Tag Archives: UHF

The USA Network: What, No “Gilligan’s Island”?

The Curmudgeon still remembers that day in the late 1960s when his father came home with a little gray box that he hooked up to the back of the family’s portable black-and-white television.  He said it was called a “UHF converter,” and with the help of a strange-looking, round antenna that he screwed onto the back of the set right near the rabbit ears, it added three new television stations to the three network stations the family already received (in The Curmudgeon’s family, public broadcasting never really counted).

It wasn’t a great experience.  For starters, the picture on channels 17, 29, and 48 was awful:  fuzzy, snowy, and indistinct in a way that had nothing to do with the aging television on which it played.  The regular stations looked just fine; these new stations looked terrible.

Worse than the picture was the programming.  As soon as the novelty wore off, the family knew it was awful.  Sure, there was an occasional old movie worth watching, but most of the programming consisted of cartoons – a lot of cheap Japanese cartoons, like “Astro Boy” and “Speed Racer;” a little sports  – The Curmudgeon remembers bullfighting (which was pretty horrifying), a lot of wrestling (which he had never seen before), and hockey (you could never see the puck amid all the static and snow); and mostly, overwhelmingly, reruns of old shows.

And oh, those reruns.  Most of them were programs that were never any good even in their heyday:  “Dobie Gillis,” “Father Knows Best,” “The Real McCoys,” “Car 54 Where are You,” and the king of them all, “Gilligan’s Island.”  Now The Curmudgeon has always had a soft spot in his heart for “Gilligan’s Island:”  in second grade, when Miss Silverman asked her class to vote for their favorite television program, The Curmudgeon voted for “Gilligan’s Island” while most of his classmates voted for “Batman” or “The Addams Family.”  Even so, by the time UHF arrived in The Curmudgeon’s household he already knew that “Gilligan’s Island” was truly awful television, and Gilligan came to symbolize the mediocrity of UHF television.  (And in anticipation of the obvious question, the answer is:  Ginger)  UHF television itself symbolized cynical corporate greed:  put up an underpowered transmitter, throw on the cheapest programming you can buy, and rake in advertisers’ money.

UHF as we knew it may be gone, but its spirit lives on in the form of the USA Network, one of today’s most cynical of cable television networks.  (Note:  The other is Bravo.  Take heart:  The Curmudgeon will have a few choice words about Bravo in the future.)

Sure, USA has a few original series, but they only seem to run for a few months, and at any given time only one or two of them are actually showing any new programming.  The network has a catch-phrase it likes to promote – “characters welcome” – but the second, unspoken half of that phrase is “plots strictly optional.”  Somewhere along the line, the folks at USA decided that the key to successful programming is likeable, quirky characters (“Monk,” anyone?) but what those characters do once they’re on the air isn’t terribly important.  Go ahead, try to find a plot in an original USA program; The Curmudgeon dares you.

But like its UHF predecessors, the USA Network is really all about reruns:  rerun after rerun after rerun after rerun.  In the name of research, The Curmudgeon visited the USA Network web site and tallied its programming for one business week, January 23 through January 27, from nine o’clock in the morning until eleven at night.  His inspiration had a simple origin:  he had noticed USA Network advertising NCIS marathons approximately 40 of the past 50 weekends – or at least so it seemed.

So here’s what that tally showed.  Those five days have fifteen hour-long slots a day, or 75 slots for the five-day business work.  Of those seventy-five slots in the chosen week, sixty-two of them – eighty-three percent ­– were occupied by just three different series:  “Law and Order,” “NCIS,” and “Burn Notice;” only the latter is a series original to the USA Network.  On Monday, January 23, USA showed eight consecutive episodes – returns – of “Law and Order,” followed by four episodes – reruns – of “NCIS.”  The following day it went for broke:  thirteen consecutive episodes – reruns – of “Law and Order.”  The day after that – Wednesday, January 25 – came eight straight episodes – reruns – of “NCIS.”  And it goes on.

And that much-ballyhooed (as a result of relentless promotion) original USA Network programming?  As far as The Curmudgeon can tell – the network’s web site is sort of fuzzy about this and he had no interest in tuning in to see if it was actually true  – the five-day period had two episodes of new programming:  never-before-seen episodes of “White Collar” and “Royal Pains.”  Two whole new episodes of new programming in an entire week.  That’s not a television network; it’s a table of frayed, used, seen-better-days VHS tapes at a video store going-out-of-business sale.

Cable networks have brought a lot of new and innovative programming to television.  No longer needing the huge audiences required to succeed in the old days when there were three networks, cable can develop bright, interesting, innovative programming geared to smaller, niche audiences.  HBO is the best at this; the USA Network is probably the worst.  The programming on the USA Network is so bad, and so incredibly monotonous, that it can make one long for the days of “Gilligan’s Island.”

Or at least for network executives and programmers who aren’t about as dim-witted as Gilligan.

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