WHAT WILL those TV people think of next? Probably something they first thought of 10 or 20 years ago.
Television is a time machine that at any given moment will regurgitate its own past in the quest to fake a "new" trend. The binge of the current given moment is straight out of Ripley: wacky-kookie shows about this wacky-kookie world and the colorful, zany or clinically insane inhabitants thereof.
Come fall, and actors strike or no actors strike, we are going to be up to funny bones in antics perpetuated by ostensibly real people as the trend toward funformational, nonfiction entertainment show continues. NBC has already cloned "Speak Up America" from its "Real People." ABC imitated "People" with "That's Incredible!" and in September will rip that off as "Those Amazing Animals" from "Incredible" producer, Alan Landburg.
CBS is currently giving an on-air test to "That's My Line," a "What's My Line?" update that features folks who have, yes, wacky and kookie occupations.
And NBC will this month unveil the giddy and deplorable "Games People Play," formerly "The Thursday Games," originally "The Sunday Games," and, under whatever monicker, a showcase for alleged everyman sports and organized pranking. Promos for the show feature a barroom bouncer competition -- bruisers tossing hapless patrons through breakaway doors -- and the big gut-butting event, in which two beer-bellies collide at point midriff and fall on mats.
We've gone back to the days of "You Asked for It," the Skippy Peanut Butter cracker of the '50s, which answered viewer requests to see freaks and oddities under glass in their living rooms. Those of us who grew up reluctantly glued to this god-awful monstrosity will never forget the woman whose apparent occupation in life was kissing corbras on the head. Compared to that show, and other Z-minus television of its day (families reunited on the air, humiliation orgies like "People Are Funny"), Chuck Barris is a regular Alistair Cooke.
Now it's deep reversion again, with even cable networks like Home Box Office elbowing into the act, the impetus being that since "Real People" was an unexpected hit, it must be, accroding to the first law of television, imitated to death. "Real People," which started slow, now regularly scores audience shares in the healthy 30s, and "That's Incredible!" -- though "That's Inedible" to connoisseurs of even minimally intelligent entertainment -- has been scoring high 30 shares ever since its premiere as an unsung midseason replacement last winter.
One might think any program with at least a nodding relationship to reality would be an automatic improvement over worthless, feckless fictions like "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island." But often it looks like the reality is as phony as the fiction and what you get is "Fake People," Real Fakes" or "Real Fake People" disguised as truthful mirth.
The new reversionism promises an alternative to the tired formulas of the sitcoms and filmed drama shows, but TV's new Reallees are filtered through the same Hollywood mentalities as the old ultra-fluff. The beneficiaries are the networks and studios, since the shows are cheaper to produce. Production costs on an hour of tape like "Real People" can be from one-third to one-half less than for a filmed hour like "Lou Grant." Plus they don't take nearly as much thought to make or to watch.
Why is television doling out ephemera and flotsam that belong in the back pages of the National Enquirer or out-takes from "Mondo Cane"? Partly it may be that TV ha discredited itself as a source of even the most mindlessly escapist fantasy. The quality of fabricated life on television has declined steadily over the years, so now an attemt is being made to palm off giggly filler material as refreshing reality programming.
Just as for years television has been systematically lowering the national taste, it has been systematically lowering its own entrance requirements. TV must keep up an ever-increasing demand for personalities, and how convenient to scoop them for free off the streets! They don't belong to unions, they don't have to be paid, and they don't get residuals.
We'd rather die, or at least get very sick, than repeat that moth-eaten Andy Warhol quote about how someday everyone will be a celebrity for 15 minutes, but what with increased competition from cable and pay TV and other technological appendages to the trusty box, commercial TV is desperate for alternative forms of programming to help stem a drop-off in network viewership that will get worse as te '80s continue. What better alternative than one which really isn't much of an alternative at all, one that claims realism and yet exploits its proletarian stars as if they were animated characters in a cartoon or the shouters and gagsters of a sitcom?
In the case of "Speak Up, America," the inspiratinal model appears to bee not so much another program as a whole genre of TV commercials -- the vox populi testimonials from folks next door about the efficacy of their fabric softeners, the aromatic fragrace of their breath fresheners, or the sensual ecstasies engendered by their mattresss, bubble baths and soda pops.
On the first trial edition of "Up" last April, the program was interrupted for just such an ad. "A Mrs. Someone from West Somewhere was saying that she used to have to flap her arms "like a chicken" to get her deodorant dry. Then she tried new Dry Idea Roll-On and, she declaimed, "I don't act like a chicken any more."
From there it was only a babystep through video space to similar people similarly photographed and edited but talking about women's rights, the draft and industrial pollution. It isn't easy to tell where the program ends and the commercail begins.
What outrages insiders at NBC N ews, among whom the program is as popular as Datsuns in Detroit, is that it diddles with the real world that they see as their province, and invades the territory of fact only as a pretext for getting cheap laughs or inciting a little low dudgeon. NBC News insiders have called such programs "frightening" because of the way they toy with the tools of journalism.
George Schlatter, producer of "real People" and "Speak Up America" and one of the burlier and more engaging impresarios in Hollywood (he created and produced the landmark "Laugh-In"), feels the heavily criticized "Speak Up" may be "really worth doing," however, and that it doesn't pose a threat to the perceptions of the American electorate or their ability to differentiate between fact and fudge. "People think it's 'dangerours,'" says Schlatter from Los Angeles. "Well, 'Laugh-In' was considered 'dangerous' until 'All in the Family' was considered to be more dangerous still."
Schlatter says he is breaking new ground and that this always ruffles feathers.
Meanwhile, all the networks are out with their nets in search of wackies and kookies they want to put on television.
For the premiere of "That's My Lin," CBS promised viewers such edifying encounters as those with "a man who arranges fantasies to come true," a fellow who "makes his living inserting transmitters into live rattlesnakes" and "a professor who experiments with jogging pigs."
Hardly to be out-done, Nbc, whose "Real People" is still the best of the lot, for what that's worth, will this fall include among its pageant of humanity "a man in England who powers a motor with a lemon," a woman in Michigan who lives year-round in a teepee guarded by a goose" and "an Atlanta gorilla that likes to watch TV."
A "Real People" return to air Aug. 27 will afford viewers the privilege of observing "an elephant in Ojai, Calf., that roller skates" and "a Moline, Ill., girl who was fired for sitting on a photocopying machine and making copies of her posteriors."
So this is the golden age of television that Fred Siverman promised us!
ABC's pitifully chipper "That's Incredible!" -- a program that one network insider says is "so bad even ABC is embarrassed by it" -- gives birth this fall to "Those Amazing Animals," which the network promoted so incessantly during the Democratic National Convention that some viewers may have thought the title referred to the Democrats.
What may really be incredible is that the sam mangy fruit-and-nut format is being imitated now by Home Box Office, the Time Inc. pay-cable network whose slogan promises its subscribers (and which bills them monthly for) "something else." HBO has introduced "Crazy and Wonderful," with an obvious emphasis on the former; in its program guide, HBO says "Crazy and Wonderful" will enable viewers to "meet a woman who thinks she can fly" and discover "a man who has a cockatoo answer his phone."
The heavy trading in zanies and oddos must be bleeding the market dry, since NBC also notes that "Real People" will thrill the nation with such not-so-spectacular spectacles as "a car in Santa Barbara, Calf., that has two front ends" and "a speed rope-jumping contest in Wisconsin."
If these programs really did celebrate the varieties and more benign extremes of human behavior or American life, they might have some sort of pop-sosciological as well as diversionary value. Sometimes, "Real People" gives this impression, and although its grinning and posturing mannequin-hosts are fingernails on the blackboard of one's brain, the show does appear to have a basically infectious, fun-loving, positivist attitude toward its subjects. But this is the trend at its rare best; more often, on the imitations and sometimes on "Real People" itself, the effect is that of a coarse, craven sideshow without even the redeeming quality of friendly vulgarity.
The trend is already way out of hand and perhaps a glut will help end it. In the meantime, we must suffer unwarranted exposure to the antics of wackies and the insufferable and obnoxious ravings of televised neighbors one would never tolerate in person. There's a title for this show, too: "Those Blankety-Blank Network Executives." Once more they've contrived television that not even an Atlanta gorilla should have to watch.