THERE MAY be no thrill in defeat, but there can be an agony to victory.
Because now, winning is everything in television. Winning is goal, purpose, point and motif. Network programming often carries the message that to win is to live, and the television business proceeds strictly according to the win instinct.
There's nothing to be if you can't be No. 1.
In the past year the TV business has become more visible to the general public because of the slavish attention all the media pay to ratings, profits and the do-si-do's done in executive suites. Suddenly, what was once a back-room brawl has been brought out into the national arena.
Perhaps the majority of viewers no longer pick out favorite programs to watch so much as they try to align themselves with a winner show or a winner network. Nearly as many children may know who Freddie Silverman is as who once knew who Jack Armstrong was. About 53 million people tune in ABC's "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley" every week, according to Nielsen ratings; it could be that many of those millions are there mainly because they know other millions are there. Who wants to be caught watching a show that only 10 million people awatch when you can go with a winner, the way all the beer commercials urge you to do?
Twenty-five years ago, nobody knew what a rating was. That was behind-the-scenes stuff. You watched "I Love Lucy" on Monday nights and Milton Berle on Tuesdays because you thought they were funny, because you'd heard from the neighbors who'd bought their TV set before you bought yours that Lucy was wacky and Uncle Miltie a riot.
Now newspapers, magazines and local TV stations report dutifully on the ratings every week - yes, maybe too dutifully. And it's part of a wider No. 1 mania that has never been so inescapable. "Us" magazine publishes weekly lists of the top-selling books, the top-grossing movies, the top-selling records, as if to instruct everyone on what to like. Feature sections of newspapers are mad for trends, magazines proclaim what is The New This and The New That, and the media together create a new social class of Super Winner whose members may come from any field so long as they earn more than a page in People magazine through rising to the top of whatever they do.
Is there really such a terrific national craving to know what's The Newest, The Hottest, The Hottest-Newest? The stars of tomorrow, the stars of today, the stars of five minutes from now? The fastest-selling, the biggest-selling, the sizzling new bestseller and the forthcoming motion picture hit?
Hype-a-dype has become such a nearly-exact science that hits can almost - almost - be stamped out by design. The motion picture "Oh, God!" considered by most respected critics to be at best a middling, mediocre comedy, was being declared a word-of-mouth hit on talk shows on the eve of its release. Carl Reiner, the director, was as omnipresent as the CBS eye, starred in commercials for the film as well as in orchestrated talk-show plugs, and benefitted from one of the sneakiest plugola gambits of the year. An entire episode of the CBS comedy series "Alice" was built around the alleged success of the "Oh, God!" film.
Both "Oh, God!" and "Alice," conveniently enough, were produced by Warner Bros.By creating the illusion of a hit, the company in fact made a hit of "Oh, God!"
The unquestioned virtues of competition and the sacrosanct state of being a winner are continually endorsed by television programming. Indeed, adversary television has become the preeminent form. In its milder state, on situation comedies, this involves setting up paper villains and having heroic victors knock them for loops with smarty-pants insults (the insult has replaced the gunshot as the chief medium for aggression in TV, now that the lid has been put on actual violence).
Shouting matches are frequent in sit-coms, with studio audiences loudly rooting for and cheering the champ who zings out the most devastating slurs. "What's Happening," "Baby, I'm Back," "C.P.O. Sharkey," "The Jeffersons" - they're all confrontation comedies, helpless without insults.
In transferring "What Really Happened to the Class of 65?" into a television series, NBC ordered that all the losers in the book be turned into winners. In programming a witless and pointless weekly contest called. "Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes" in prime time, CBS was acting on the theory that people are yearning to watch almost anybody win at almost anything.
The huge expansion of sports programming on television occurred because ABC learned how to milk adversary melodrama from even the lamest, tamest events and how to encourage viewers to identify with the combatants.The Olympics are always portrayed, in ABC sports commentator gush, as good guys against bad guys with the good guys usually being the athletes from the United States.
But other kinds of broadcasts are being turned into sporting events - in essence - as well, so that we will have as many winners to root for as possible. Television consciously or inadvertently makes sports-like figures out of newsfigures - most recently, Anwar Sadat, Menahem Begin, Hubert Humphrey and Jimmy Carter - with heavy use of sports-page imagery about fighting, battling, scoring, playing the game, suffering a setback and, of course, winning, figuratively if not literally.
The success of CBS News' "60 Minutes" in prime time is probably an encouraging sign, but one wonders if the show would have made it without its self-conscious adversary tone, if it didn't try to pass off its reporters as Galahads riding forth against dragons that menace the great American family as it sits in the holy glow of its color TV set. "60 Minutes" may not be so much in the glorious tradition of Edward R. Murrow as it is in the less-glorious tradition of "Wyatt Earp," "Kojak" and "Batman."
Movies made for television are often high mass for victory, especially for the kind of victors who come from behind and overcome a handicap (an occasional CBS series of specials for children is titled, with admirable directness, "The Winners"). The me-ethic is rarely if ever questioned and win-lust is usually endorsed in TV dramas. A two-hour NBC film being shown tonight. "The Great Wallendas," doesn't so much as whisper the possibility that an old circus performer might be misguided in luring members of his family onto a tightwire for a dangerous act that resulted in two deaths the first time it was performed.
A recent episode of "Laverne and Shirley" - a "very special," i.e., serious-themed, one, according to advance ads in trade papers - carried the glad tidings that mentally retarded people can be winners, too, if they are capable of relations with the opposite sex. It was quite inspiring.
The obession with winning and the glorification of winners are easily accounted for . Scripts for almost all television programs are written in a community called Hollywood that is in a constant state of giddiness over the prospect of making it big. Scripts are written by people who worship success, if they didn't, they wouldn't keep submitting them to studios even after being turned down over and over. When they finally break through, when they finally make it, are they about to write something that says the rat race may not be worth all the running, that the rewards aren't indeed as wonderful as advertised? Not for a million dollars.
Well, maybe 2 million . . .
The brilliant if occasionally lofty Norman Lear is one man in Hollywood who thinks competition has become too relentless and he blames the print media in part for "fanning the flames" by devoting too much attention to ratings, the fortunes of the networks and the machinations of the network power elite. But Lear puts some of the blame even higher than that.
"The climate has to change in the nation, guess, for things to change in television," he says. "Maybe it starts in the Oval Office. I don't say this lightly. I had hopes that Carter would bring a great spiritual awakening of some kind. I was not one of those people who were frightened by "born again," because I thought it could relate not to his particular religious activity but to a spiritual quality that he could make us all aware of, something this country and the rest of the world deperately needs.
"He could talk to us about the spiritual climate in which he'd like us to live. He could talk about the way competition is not serving the public interest in every area of American life. From somewhere, someone should speak to the country about the need to do business with the long-range public interest in mind."
We all may need heroes, we all may need villains, and it's hardly pernicious for escapist entertainment - perhaps even for newscasts - to supply them to us in profusion. But worship of the win drive, in television programming and in the television business, clearly seems to have gone beyond the boundaries of sanity. The old adage about winning not being everything isn't really heard much any more. Television has retired it. It was getting in the way.