Is it true to say that nowadays the choice offered on television is little more than a wide selection of trivial rubbish?

The advent of cable television has ensured that at the click of a button, the average viewer quite literally has hundreds of programmes to choose from, widening the latter’s range of viewing options to a hitherto unprecedented extent. Paradoxically, this phenomenon has served to restrict the choices of the more discerning viewers among us. The pressing need for profit maximisation felt by the television networks in this age of increased competition in the media arena has resulted in the flooding of the market with mass produced spin-offs of the same formula, churned out, factory style, at a decidedly alarming rate. The trite banality of the bulk of these programmes renders them unappealing viewing, as not only do they lack any form of aesthetic originality and creative input which genuinely enhance the enjoyment of the viewer’s experience; at a more insidious level, the sheer inanity of such sorry specimens of programming can actually lead to a mind- numbing mental atrophy of sorts.

The first genre which comes to mind in any discussion of the “trivial rubbish” that is aired on television would be the drama, fondly known by legions of housewives (and husbands) as their soap opera. While some might argue that the ever expanding range of soap operas is growing wittier in terms of plot and dialogue in comparison to its rather trite predecessors, it is also evident that due to the more permissive moral standards of our day, there is more sex explicitly depicted on screen than ever before. This writer has no puritanical objection to the barest hint of flesh in terms of the moral degeneration that television coverage of sexual content will undoubtedly cause; rather, the concern is that the contrived manner in which modern soaps tend to portray sex actually trivialises the very act itself. The OC, an abbreviation for the Orange Country, depicts the lifestyle of a group of favulously wealthy mobile and physically flawless young adults who frolic in one of America’s most up-market counties. These Adonises and Aphrodites while away their seemingly endless hours by indulging in a languid, amorous game of musical chairs in each other’s beds. After the third or forth episode, the view becomes somewhat inured to the constant, mindless switching of partners; and one is left quite unfazed, even ambivalent during the denouement when the strapping male protagonist saunters into his own bedroom to find his newly wed wife taking a gambol between the sheets with their next door neighbour – it is difficult to truly care for his plight when one knows all too well the details of his own bed rendezvous with the same neighbour’s finance. Sex sells, a principle that network markets are adept at exploiting; but when overdone, the sheet inanity of it evokes a response in the viewer which comes close to repulsion.

In the late 1990s, the reality television genre made its debut on the screen with the much touted series “Survivor”. The emergence of this genre was (purportedly at least) in large part as a protest against the affected melodrama of the abovementioned soap opera viewers wanted to see real people in real life situations. Ironically, the genre seems to have degenerated into a host of miniature soap operas, which if not completely scripted, are very much edited and doctored to present a more dramatic and often unreflective piece of the actual reality that goes on during filming. This selection process has made reality television perhaps an even more fitting subject for the criteria in the question. The standard formula of cat-fighting, sex and romance, which has the additional advantage of low cost production, has resulted in endless spin-offs of this successful prototype. The popular programme, “The Bachelor”, has spawned “Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire?”, “Joe Millionaire” and “Average Joe”, to name a few. After watching the hundredth nameless blue-eyed blonde with perfectly coiffured tresses, and the acrid tongued brunette with a slick bob, polishing their nails while figuratively digging their claws into their competitors for the impossible suave male prize’s attention, one becomes rather desensitised to the predictability of the endless stream of catty gossip, and can only wonder at the rapid evanescence of the initial attraction the programme’s novelty held. This fact is clearly recognised by the producers of The Bachelor, who have introduced the concept of a plant amongst the contestants in a desperate attempt to heighten the tension and woo viewers back.

Contrary to the assertion, quality programming is surprisingly available on television – consider scientific documentaries on National Geographic channel. However, programmes with such academic content are often dull and dry.

Is it possible, one might ask, to combine economic interests and popular entertainment with genuine art, something full of impact and originality? The answer must be a resounding “Yes”. As a welcome breath of fresh air in this age of stale programming, the Star Trek Voyager Series manages to encapsulate both seemingly contradictory ends. The space age setting of phases, starships and exotic aliens satisfy the visceral demands of television programmes, television being an inherently visual medium. The plot transcends being simply action-packed by being refreshingly original as well. It ropes in scientific concepts and phenomena and builds a storyline which extrapolates from them, making for intelligent viewing. Above all, into each episode is woven serious moral questioning about the fundamental human dilemmas. The producers take pains to avoid being didactic, and the storylines challenges, provoking reflection, rather than simply dishing out a neat, easy answer. This, perhaps, is television at its best one’s enjoyment of the engaging programme is deepened and prolonged by the intellectual and emotional satisfaction acquired in responding to its theme and issues.

In conclusion, although the prospects of the television scene today in general appear bleak, with a little bit of effort, if one searches persistently enough, programmes worth watching are perhaps not quite as extinct a species as one might originally have though.