Last night while watching TV I dozed off and had a marvelous dream.
The time was 10 years from now. During that period the American people had risen and forced the television industry to reform itself. Let me list some of the changes that had taken place.
THE TV QUALITY INSTITUTE. In my dream, the TVQI was a non-governmental body headquartered in Chicago. It served as a clearinghouse for almost all information having to do with TV broadcasts in the USA. It issued weekly (and sometimes daily) bulletins telling the nation what was going on in TV, and why, and who. It spoke to all major aspects of TV – programming, advertising, language, and personnel.
The Institute had virtually no legal powers. Its clout derived from the opinions and responses of the TV viewers, i.e., you and me. Membership in the TVQI was highly prized. Earning TVQI Seals of Approval was the goal of every American TV station owner with a brain in his/her head.
TIGHTLY REGULATED ADVERTISING. No TV commercial break could run longer than four minutes. Total commercial time (including station promotional ads) was limited to eight minutes per half hour. The remaining 22 minutes was devoted to program content. No single commercial could be shown for more than 21 consecutive days. Stations were required to display a commercial digital countdown window that appeared each time a commercial was shown. In this way, a viewer could tell how much time remained before the commercial ended, thus permitting a viewer to stand up, stretch, visit the bathroom or get a snack without missing any program content.
COMMERCIAL CREATIVITY RANKINGS. Every TV commercial was given a 0-10 ranking by viewers, according to the commercial’s degree of truthfulness, humor, imagination, clarity of message and good taste. The viewers served as the sole judges; they transmitted their feelings to the TVQI via email, Twitter or special transmitters attached to each TV set. Rankings were published by TVQI each week, thus allowing TV stations and commercial sponsors to know which ads were well liked and which were found to be contemptible. Each viewer was given a unique I.D. name and number, similar to an email address. Viewers were urged to boycott products and services offered by companies that violated TVQI advertising and programming standards.
RANKING OF TV STATIONS AND NETWORKS. Each month the TVQI published a listing of the best and worst TV stations, based on their adherence to the standards approved by the nation’s viewers. This ranking allowed viewers to choose the level of programming they wanted to see, even before they switched on their TV sets. If a viewer preferred high-quality programs, he/she could easily find them. If viewers wished to watch garbage, this too was available. However, over time the putrid programming (and the stations that broadcast it) tended to lose advertisers, thus eliminating the junk programs.
FINANCING OF THE TVQI’s OPERATION came from voluntary $10 annual contributions by millions of viewers. The Institute refused any support by corporations, governments or foundations. TVQI directors and staff workers were limited to one-year terms of employment, to guarantee that personal bias and favoritism were virtually eliminated from the Institute’s policies.
In my dream, the results of TV reform were almost entirely beneficial. Perhaps the biggest improvement was to loosen the greedy partnership of the advertising industry, the sponsors and the TV stations. Before the reform took place (i.e., right now in 2013) all three entities were primarily devoted to one thing: profit. There were exceptions to that, but not many. The common daily fare of most TV watchers was sitcoms, laugh tracks, pseudo-courtrooms, overly detailed weather reports, police dramas, endlessly-repeated news items and – above all – commercial interruptions featuring dogs, children, low humor and insipid sales pitches. TV reform changed much of that, so that viewers were much less imprisoned by the advertising industry and the constant pursuit of higher ratings by TV stations and networks.
All the changes were achieved without government meddling, and despite the outraged efforts of Big Business to shut down the TVQI on grounds of illegal product boycotts and violations of the First Amendment. TV reform was not a perfect solution to the ills of television. But it shifted most of TV’s power from the hands of Big Money into the living rooms of American viewers, where it belonged.
I awoke from my beautiful dream, only to see on my TV screen an overweight used car dealer shouting at me to “Come on down!” for the sixteenth time that week. But as my dream fades I can still hope that, if enough people care, the TVQI or something like it can one day take form.
Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor of the Clearwater Sun. He responds to all emails sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.