I dream of Janeane
The witty and wise Janeane Garofalo was a guest host on ABC's The View last week. That might seem like insignificant news, except that this individual event, taken together with some other individual events, gets people who critically watch television to step back and wonder, what's going on here? OK, maybe it's just me, but hear me out.
These seem to be portentous times for television. It started when HBO made an unsuccessful bid for Emmys coverage a few weeks back. Last week, the scuttlebutt spilled that Don Hewitt, producer of CBS's 60 Minutes, is being urged to step down. Although he is the force behind the 34-year-old program, the buzz is that the network is searching for someone who can make 60 Minutes appeal to the revered 18-to-34 demographic group. Last heard, the 81-year-old Hewitt is taking an "over my dead body" stance, a stance that must have felt too close to the precipice when his contemporary, the respected Roone Arledge, formerly of ABC Sports, died last week at age 71. Arledge is credited with single-handedly reinventing sports coverage. Today, ABC's Monday Night Football remains a prime-time staple, and ABC is branded as the Olympics network -- a brand that endures despite the fact that NBC won the bid for future Olympics coverage. Head of ABC News for a while, Arledge also launched programs like Nightline and 20/20.
It's no surprise that ABC, now in a ratings slump, is searching for new ways to revive its programming. But it came as something of a surprise to hear that the unconventional Garofalo is currently working on a sitcom for ABC (tentatively titled Slice of Life). Although Garofalo is no stranger to TV, her successes have been on cable (The Larry Sanders Show) or on short-lived, though critically lauded, broadcast series (TV Nation, The Ben Stiller Show). And Garofalo has been nothing short of candid in discussing her brief, unhappy year on Saturday Night Live. So why the return to broadcast TV? Why now?
Garofalo's appearance among the soft-centered co-hosts was strangely incongruous. It was also exciting. That might not be saying much, considering we're talking about the cushy world of daytime television. But Garofalo's dissonant, always articulate voice and her fearless (i.e. unpopular) criticism about mainstream news media and the Bush administration's handling of Iraq during the show's "Hot Topics" segment left the audience stone silent, co-host Star Jones nearly apoplectic, and viewers like myself wide-eyed.
Sadly, after her "outburst" (save for an "off-the-cuff" question to guest Pierce Brosnan which she pointedly read from a cue card), Garofalo fell silent. But it left me wondering -- the Emmy tug of war, the passing of Arledge, the bullying of the once-untouchable Hewitt, Garofalo's return to TV -- could this mean that, that ... television is changing? (Cue the dramatic strings and sci-fi movie screams here.)
Make that broadcast television. The cable nets, led by HBO, have been redefining the TV landscape for years now. And it could be argued that the advent of reality TV (like ABC's perplexing The Bachelor) already is the big change. Here's an idea: What if the direction of change is shifting from outlandish reality and displays of self-humiliation to programming that no longer relies on good placement somewhere in the window of prime time? Cable and satellite services, VCRs, video on demand, TiVO, and media services like Time Warner Cable's new PVR service are making the need for conventional, prime-time programming unnecessary. Although the Big Four fear the potential demise of prime time (baring teeth to keep the Emmy Awards within its broadcast ranks), these new options open the broadcast networks to new directions in programming -- programming that focuses on content rather than placement. And this, it seems to me, is how broadcast TV can compete with cable. But they didn't ask me. If they did, I'd say that ABC, which finds itself at the bottom of the broadcast barrel with nothing to lose, is poised to lead the way. So maybe the appearance of darling Janeane in the most unusual of places is a harbinger of that. I can dream, can't I?