Goodbye to television

I am taping the last episode of my TV program “Public Life” this coming week.  It will have only two guests: my director Marilou DiazAbaya and myself.  Together we will try to analyze what this fascinating medium has taught us over the last 12 years.  After that, Marilou will go on to make more films, hopefully as ambitious as “Rizal”, as moving as “Sa Pusod ng Dagat”, and as complex as “Milagros.”  And I will go back to my books, to reading unhurriedly and pleasurably.

The show, I am told, has not been doing well in the ratings.  As a result, the advertisers have been ignoring it.  In a bid to prolong the life of “Public” in a very competitive market, we tried to enhance its socalled “production values”.  This means making the show faster, tighter, less predictable, and more attractive.   But often this also means spending more.  Alas, the economic recession overtook our efforts.

In commercial television, a program has to constantly prove itself.  It cannot rest on its past awards nor presume the steady patronage of loyal viewers.  Without ads and without ratings, the measure of its viewership, a program will not survive. The composition of viewers and their habits do not remain still.

When “Public Forum” first aired in November 1986, it found immediate rapport with an audience that had been mobilized by a series of events culminating at Edsa.  What this audience found in the parliament of the streets, it looked for on television.  An agitated public, long denied access to mass media by a dictatorship, wanted media to respond to its yearning for clarification of the vague uneasiness about the times.  My program was a child of that period.

Between that period and over a decade later, movement fatigue has set in among the politically-inclined.  People have gone back to the business of ordinary living.  The saga of a government installed by means of a popular uprising but staunchly challenged by a recalcitrant military has given way to the narrative of political normalcy.  People sleep better and earlier.  And public affairs programs like mine, consigned to the edge of midnight, are left to share a dwindling audience with Bro. Mike, Bro. Eddie, and Pastor Wilde.

As political life stabilized, the networks immediately seized upon the mood for more entertainment.  In Channel 13 where we began, our 10 p.m. time slot was assigned to a localized Japanese game show, “Takeshi Castle”.  Asked to move down to 11 p.m., we decided instead to move out.  A year later, just as we were about to sign up with ABS-CBN, Tina Monzon-Palma invited us to join her in the newlyopened Channel 5.  It was exhilarating to work in a station that wanted to be known as a public affairs channel in an industry that was beginning to drown in entertainment.  Unfortunately, the new station’s heroic commitment to public affairs did not last.

Casting around for a new home for us in 1996, Marilou thought that the last remaining oasis for public affairs was Channel 7.   This station had managed to remain the abiding sanctuary of the 10:30 p.m. talk show, and we were very honored to be invited to re-open our program there.  But almost simultaneously with our transfer, the 10:30 club was ominously pushed to 11 p.m. in order to lengthen the prime time for entertainment.  Even the news, which I thought had stayed decently minimalist, had somehow to be reformatted to make it more entertaining and therefore more competitive.

Something was definitely happening to television that I had not completely understood.  It is the audience out there, I told Marilou; it has changed.  Our loyal constituency from the Edsa days is already half-asleep by the time we come on the air.  They are too tired to stay up to listen to slow and sober discussions of national problems.

It is the medium, insists Marilou.  It has become faster and less reflective, bolder and more intrusive.  More hospitable to pastiche than to coherence.  She looks at the situation as a film-maker would, focusing on the medium to be mastered and the products it makes possible.  While I look at the problem as a sociologist would, focusing on the viewers to be understood and the needs and desires they bring to bear upon television.

I am convinced that public affairs programs cannot play the competitive game in an industry fixated with entertainment without losing their integrity.  When public affairs shows must compete with wrestling, viewers will learn to expect guests at talk shows to perform like wrestlers.  When public affairs must compete with sitcoms, then it is no longer enough to talk about ideas, you are compelled to dramatize them.

Entertainment is the legitimate business of television, but it is not its only purpose.  My friends sometimes tell me that if they want serious and sustained analysis, they would turn to print, to books and magazines, but not to television.  The medium, they say, is simply not suitable to highmindedness.  I disagree.  The medium is what producers make of it.

More importantly perhaps, the audience is what the medium makes of it.  Cynical and predatory television breeds cynical and predatory publics.  A medium that shows footage of corpses burned or bloated as if they were ordinary objects of everyday reportage will not develop a sensitive audience.  Networks that routinely feature the bizarre, the morbid, the abnormal, the demented, the deviant and the violent as part of their daily repertoire of what is significant abuse  a powerful medium.  Television need not be like this.


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