9 August 2005

Desperate broadcasters

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

teri.jpgI’m tempted just to let this go, because any kind of comment is sooner or later going to involve admitting that I watched pretty much the whole season of Desperate Housewives on Seven. At least, I had the TV on while the show was on, which is all the ratings measure anyway—not that I’m counted in the ratings; if I were we might still be watching The West Wing. But so there it is. It had its moments but was overall pretty lame; Gabrielle was kind of hot, though clearly awful; and the “big mystery” story arc progressed at about the rate of a Phantom comic.

Of course Seven milked the show for much more than it was worth, doling out new episodes as if they (the new episodes) were pellets of rat-food doled out by first-year students of operant conditioning trying to confirm that the variable ratio schedule is indeed the most cruel and diabolical and difficult-for-rats-to-shake of all the schedules of reinforcement, padding these new episodes, or rather “all-new” episodes, with simply unwatchable “behind-the-scenes&#8221–type featurettes and other dross and filth, or just pre-empting them for other less-valuable programs during non-ratings periods. Not to mention the dubious technique of wedging each episode into the hitherto-undiscovered 8:40pm–9:40pm timeslot, thereby manipulating the ratings in ways I can’t even begin to understand; and the erratic ADD/ADHD-type repetition of the first few episodes already covered back when it all started.

But in screening last night’s series cliffhanger, which was generally better than most of the intervening episodes because one or two things actually happened in it, Seven reached a new ebb in its attempt to sucker some of its inexplicably massive Housewives audience into watching some of its other programming. The deal was: if you sat through the debut of Grey’s Anatomy—an apparently charmless medical comedy/drama offering nothing that Scrubs didn’t deliver every week in half the time with exponential levels of humour and pathos—you got to see a “secret additional bonus mystery scene” that had been excised from the first season of Desperate Housewives for undisclosed reasons. The implication was—I think the teaser actually said—that the hidden scene would solve some outstanding mystery that the final episode was just too solution-packed to manage.

Now I’ll tell you what the actual scene contained in a moment (ha!), but first I should explain that in fact I was watching all this stuff through the intermediary of my new personal video recorder or PVR, which quite ingeniously records a perfect copy of the digital broadcast signal on its roomy hard-drive for later playback. It can record two channels at the same time as playing back a previously-recorded or even currently-recording program, and it has buttons that instantly zap forward two minutes or 30 seconds so you never have to see any commercials. The networks hate them because of their potential to reduce advertising revenue, and try to reduce their usefulness by not transmitting information about upcoming programs (which would make setting timers etc so simple that why wouldn’t you) and increasingly screening ads in weird and unpredictable configurations.

And of course the free-to-air model depends on people watching advertisements, and if we all stop watching—and if they find out about it—the quality of programming may eventually suffer. But I think there are solutions. One is product placement, which I don’t object to as long as it’s done with restraint and slots into, rather than manipulating, the host program. Look at all the real-world products that found their way into Seinfeld with hilarious results: the Junior Mint, the Pez, the Jujyfruit, Snapple, Häagen-Dazs—if you do it right, there’s nothing wrong with it. The other solution might be to make commercials that people can stand to watch, rather than the brain-damaged half-attempts that befoul our prime-time viewing. Anyway, the point is that my trusty Topfield PVR5000t allowed me to swiftly track down the lost scene from Desperate Housewives—thinking only of this blog and you, Loyal Reader—without having to watch more of Grey’s Anatomy than I wanted to, which wasn’t much.

So completely unsurprisingly that lost scene, which had been likened to the Dead Sea Scrolls or at least that new Vivaldi just discovered by clever Melbourne musicologist Dr Janice Stockigt, consisted of immaculate psychopath Bree and her creepy man-friend George being busted shopping for garden supplies by her therapist Dr Goldfine, played by—and this almost makes the whole thing worthwhile—Sam Lloyd, who is brilliant as hangdog lawyer Ted Buckland from Scrubs. The scene has no bearing on any part of the plot, such as it is, and was either removed by American ABC for that reason or by Seven so they could jam in some more commercials and trick some viewers. An appalling display.

Last night’s Media Watch showed Ten’s Action News trying on two separate occasions to rope in viewers by showing tantalising excerpts of near- and actual tragic events and asking “Did they make it? Stay tuned!&#8221, which is analogous but of course even worse. The one where they didn’t make it was stretched over two ad breaks! And don’t think I haven’t noticed that Ten is still claiming that 3.7 million people watched the first incarnation of The 4400 either.

In closing, I’d like us all to take a moment to remember Desperate Housewife Teri Hatcher in her finest moment, playing the spectacularly-endowed Sidra in Seinfeld‘s fourth-season winner, “The Implant&#8221. That’s Elaine stumbling towards her in the health-club sauna, about to be saved by her controversial breasts. Look at the terror! Look at the range!

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