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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

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Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the program.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed television could be this good.

In ten years there will be no television.

By that I mean that the network television dramatic series will have disappeared and nothing will be left but live sports, "reality" shows, and maybe sitcoms.

Television became the world's most popular form of entertainment because it was effortless and free.

That's changed.

Enterprise Television isn't free any more. There is an annoying cable bill every month. Meanwhile, with netflix, we can get all the movies we want, with no more effort than a morning trip to the mailbox, cheaper than cable. In other words, we can get high quality entertainment cheaper than low quality entertainment, and with no greater effort. (It's true that it takes some effort to pop one DVD out of the player and slip another in, but DVD changers are certainly in the near future, if they are not already here.)

It costs about a million dollars to produce one hour of TV drama that is even close to the quality of a motion picture. The money comes from advertisers. But now technology increasingly allows us to fast forward through the ads, which means that advertisers aren't getting their million bucks worth. Who is going to pay a million dollars a minute for an ad that most people are going to fast forward through? The solution to date has been to cram more and more ads into every hour, but then fewer people watch -- television audiences have been declining for years -- and so you need even more commercials, which means even fewer people, and pretty soon the Ford Motor Company will be putting up billboards on Everquest instead of buying minutes on television.

There goes television.

In a way, this is a good thing. Movies are better than television. But in another way it is a bad thing, because the sheer quantity of series television allowed some great moments to slip through. No one would ever risk making a movie like Journey to Babel or Measure of a Man or Sleeping in Light. Movies, even cheap movies, cost too much to take a chance on reaching that small portion of the audience who like to think.

Witchblade Farscape And so, mass entertainment narrows down to those three subjects that everybody is attracted to: sex, violence, and money. Television cannot compete with the internet in the arena of sex, where you can find sex tailored exactly to your own special taste. You want women and giraffes? Just log on to Television cannot compete with videogames in violence. As for money, thanks to online gambling you can now loose the kid's college tuition without getting up out of your easy chair.

Now, I like sex, violence, and money as much as the next guy. But I also like to exercise the old mental muscles occasionally. Thank goodness we will always have books.

Those of us who grew up with television will miss it. Our kids won't. "God, grandpa, why do you spend so much time looking at those old DVD. They're not even interactive."

Buffy  the Vampire Slayer These thought were sparked by the fact that for the first time in my life there is absolutely nothing on television that I would really hate to miss. The best SF and fantasy shows: Witchblade, Jeremiah, Enterprise, Buffy, and Farscape, all strike me as only mildly entertaining. Still, I'll be back reviewing them next issue, giving some of them a second, even a third chance to show me what television can do, when it has a mind to.

I'm sure there are moments of greatness ahead. Every dying medium has its classics that flare and then go out. Radio brought us Science Fiction Theater even as radio drama was dying. Chuck Jones' great Bugs Bunny cartoon Transylvania 6-5000 was one of the last theatrical animated cartoons. The dying days of popular poetry gave us Robert Frost and the dying days of popular fine art gave us Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. Latigo, by Stan Lynde, brought a final moment of greatness to the adventure comic strip. There will be moments of great television yet. I hope to tell you about them.

Copyright © 2002 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.

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