A television executive is walking on the beach when the devil appears with an offer. "I will give you the number one show that will blow out the competition for five, no make that ten seasons in a row," the devil tells him, "but in payment I want your soul, your children's souls and the souls of your children's children." The television fellow sizes up the devil with a curious look and asks, "What's the catch?"
It's an old joke, but it may need updating. Last week, NBC announced that it would substantially cut spending both in its prime-time entertainment division, where it would look for lower-cost programming, and in its news division. Expect a lot more game shows — which may or may not be an improvement. NBC is simply acknowledging the truth about today's network economics. Instead of walking around like the zombies in "Night of the Living Dead," NBC is the first of the big three to admit that the old world is over. CBS and ABC will, no doubt, follow its lead.
Call it the ultimate in reality TV. Gone are the days when the three networks competed among themselves for the entire national audience. Over the past 25 years, they have watched their shares of that audience melt away as cable, movies on demand, and the Internet have drawn the public's fancy. In turn, we have watched a downward spiral of quality coming into our living rooms.
If you've watched any television this season, you must have noticed that the programming is more disgusting than ever. For sheer depravity, gratuitous violence, aberrant sexual activity, and a no-holds barred infantilism that reaches the basest instincts in man, this season's offerings have broken all records in negative ground.
Granted, the levels may have never been all that high to begin with, but long ago, the networks at least made an effort. Today, it's hard to imagine NBC putting on a three-hour, prime-time documentary on Iraq — or CBS broadcasting a Beethoven concert for children. They actually did that sort of thing 40 years ago.
There are very clear reasons for all of this. Television today is so fragmented and so highly competitive that it must and will do anything to survive.
In fact, broadcasting today is too diffuse and in such a state of flux that the idea of any one program capturing one super-large audience is gone for good.
TV executives are not even sure that their mega hit this season will be around next year — the audience is flitting around that quickly. You can bet advertisers are watching this as well.
So while producers are struggling to keep their jobs and their cars and their homes, the impact of their product on America is probably the furthest thing from their minds. A hefty tuition bill almost always trumps values. Hence, we get shows like "Dexter" (a serial killer who cuts up his victims), "CSI" (more dead people), and "Fear Factor" (where people eat worms and bed down with cockroaches to win big prizes) — and those are on the high end of the scale.
It's not exactly news that television never lived up to its potential. We forget that even television's "golden era," which came curiously at its inception, was filled with a lot of stupid schlock as well. But there was still a moral compass that guided the industry in those days.
As the medium matured, it lost its bearings. And as the guaranteed audience evaporated, all values seemed to disappear along with it.
The future doesn't look much better. Don't expect a self-correction from the good folks who decide what comes into your living room. Instead, expect even more shocking plot lines with younger and younger producers giving us everything they think 14-year-old boys want to see.
The economic realities make the future of network news equally bleak. Expect more stories like the O.J. trial and JonBenet Ramsey to dominate the news. Luckily we are living in a period of history where we are not that concerned with what is happening in the world.
Just one problem with the tv industry joke — it's not just the television executive's kids that may be going south. It's your kids too.
Mr. Kozak is a contributor of The New York Sun.