Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Wishing and Hoping and Watching TV

What do these television shows have in common?

 Grand Designs

 Keeping Up With The Kardashians

 Extreme Makeover

 Glee

 The Block

 The Shire

 Getaway

 Nigella’s Feast

 Sex and the City

 Top Gear

 Antiques Roadshow

According to the experts, these shows share a theme of ‘aspiration’. If you’re a television insider, you’ve probably been talking about aspiration television for years now, and for many television executives, it’s the quintessence of the art of television programming. The viewers get to experience the harvest of this latest industry buzzword. Some of it is entertaining; most of it is average, and some is approaching the limits of unwatchability…and most of it is cheap.
So what is aspirational television?

Like most industry buzzwords, each business will define it slightly differently – or throw it around in executive meetings with no idea of what it means. In broad terms aspirational television is the kind of television that makes you look at the screen and say to yourself “I want that!” You’ll keep coming back because you want whatever is featured in the show: “I want that house! I want that life! I want that car!” It’s the softest of televisual porn, providing us with fresh weekly fantasies about things we didn’t know we wanted.

Aspirational Television is tapping into our desires for a nicer life. It’s also relatively cheap to produce, as much of it can be unscripted, and without a cast of actors, although there are some exceptions to that rule: Sex and the City and Glee both fall into the scripted-aspirational category as they are fictional, yet portray lives and environments that their viewers want to inhabit.

The proliferation of how-to shows has become an excess of how-to networks on pay television. This is the home of aspirational, motivational consumerism. The Lifestyle Network includes the original Lifestyle channel, plus Lifestyle Home (buying, selling, renovating and decorating), Lifestyle Food (all food all the time), Lifestyle You (fashion, hair, makeup, lifestyle makeovers). There may be more; I’ve lost interest.

In the world of commercial television, taking the materialistic road can also drive advertising and reduce the cost of producing the shows. The Block, for example, was a vehicle for product placement as much as it was a dream delivery system. Everything you saw on the show was for sale, including the final product. MasterChef has expanded the franchise to include Celebrity MasterChef and Junior MasterChef, is fully sponsored, and has its own range of merchandise.

At the other end of the spectrum is the range of bad reality-aspirational television. Has anyone ever watched Keeping Up With The Kardashians? Or the Real Housewives of ? Or our very own attempt to duplicate success with the Shire? There’s nothing real about any of those people, from their hair extensions to their boob implants to their gel toes, and most importantly, their astounding emotional range: all the way from “You’re such a bitch” to “I’m a victim and she’s the bitch.” I don’t know why anyone would aspire to be like those people, so it must be that we want what they have: the seemingly never-ending well of funds, that would allow us to make better choices. (I could by a lifetime supply of bespoke underwired seamless lacy brassieres for the cost of one of their boobjobs! See, I’m fantasizing and I don’t even watch the show!)

But something is missing. There’s one sub-class of aspirational television that is being ignored, even mocked by the credit-squeezed tv executives. Aspirational Drama deserves its place on television, yet rarely do we see it. I’m talking about highest quality drama that gives us a window on a world that we’d like to live in, with characters that display not the shallowest, the most grasping or the most artificial that humanity has to offer. I’m looking for something superior to that and I’m not alone.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: you’re welcome to brand me a television snob. I am, although I have my guilty pleasures too. I’m a complete sucker for the Gilmore Girls, I love Wife Swap USA and my favourite non-scripted show is Air Crash Investigations.

Like my television tastes, I don’t expect my type of drama – aspirational drama – to be perfect, but I expect it to be sophisticated, to be articulate, to be smart and funny, to flirt with my intelligence, to assume that I am intelligent enough to understand an assortment of references beyond The Brady Bunch Variety Hour and The Jerry Springer Show.

I expect The Newsroom, an aspirational drama about the way news could be, if only…

Reviews for the earlier episodes were mixed: professional television knockers were critical of its forays into didacticism, it’s largely unknown cast, and Aaron Sorkin’s trademark rapidfire dialogue and recycled (from his own work) storylines. Journalists too had a mixed reaction to a show set in their workspace. It was either hopeful or preachy, a roadmap or an indictment, too soapboxy or too soap-opera.
Twitter and it’s instant reactions provided a lot of response to The Newsroom, but it came in waves: from those who downloaded illegally, from those with reviewers copies, and from those of us who waited. Jason Whittaker (Crikey editor and champion tweeter @thetowncrier, who has seen all ten episodes of the first series) was closest to my response:
“There ends 10 hours with #TheNewsroom; roughly five of smiling and five of cringing. And like all of his [Sorkin’s] shows, I still want to live in it.”
And that’s the crux of it. It is aspirational for some, because some of us want to inhabit a world where news is never about promotion of products or causes or ideologies, but where it is factual. Magnificently, simply neutral. I want to live in a world where news directors can safely assume that I’m intelligent and aware enough to get it, where I don’t need cute little euphemisms for anything distasteful, and I don’t need to end the bulletin where the story with the best footage wins. If it’s newsworthy, it’s newsworthy, and it deserves coverage. I don’t want a news service that ever so subtly (or with a sledgehammer, as is the case with Fox News) helps me to know what to think. Don’t interpret, just tell me what’s going on. Aspirational or delusional? Probably both. Television should be partly escapism too. If a show can take me out of my world and into a world of fiction that I want to live in, I call it good television. Not perfect, but good.

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