Don't Touch That Remote

I wouldn't say I watch a lot of television. I watch "Law & Order," natch, and "Law & Order: SVU" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," and "Law & Order: Trading Spaces" and "Law & Order With Brian Williams" and "Law & Order With Regis and Kelly." I watched "The Osbournes" until I realized that everyone else had stopped watching it, and why--if I want to see a dog have an accident, I can do it here at home, and with better-looking dogs--and I watched "Newlyweds" with Jessica (Mensa) Simpson until I realized that it was causing that really bad taste I had in my mouth each morning.

But even I couldn't help noticing that some of the television running during the playoffs and the World Series was about as bad as television can be.

I channel-surfed only when my husband went to the kitchen for snack foods or when Alfonso Soriano was at bat and we knew nothing was going to happen. But soon I didn't even bother. I watched insurance-company advertisements and really idiotic beer commercials because to look elsewhere was to look into the dark yawning maw of what entertainment executives (an oxymoron, emphasis on that last part) think of as "what Americans want."

There are probably some sour grapes involved here. There was a time, years ago, when a drama loosely based on my work was in the works, a one-hour show about a woman with children and one of those understanding, slightly exasperated husbands who populate TV sitcoms. It was supposed to show the zany strains of modern family life. But along came a competing pilot, the one about the professional wrestlers who worked as private investigators, and--well, you know the rest. I was worried that the wrestler-investigators and their ilk would materialize during the baseball cycle, along with all those worthy but dated movies. Hasn't the statute of limitations run on "Mystic Pizza"?

Into the breach--that is, the nights when baseball was not being broadcast--the networks rushed those programs they believed viewers might actually like, chiefly a soap about the children of two households, both alike in dignity (one dad being a politically ambitious district attorney, the other a pornographer), which ought to carry the credit line "based on a script by W. Shakespeare." The cast of said series was prominently shown in attendance at Yankee Stadium, which was either smart promotion or a waste of good seats, depending on your perspective.

Katie Couric popped up on a night when the teams were traveling to interview Elizabeth Smart. You remember Elizabeth, the young girl from Utah who was kidnapped by a wild-eyed guy who believed polygamy was next to godliness. Elizabeth's parents appear to be the only mom and dad in America who believe the way to help your child recover from sexual assault is to have her do a major network television interview. On the same night Barbara Walters got another crack at Diana, Princess of Wales, by interviewing her blabbermouth butler. With the baseball players taking a night off, television became an exploitathon for vulnerable females.

In 1961 Newton Minow was the guy running the FCC, and he was moved to say, famously, "I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air... and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland."

("Mommy, what does he mean about the station signing off the air?" asked the child in wonder. "There was a test pattern and a flag," the mother replied tenderly. "It was a long, long time ago.")

What a naif Newton seems, in his golden age of television, with Dick Van Dyke tripping over the ottoman and Patty Duke chatting with Cathy (and they're both the same actress!). Because--watching Derek Jeter smile his tight smile and Aaron Boone bobble the ball at third and Juan Pierre steal bases with the kind of ease Carl Reiner once brought to a comedy script--I realized that there is now a vaster wasteland than any the FCC chairman had imagined.

It's the kind of programming of old movies and creaky specials that run when there's no prayer of competing. It's the opposite of destination television--dead-end TV, I guess. It's the kind of programming that used to run during the "Miss America Pageant," before the contestants spent so much time talking about scholarships and abstinence education, before anyone who wanted to see someone half undressed in heels could turn on "Girls Gone Wild" or, for a better class of heels, "Sex and the City." It's the kind of programming that's on opposite the Super Bowl.

They might as well just run a test pattern. Instead I suppose my kids can look forward during World Series of the future to more of the same--the Yanks, of course, but also "Toy Story 10--Buzz and Barbie's Dream Wedding," or "Hideki Matsui, the E! True Hollywood Story." And, of course, the obligatory interview concerning some poor woman whose life has been shattered: perhaps Jessica Simpson, after the crash? In a televised world gone flat and flavorless, at least they'll always have baseball. And "Law & Order," natch.