network championships.

July 15 2009 at 4:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't know if there isn't enough talent in the business, or just not enough ideas. When I see that there's a reality show based on pet hairdressers, and another based on guys that drive over ice, I realize that there are too many channels and not enough good programming fill them.

I mean, Ice Road Truckers might be interesting for a single one hour show, but to make a continuing series out of it is really stretching.

July 15 2009 at 4:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think your arguments are sound in many ways, except in the field of drama. The past decade has seen more quality dramas than ever, many of which would never have been put on the air when there were just three networks, and the only goal was to not have less than 33% of the audience.

In the end, according to Sturgeon's Law, 90% of everything is crap, whether there are 5 channels or 500.

July 15 2009 at 3:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's not just TV. The best is not good enough in 99% of all situations. 99% of movies are horrible and make you wonder how they ever got the greenlight and financial backing. 99% of books are horrible. 99% of magazines are horrible.

Yeah we can debate about whether it's just bad or as I say, "horrible" and what those words relatively mean. But what they do not mean is good quality that you enjoy and want more of. Very few shows on primetime network TV fall into that category.

Most people suck, so most of what most people do sucks. Simple as that.

July 15 2009 at 2:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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