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Triumph of the Beautiful People

People are always coming up to me at office parties and church socials and other gatherings and saying to me, "Philip Michaels... I find your writing style to be incisive and entertaining, in spite of your obviously sub-standard spelling ability and your loose adherence to the rules of grammar. But tell me, why is it you're such a stick in the mud, always carping and complaining and carrying on? Do you suffer from some as-of-yet unresolved childhood trauma, or are you really that much of a niggling asshole?"

Which is about when I motion to my bodyguards to beat these people senseless while I turn my attention back to my half-finished black and tan, oblivious to their cries of agony and pleadings to their gods for death.

Still, it's a fair question. And one I'd be happy to tell people, if my goons weren't busy boxing their ears. Exactly when did I go from a mild-mannered, bleeding heart softie to the embittered shell of an ink-stained wretch you see before you today? Was it the booze, the dames, the pills, the unfilled dreams that disintegrated before my tear-stained eyes in a New Orleans honky-tonk?

Perhaps. But me, I blame high school.

I walked into my first day of high school as a fairly well-adjusted lad, respectful of my fellow man and convinced that, in the end, the race always went to the swiftest, good always triumphed over evil and that taking the road less traveled by would make all the difference. Sure, striking out from the crowd is never an easy thing to do, I reasoned, but in the end, my peers will respect me more if I just be myself and let the chips fall where they may.

It took a little less than a week to discover the key flaw in that particular theory.

And so, when I left high school four years later, I walked out the door with a firm grasp of the Periodic Table, a passing familiarity with subject-verb agreement and an abiding hatred for my peer group that warms my black heart up to this very day. Earning a commanding market share of my animosity were the Beautiful People -- the popular kids who, through whim and caprice, held sway over the likes and dislikes of the schoolyard mob. They got all the breaks. They scored all the chicks. And they did so at the expense of the slightly more awkward, the perceptibly off-center.

"Well, that's all very nice," a few of you may be murmuring right now. "Thanks ever so much for unleashing your own personal demons to frolic in front of us while we stare at the ground in uncomfortable silence. But what in the name of Meeno Peluce has any of your babble got to do with television?"

Everything, my Meeno Peluce-loving friends. Everything.

Empirical evidence -- ABC after-school specials, mostly -- suggests that the power of the popular kids over public opinion begins to wane roughly five minutes after graduation. That's when Dirk Squarejaw and Sally Pompoms are left to contemplate the rest of their miserable, empty lives together, their only respite coming from those increasingly hazy memories of when they were king and queen of the prom. And that's when the ugly ducklings of high school -- and I'm talking about you and me, Poindexter -- blossom into beautiful swans.

Well, I'm here to tell you, that's all a bunch of buncombe. Not the bit about me becoming a beautiful swan. I don't know about you, but I'm kick-ass. No, it's the part about the popular kids, the Beautiful People, somehow abdicating their role as tastemakers for a generation -- that's the part that's a pack of lies. And nothing underscores that brutal fact more than TV.

Television, as you may or may not know, is run almost entirely by ratings. Sex and hubris have significant supporting roles, but, for the most part, the programs you watch on any given night are there because they bring in the right kind of numbers.

In the good old days before cable -- say, round about 1987 -- this was a pretty easy system to figure out. The more people that watched the show, the better the ratings. The higher the ratings, the more likely the show would stay on the air. Fail to bring in respectable ratings and, well, see you in Hell, Sonny Spoon.

All of that's changed now because viewers can flee the stale world of network TV at any given time for the joys of cable or the Internet or dirty CD-ROMs. So shows with ratings that a decade ago would have earned them a one-way trip to programming chief's woodshed are now able to scrape along for many a season. And network honchos have developed a new way of keeping score.

That's why a seemingly well-watched program such as the astoundingly dull Jesse can be considered a ratings disappointment, since the second after the credits for Friends come to an end, more than 25% of the lead-in audience is shooting the TV, then themselves, to avoid catching even a glimpse of Christina Applegate's heartwarming antics. And that's why Dawson's Creek, continually beaten in the ratings by even the lowest-rated dreck that ABC, NBC and CBS have to offer, is considered a monster hit, since the people who do watch tend to be impressionable youngsters with lots of discretionary income and a knack for falling for any cock-and-bull story that advertisers happen to be selling.

And this is where the heavy hand of the Beautiful People -- in TV's case, that's adults between the ages of 18 to 49 -- is felt the most. Since that's the age group advertisers want to reach, the shows wedged between the commercials are geared toward attracting those young, suggestible eyeballs. And that's why almost every sitcom to roll off the network TV assembly line over the past few years has the same look and feel, the same interchangeable parts, the same lack of inspiration.

Well, fine, you may be saying. I'm an adult between the ages of 18 to 49. Why shouldn't network chiefs be falling all over themselves to cater to me? Let youth be served. And if the old folks don't like it, well, there's always Diagnosis Murder over on CBS.

Only the problem is, networks are getting much more finicky about just who exactly the desirable target audience is. Last week's Entertainment Weekly, for example, recapped the recent November sweeps by reporting that NBC and Fox ended the month in a virtual dead heat for attracting the largest amount of callow youth. NBC, however, declared sweeping victory in the ratings since, it reasoned, the Peacock Network attracted a better quality of 18- to 49-year-old: more male, more white, more dollars to spend. You can expect other networks to follow NBC's suit and aim their programming at increasingly smaller yet improbably more affluent niches.

And that means shows which are already impossible to tell apart without a scorecard -- or at least, this week's TV Guide -- will be increasingly cut from the same bland cloth. Programs that break from the norm -- the late, lamented EZ Streets, say -- will be met with shrugs of indifference. And mildly successful fringe shows -- Homicide, anyone? -- will be dumbed down to ensure more widespread public acclaim. Muffy and Tad and Danforth found all of that crime and grittiness and stuff to be off-putting and confusing anyhow.

It's somewhat unsettling -- this growing movement toward targeting every show toward the same slice of the population while leaving the mass of the TV-viewing world out in the cold, hoping for a few table scraps. And it's also eerily familiar... that same pit-of-the-stomach throb I used to get back in Mrs. Quesenoy's third period Spanish class in the 10th grade. Back then, I faced the problem by adopting a healthy veneer of sarcasm and writing scads of bad poetry. Now, at least, I can always turn off the channel.


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