This article first appeared on the Sunday edition of Malta Today
This week I happened to watch a documentary on the history of television, specifically the decade which formed a large part of my childhood and adolescence, the 1970s. The social commentary, now viewed through the eyes of an adult, of the revolutionary shows which broke through so many barriers, was fascinating. As a child, of course, I didn’t realise I was watching groundbreaking television, but now with the benefit of hindsight and compared to what used to be shown in the 60s, it was clear that All in the Family, Maude, Mary Taylor Moore and The Jeffersons (just to name a few) tackled subjects which at the time were considered taboo. Racism, bigotry, women’s lib, the pill, divorce and inter-racial marriage, were just a few of the topics which were addressed with biting humour and satire, causing audiences to sit up and take notice. Saturday Night Live, a pop culture classic which is still going strong after 40 years, was considered particularly radical, taking pot shots at current events and politics through comedy sketches and the lampooning of political figures.
But along with these cutting edge shows reflecting the lives of contemporary Americans which continued to push the envelope, there was also a clear demand by the public for more family friendly shows, This led to the creation of a new niche market and such classics as The Waltons, Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie, taking audiences back in time to a gentler era. Meanwhile, new concepts in family viewing such as the The Cosby Show promoted the idea of well-educated middle-class black families, breaking away from the low income, non-educated stereotypes we had been used to seeing. It was interesting to see how television has always tried to keep up with what is going on “out there” by mirroring social reality while at the same time offering equally important doses of escapism, according to the public mood.
The documentary also explored the role of the American regulatory body known as the FCC which has had to move with the times as the social mores of the country changed. It is hard to believe there was a time when married people were not allowed to be depicted as sharing a bed – on I Love Lucy, for example, Lucy and Ricky were always shown as sleeping in separate twin beds. A far cry from what is accepted as the norm in today’s shows.
Still, even to this day, when compared to what is allowed to be shown (or said) in other countries, the major free-to-air American TV networks, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are still pretty tame. This contrast is often seen when American celebrities go on British talks shows such as The Graham Norton Show and are absolutely stunned to hear their British counterparts freely using curse words on the BBC. “Can you say that on TV?!” they ask in shock.
Of course, the explosion of cable channels such as HBO and and websites which stream their own programming such as Netflix, as well as access to TV programmes any time, anywhere on one’s own laptop or iPad has made such control over TV content rather redundant. In fact, cable television and the Internet are not subject to US government regulation of ostensibly indecent material, which is why we have such programmes as Orange is the New Black (Netflix) and why Sex and the City (HBO) was even possible.
This probably explains why more and more, it is the viewing audience which is driving content because they seek, and usually find, the type of shows which appeal to them online. I know that I do. In fact, with the huge amount of choice available on the Internet or through an Android box, of any type of genre imaginable in the form of really excellent American and British TV shows, I am often amazed that local stations still have people tuning in. The last few years, which have seen a revival of the small screen, has been described as the new Golden Age of Television with more movie stars taking on roles in TV series because that is where the best scripts and character-driven dramas and comedies seem to be.
It is within this scenario of the limitless choice we have at our fingertips, that I think Maltese stations need to really take stock of what they are offering viewers. There is still a sizable percentage of people who are faithful to Maltese programming because they want to see talks shows, drama, comedy and documentaries which deal with the local scene and which are in their native tongue. But is the choice of shows on offer year in year out as each TV new season is announced keeping up with the discerning TV viewer? Is it even relevant to our lifestyle any more?
Speaking for myself, I want to see satirical humour set within the Maltese context, I want to see talk shows where politicians are criticized, challenged, and made to answer to the public for their actions, I want to see a wide array of divergent political opinions given an equal voice, I want to tune in to social commentary about the changing face of our country which is analysed intelligently without any need for shouting histrionics. Most of all, I want to see a variety of presenters and TV anchors who are chosen to be on the air because they are the best in their field, and not because they are can be counted on to be “safe” and toe the line.
Meanwhile, as the discussion continues about why Times Talk and Madwarna have been cancelled for no plausible reason, the respective producers and presenters who obviously believe they have a good quality product, know what they have to do next. As happened with newspapers and print journalism, the direction which TV is heading is that of a more prominent online presence. It will be hard at first to get advertisers to follow, but it can be done. It really depends how badly you want your voice to be heard, and whether you want to fight to keep your programmes on the public’s radar. The way I see it, why wait around for someone to arbitrarily cancel your programme each season, when you can be your own master and reach potentially even more people through the Internet?
That is the beauty of this technology which has just celebrated its 25th year – no one can control it and freedom of speech is guaranteed.