URTV (Asheville’s public-access station, available on Charter cable Channel 20) is now in its second year of operation. This homegrown station offers local members the rare opportunity to produce their own brand of entertainment, as opposed to the hideous programming on regular television.
As the onslaught of reality TV fills our screens with banal happenstance night and day, we, the people are now given the chance to create a new standard of excellence right here in our own back yard.
So far, however, the results have been spotty. in the limited time I allot for TV viewing, I’ve seen a patron/producer demonstrating his global tracking device in his car for at least six minutes before I surfed away to CNN. I’ve tuned in to Channel 20 to catch a young couple reading the news, motionless as deer caught in headlights. I’ve also watched the gospel laid out on a blackboard by a didactic preacher who reminds me of a physics teacher I had in high school.
I’ve seen and heard lots of music by local musicians, ranging from whimsical, artistic video by bohemian bards to drunken jams shot late at the club. (Asheville does have one thriving music scene, and this is a good chance to catch it.)
One URTV staple features a supposed mad scientist and his friends at weekly tea parties. Seated at the head of a lengthy table, surrounded by casual accomplices who wander in and out of the frame, the host directs the banter as well as a blue screen displaying psychedelic patterns. The murky audio is matched by the rambling conversations, which seem to lack any particular topic.
It’s easy to pick apart these amateur productions, but I must also applaud the creativity and fortitude it must take to produce such ventures. I’m told it’s as easy as paying the annual dues, attending orientation and certification courses, checking out a video camera and then editing the tape at the URTV studios downtown. The hard part, it seems, is coming up with subject matter and characters worthy of sharing with the viewing public.
There’s a good possibility that reality TV originated from this same “hard part.” And I’m afraid this phenomenon has changed the creative landscape forever. On the heels of such “ratings grabbers” as The Real World, COPS and Survivor, Ozzy Osbourne and family ruled the tube for a couple of years in this young century, cursing and yelling as only the “Prince of bleeping Darkness” could. Six million people tuned in weekly as the bar was lowered.
The voyeuristic element in America was awakened, and it now feeds on some of the weakest moments in TV history: programs like Dog the Bounty Hunter, The Surreal Life, Intervention and The Girls Next Door. All shows, I would argue, that really don’t need to be seen. I used to imagine Hugh Hefner as leading a charmed life, but after seeing what’s going on at the mansion…
Granted, commercial television now offers us more choices, and there are some extraordinary shows. High-definition TV is remarkable! Digital effects seem boundless. Clearly, it’s the content that needs tweaking.
A good portion of society’s ills can be traced to at least a couple of different sources, beginning with our collective parenting skills. Too much work and not enough attention to little Johnny, and there’s trouble in the wasteland. And then there’s that incredibly transcendental box in the corner (aka television) that continues to become more “real” with each new show.
Surely we can toss some major blame at the programming powers of … uh … well … um—whomever it is who green-lights these programs—for our youth’s decline in moral fortitude and lack of scholastic aptitude. Can’t we? But the ratings suggest that we eat all this up and lick the spoon.
You know what? Once lines like these have been crossed, I’m afraid there’s no going back. The cameras will continue to turn on us; interactive shows starring the viewers at home will become commonplace. The bar will continue to be lowered until censorship becomes a dirty word!
In the name of free speech, incredible mediocrity will blanket the airwaves. The FCC will cease to exist. “Give the people what they want!” will be the networks’ (and their sponsors’) rallying cry. Money wins again! In the words of the dearly departed Hunter S. Thompson, “It’s going to get ugly.”
Meanwhile, in Asheville, we now have the option of creating and producing our own style of reality TV. After all, these are our airwaves. This is our chance to bring something fresh and enlightening to the screen. I urge you, Ashevilleans: Become local producers! Create and elevate!
And maybe, if our cameras started following real smart people around, test scores would start to spike, and America’s focus would blossom into moral and global matters? Now there’s an idea: URTV presents The Hawkings! Got to find the right demographic…
[North Asheville resident and former broadcaster Brent Robinson holds a B.A. in mass communications from UNCA.]