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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

By Margaret Moser

JANUARY 12, 1998: 

Say It Ain't So, MTV: The rumor is that yes, Austin Stories will be renewed by MTV but that the filming will be moved to Los Angeles! I believe I will reserve comment here since this is officially still a rumor (and since MTV has yet to make any attempt to contact me about this show and ignored my requests for information) except to say, isn't this the most typically hare-brained, MTV-like thing to do? It's like Ann Richards with a crew cut. I hope stars Howard Kremer, Brad Pope, and Laura House are getting righteous bucks for this!

1997 wasn't exactly abanner year for television, though certain events will always make it memorable. Notable, of course, was the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, not only for who she was but for what she was: an object of media fascination through the lens. It was also a year of the much-ballyhooed live season premiere of ER, a funny-but-somewhat-deflated Seinfeld, Austin Stories on MTV, Southpark on Comedy Central, saying goodbye to Beavis and Butt-head (whom I will miss terribly), and that incredibly stupid rating system that makes me wonder if I have to show ID to watch Ally McBeal.

I thought about television a lot as I watched hours and hours of it over the holidays. Starting this column made me more aware of the politics of television, and subsequently care less about what makes it tick politically. Television watching became work. I became more curious about how people viewed television than about who won the sweeps. An offhand request for response about cartoons snowballed into a delightful correspondence with numerous readers whom I now regard as an infinitely better barometer of viewing than ratings or critics. In fact, I like to think that the readers and their responses guide this column, along with my curmudgeonly, tangential commentary. It seemed like a good idea, then, to let some of the readers discuss the year in television. Here are some comments from two of my regular TV correspondents (sounds like our own little news show, doesn't it?)

Wendy: My faithful, tried-and-true network shows didn't seem to come through for me this year. X-Files, which is usually always so masterfully written, acted, and filmed, had a very ho-hum season cliffhanger but a really entertaining "prequel" episode that introduced Fox Mulder's (David Duchovney) motley conspiracy nut crew. And the latest episodes were just the right mix of deep and personal angst combined with crazy-sounding, paranoid theories that are ultimately proven not to be crazy enough... Seinfeld, once my #1 favorite show, has become so self-referential that their season-enders just get too meta. The show's writing, which once blew me away with how they intertwined an A, B, C, and D storyline, is not so impressive this year. I keep feeling closure in every episode this year... ER deserves lots of praise for their great ensemble cast. The ER episode that was filmed live was really nice, but by no means their best show. All the hype and silly news coverage led me to expect more. This is another show that feels like it's treading water, and I'm not real invested in any of this year's plotlines... You cannot beat Law & Order for a consistently engrossing murder mystery and high courtroom drama all in one hour. I love how, even though you know at the beginning there's a murder to solve, the ride is always surprising, and often heart wrenching... The show that always delivers, never disappoints, is far and away for me The Simpsons. Sorry, I know you don't like them, Margaret, but every episode has spot-on cultural lampoons, the most exquisite comedic timing, and very, very sophisticated themes. Wow, what good writing. It's been, what? Nine years for them? And yet their '97 Halloween episode, just like every year before, was a masterpiece. Here was the one time when I got what I hoped for and expected from 1997 TV.

Juan: I'm very unhappy with the FCC's requirement of three hours of educational programming, or at least Disney/ABC's means of satisfying it. The WB network found a good way around that requirement by reviving the old Captain Planet show to show daily, and buying the new Channel Umptee-3 for Saturday morning (though it's recently moved to Friday). So their animation department didn't have any burden of producing the educational programming. On the other hand, Disney/ABC has its FCC programming all on Saturday morning, and nearly all of them are their own cartoon shows (101 Dalmatians, Recess, Pepper Ann) labeled "educational." But the requirement results in heavy-handed cartoons where the lesson is delivered at the end through a speech by one character. (If you have a character explicitly stating a moral in general terms you know you're doing something wrong. 101D has a much worse problem than the other two shows.) Kids get education from their parents and their schools. The people who work on TV shows are artists and entertainers, and so should not be required to do the job of educators.

Woo-hoo, Juan! That's one of the most salient points I've heard yet about this whole issue, one that seems to be grossly overlooked whenever the debate about children's programming arises. Anyway, thanks to everyone who responded.

Several readers commented about local programming. I edited those comments out because I wanted a more general focus on the year, but I'd like to hearfrom readers about local television programs. What do you think about Austin City Limits' evolution over the years? What's the best local access show and why? Do you watch the Austin Music Network? (They taped Love, Janis for broadcast on her birthday on Jan. 19, Ch 15) Does anyone watch Channel 8? (Don't talk about the local news shows or I'll do my imitation of that weekly food inspection report.)

 P.S. Desert Island TV was a bomb. Thanks to the handful of people who responded but I didn't really get enough to write about. I can only assume everyone is terrified of the idea of being stuck on a desert island with only 10 shows. I can't blame them. Hang in there, though, I'll address them soon enough. Then we'll do a Worst-Of list....


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