These are the days of mustn't-see TV

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Man came by to hook up my cable TV. We settled in for the night, my baby and me. We switched 'round and 'round 'til half-past dawn. There was 57 channels and nothing on.

-- Bruce Springsteen

Back when NBC was still considered a viable television network, it called its "Seinfeld"-led Thursday-night primetime lineup "Must-See TV."

Since that time -- perhaps the last golden era of the medium -- the almost universal acceptance of once-obscure, niche-driven pay TV networks like HBO, ESPN, Showtime, TBS, MTV and FX has helped dilute the quality of product that's broadcast over the airwaves so completely, I daresay it would be difficult to find a week's worth of primetime shows that even border on the quality of that long-ago must-see lineup.

Call it "Mustn't-See TV."

For quality today, there's "The Office," "True Blood," "Weeds," "Justified" ... ummm ... "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Parks and Recreation," "Nurse Jackie," "Dexter," ... let's see, "Friday Night Lights" is done, there's no "Sunday" or "Monday Night Football," and "Sports Center" has become little more than a bunch of similarly dressed yuppies shouting what they think are clever catchphrases at each other.

That about does it.

(I'd throw the WWE's "Raw" in there, but I've been asked to stop telling people I watch that show.)

The fare is especially bad on the four so-called major networks -- CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox -- and that's made channel-surfing a favorite pastime in many homes. Cheaply made "reality shows" and glorified karaoke contests have awakened the latent voyeur in American TV watchers, and as ratings for shows that grab their short attention span have risen, quality has sunk to amazing lows. ("Mike and Molly" anyone?)

In searching for something -- anything -- with even a modicum of entertainment value, many viewers have sought out cable networks whose reputations were built on quality over fad. I'd always considered The Learning Channel and the History Channel two such stalwarts.

However, after a recent frightening night of watching "Toddlers and Tiaras" and "My Strange Addiction" on TLC, during which there were seemingly endless promos for the History Channel's "Swamp People," it occurred to me that the days of quality programming on television are officially over.

"Toddlers" features the tawdry world of kiddie beauty pageants, focusing on insane mothers who dress and make their children up like hookers and berate them into acts of idiocy that will no doubt lead them into counseling at some point not far down the road.

(The episode I saw featured a loony mom from Willacoochee whose 3-year-old was so obnoxious she set the spoiled-brat standard for decades to come. The mother, meanwhile, complained on camera that it was unfair to her baby that she didn't win local pageants because she had to compete against "kids who had cancer." Can't help but feel sorry for the precious snotty little brat -- who kept telling her mother to shut up and hit her repeatedly -- who has to challenge kids LUCKY enough to have cancer.)

Then I watched enough of "My Strange Addiction" to learn about a woman who regularly eats dryer sheets and another who likes to wear diapers, suck on a pacifier and dress in baby clothes. Just enough, in other words, to start feeling nauseous.

Thus enlightened, I decided to see what else these high-quality channels had to offer. TLC's schedule includes shows called "Hoarding," "Extreme Couponing," "Freaky Eaters," "Sister Wives" and "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant."

On the History Channel, shows like "Ice Road Truckers," "Pawn Stars" and "Swamp People" were among the biggies.

After reading up on these quality programs -- people who live in filth piled to the ceiling, drunk bubbas who fish without poles, a typical day as a polygamist's bride -- I think I figured out the mindset of today's TV programmer. Get some deranged people, preferrably from the South, put them in their element and turn them lose. Roll cameras, and in 21st-century America, you've got yourself a hit.

I'll keep watching TV because ... well, I guess because growing up with only two channels available, I'm still amazed by the medium's potential. But more and more, I'm starting to realize that missing my favorite show these days is not really such a big deal.

In fact, as someone who had to be forced into it when I was younger, I'm amazed by the realization that reading's actually a lot more entertaining than watching any of the hundreds of channels on a 52-inch, high-definition television these days.

Must-see TV indeed.

Email Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.