Under-the-Radar Trash TV

This is TV-Turnoff Week, an annual event in which folks are urged to, in the words of the sponsoring group's web site, "read...cook...go for a hike...sing...build a birdhouse." It will be interesting to see how many people accept the challenge. And I'd be curious to know how many of them will find themselves able to read, cook, walk, or even talk. (Building a birdhouse is simply out of the question.)

The surveys tell us that more than a quarter of America's children watch at least six hours of television daily. But that's not altogether accurate. Just as there's a difference between listening to and hearing music, so too is there a difference between watching and seeing television. That's what they're doing.

So many don't tune in for specific shows; they turn the set on because they're not comfortable without it on. At times they pay full attention to it; sometimes partial attention. But oftentimes they're paying virtually no attention to what's on the screen. It's impossible for them to stay with one channel; they must, by necessity, mindlessly, endlessly flip around. They're addicts, and they're the ones who need to go cold turkey this week. Few will.

There's some good news in all this. Hopefully they're too numbed to watch what they're seeing.

In all their viewing, many of them no doubt have come across at least one of two dreadful April-debuting series. One is prime time's latest idiotic reality show, UPN's "Chains of Love." Its format, in its entirety, is this: A person called the Picker is chained to four persons of the opposite sex. The Picker lets the four go, one by one, until one is left, then decides whether or not he/she wants to go on a date with him/her.

Judging from the April 17 premiere, "Chains," which airs during the family hour, is a perfect offering from the Utterly Pointless Network. Nicki, one of the women chained to Andy the Picker, notes that she's "dated women before, so I'm open to any and all possibilities." A moment later, Andy, a stuntman by trade, tells the camera, "Nicki thought that I was hot...and if she met me at a party, she'd drag me into a private room, because anyone who uses his body and mind in a stunt show would know exactly what to do." Another contestant has the choice of licking wine off Andy's finger or faking an orgasm. She chooses the finger-licking, thus providing a hard-to-miss suggestion of fellatio. The visual goes hand-in-hand with the verbal sewage also offered freely.

Then there's the animated cartoon "The Oblongs," on the WB, which has to do with a family whose members are in various ways disfigured as a result of living near toxic waste. In the April 1 premiere - which the WB aired three times that night, including twice during the family hour in most markets - the father tells his four-year-old daughter, Beth, that tattletales are "an essential part of any family," whereupon Beth says to her mother, "Daddy has a magazine with naked ladies hugging." In a subsequent scene, at a bar, a man asks the mother, "Hey, are you a hooker or just a slut?"

The next episode begins with the mother reading from a videocassette box to her son Milo, who's about eight: "...And so the sexual odyssey of these two strangers breaks every taboo, leading to an unforgettable nine and a half weeks."

In an interview on the WB's web site, the show's co-creator, who goes by the name Angus Oblong, remarks that there's "part of me that says kids are dying to watch ['The Oblongs']...We're trying to keep [it] watchable" for them. Thank goodness for family values.

Increasingly I'm losing sympathy for those who claim victim status on this issue. MTV has now apologized to two teenage girls who were hit with excrement at a taping of the network's show "Dude, This Sucks." According to the Associated Press, the girls were "invited to stand near the stage during [the] taping...and were given no warning that two men calling themselves the Shower Rangers would abruptly defecate onstage." The girls have sued MTV for infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and battery.

Earth to these two teens: What else do you expect from a show like this on a network like that?

There you have a metaphor for the relationship between the television industry and the television audience. Like the two girls, television's audience, inexplicably, almost masochistically, again and again comes back for more until finally - finally! - someone does something to shock them out of their mental slumbers. And then they complain.

These folks really could use a TV-Turnoff Month, and do something challenging with their lives. They could, like, read a Superman comic book.