August 20, 2013
Eighty years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt taught us what to do when confronted by a surplus of something: Pay people not to make any more of it. And what we have a surplus of right now is good television.
This year is the 80th anniversary of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, a New Deal initiative intended to help farmers, who were producing far more wheat, cotton, corn, milk and other goods than the market wanted, and in that way sending prices for those commodities to absurdly low levels. There were complexities involving overseas markets, but think of the problem this way: We couldn't eat - or, in the case of cotton, wear out our clothes and sheets - fast enough to consume everything our farmers were churning out.
That is exactly what is happening in television today. There have never been more good TV shows available - perfectly edible series, mini-series and one-shots, tasty and in many cases nutritious - but we can't choke them down as fast as they're being produced. We need a Television Adjustment Act of 2013. Entire shows are going unseen by virtually everyone, though they're worth watching and hang on for several seasons: "Fringe," "The Big C," "Happy Endings." It would be hard to shower more acclaim on AMC's "Breaking Bad," but even its heavily promoted final-season premiere drew fewer than six million viewers. That means that roughly 310 million residents were not watching. We can pare the infants and toddlers from that group, since the show is about a meth manufacturer, but that still leaves a quarter-billion people who now have yet another series that they really, really plan to catch up on as soon as they have a spare 62 hours to binge-watch.
The DVR hasn't been around that long, but whose isn't already full of shows that someone in the household fully intends to watch but never does? (Better get to Season 2 of "Homeland" soon, because Season 3 is right around the corner.) Who hasn't received, as a birthday or holiday gift, the boxed set of something or other, which is now sitting unopened next to "Firefly: The Complete Series," "Longmire: The Complete First Season" and "Smallville: The Final Season," all also unopened?
The Television Adjustment Act of 2013 would solve this problem by paying the people who make television to stop making it. Producers like Shonda Rhimes and Carlton Cuse would be paid to stop coming up with the next "Grey's Anatomy" or "Lost." Actors would be paid to stop internalizing complex characters - the criminal investigator with a drinking problem, the crisis-management ace who is having an affair with a powerful politician - and writers would be paid to stop dreaming up dialogue for those characters. Animators would be paid to cease creating saucy shows full of social commentary and bad taste. Costumers would be paid to refrain from recreating more British gowns from the Edwardian age and three-piece Madison Avenue suits from the 1960s.
Supply and demand are, of course, fluid and complicated. Any household gardener knows that at a certain time of year, there might be a few too many tomatoes but way, way too many zucchinis. So the Television Adjustment Act's payments would fluctuate, based on the supply in a particular genre. People would be paid much more not to make yet another serial-killer show or reality singing competition than they would be paid not to make a public-interest documentary about fracking or genetically modified food. Also commanding a premium would be police procedurals featuring a he-and-she team or an investigator with enhanced powers of observation. Reality shows involving cooking, storage lockers, fixer-uppers or wild-animal wrangling would also be high on the payment list.
In these tight times, the prospect of a new government program is likely to meet resistance, but the beauty of the Television Adjustment Act is that it would require no new taxes. No sprawling bureaucracy would be needed, because the prioritizing of the don't-make-any-more list would be done by TV watchers themselves through any or all of the viewer-participation systems now available on television sets and through social media. As for those stop-doing-what-you-do payments to producers, actors and the others, the money would come from advertisers and pay-cable subscribers, just as television revenue does now. Advertisers would be mandated to buy ads on the shows that aren't being made, and cable subscribers would be required to pay for the programming that isn't being broadcast, using the same theory by which the new health insurance law makes healthy people buy insurance. It's for the public good.
There will certainly be legal challenges to the Television Adjustment Act, just as there were to the Agricultural Adjustment Act. And parts of the new act will almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional, just as the Agricultural Adjustment Act was when United States v. Butler was decided by the Supreme Court in 1936. But note that it took three years for the court challenge to play out. In three years, a diligent viewer could work through the entire backlog on the DVR and maybe even "The King of Queens: The Complete Series." All 27 discs of it. New York Times
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