Will TV viewers pay this year for what they could see free last year? In Los Angeles, "On" Subscription Television has notion that they will, so long as they don't have to sit through commercials, station breaks, promos, news updates and all the other geegaws TV puts between them and a program.
"On" is selling reruns of last year's 26-hour NBC series "Centennial" as part of its monthly pay-TV package, telling customers in ads that now they can see the series "the way James Michener wrote it." That is not precisely correct, since Michener wrote the novel and not the TV scripts based on it.
But the point is made: TV's avalanche of petty clutter is something viewers are suffering less silently than they used to, and more and more alternatives are creeping along to offer welcome relief. How do you spell relief? In this case it certainly isn't R-o-l-a-i-d-s.
Stations themselves have acknowledged the problem in some cities, where occasional movies are shown with "only one commercial interruption" or at least with the promise of fewer commercial interruptions than usual. But this is the exception to the rule of stuffing a program with interruptions and effluvia until there is scarcely a program left, and very little chance anyone would be able to enjoy it.
Television's mutilation of movies is legend, but old TV programs get mangled, as well, when sold into syndication. A half-hour prime-time comedy now on the air contains about 23 minutes of actual program material; the rest goes to commercials and station breaks. The same program sold into syndication may turn up on daytime TV with as few as 18 minutes of program content left because the amount of commercial time increases.
Viewers throughout the country are noticing how that "M*A*S*H" in reruns looks more like "mash" and that they are seeing anything but all of "All in the Family."
Indeed, Norman Lear had a conniption when he learned that in daytime reruns of "Family" on the CBS network, three minutes would have to be trimmed out of each show. To Lear's surprise, the three-minute chunks were not reinstated when the programs went into syndication to local stations
"I dream that someday, some cable TV system will be offering viewers the original, uncut, 'All in the Family,'" Lear says now. After stations get through running the program in early evening time slots, they may relegate it to daytime where they'll carve still more out of it to accommodate additional ads.
A TV comedy series made more than five years ago would have contained 24 to 26 minutes of program content per half-hour. So the older the show, the more material is likely to have been cut out of it.
And stations are anything but delicate about the cutting. Reckless, mercenary grubbiness is more like it. It is anything but uncommon for an old "I Love Lucy" to begin in the middle of a joke, the middle of a laugh, or the middle of a "ba-ba-lu." Sometimes the whole set-up has been purged; Lucy's in the freezer, but you haven't the faintest idea how she got there.
"The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show," still circulated in syndicated reruns, usually opened with a scene in which another case of mistaken identity by Gracie would put the plot in motion. Some stations would cut this scene out and so render the rest of the show virtually unintelligible, except maybe to those who wrote it and have good memories.
One could say these programs are not art or religion and therefore hardly sacrosanct. Well, there is considerable doubt that "All in the "Family" is not art. And even if it isn't, it'sdeceptive to advertise it to viewers and then show them only the tattered remains.
Remember, there is no regulation on the books at the FCC prohibiting stations from reducing films and TV shows to smithereens. There is no rule whatsoever restricting the amount of time they can devote to drum-beating and type and the havoc of hawking goods.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has a voluntary code that establishes certain limits on non-program time during various hours of the day. But nobody from the NAB monitors stations to see if they are complying. The worst the NAB could do to a disobedient station would be to take away its NAB "shield". That's the little doodad stations flash on the screen just before "The Star Spangled Banner" in the middle of the night.
The FCC recently removed one more restriction to the growth of over-the-air pay-TV systems like "On" in L.A. And cable TV penetration is continuing at a sound clip. Local station managements love to whimper and whine about how cruel a thought any competition to their little communications oil wells might be, but they seem to be begging for the kibosh.
They ought to look at what they're putting out over the air and ask themselves if it's any wonder viewers flock to alternatives. Maybe those viewers aren't being so much lured away as chased away.