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On watching what we watch

Some people watch television to be informed, others to be entertained. Still others watch to escape boredom, or find inspiration, or stay awake, or fall asleep. Yet like the fabled roads to Rome, these reasons all lead us back to a central recognition: that many people watch TV to find out who they are and how they fit into the skein of society. It may not be strictly true that ``you are what you watch.'' It is nearer right, perhaps, to say that you watch what you are. Then who watches the watchers? The A. C. Nielsen Company charts popular preferences in broadcast television, and for years you could learn who watched what simply by following its reports. But a decade ago, a new kid hit the block: cable TV. Like the broadcasting companies, the 50 or so satellite networks that now supply programming to local cable companies also want to know who's watching them. Lacking a common rating standard, they've set up various systems of their own.

Then who watches these watchers of watchers? One such organization is On Cable magazine. For its August issue, it asked cable network executives to describe their most popular series. The results are fascinating. As the chart below indicates, the five networks with the largest penetration of households list: a 1950s western (``Wagon Train'') on the Christian Broadcasting Network; a 1960s sitcom (``The Andy Griffith Show'') on Ted Turner's Atlanta superstation; a wrestling show on USA Network; boxi ng on the Entertainment & Sports Programming Network; and a current-affairs program on Cable News Network.

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With the possible exception of the last, these choices exhale the distinct aroma of old chestnuts. ``One of the first things to jump out from this data,'' according to the editors of On Cable, ``is the remarkable popularity of castoffs from conventional TV'' -- namely, the sitcom and the western. Also of interest to viewers, notes the article, are ``formats that were rejected years ago by the conventional networks and have only recently been resurrected'' -- in particular, wrestling and boxing. ``Beside s sports,'' the authors say, ``cable's most popular themes are sex, money, and politics.''

What does it all mean?

The explanation may lie with cable itself. Once touted as the great medium of diversity, has it abandoned its potential to ``narrowcast'' specialized programs to ape the wide audiences of broadcast TV?

Or the explanation may lie with the audience. Does it really demand nothing more than spectacle and amusement?

Or it may lie with the cable programmers. Have they, in ways that make accountants chortle, found the El Dorado of low-cost, high-popularity programming?

Or it may be a problem with contemporary programming. Peter Funt, On Cable's editor and publisher, writes that the popularity of the old standbys ``might be more an indictment of conventional broadcast TV than of cable. It could be that the conventional networks just aren't making shows like they used to. . . .''

What is all this telling us about ourselves? If we watch what we are, who are we?

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Searching the list of cable favorites, one is forced to conclude that the bulk of the most-popular cable fare is of a lighter-than-air variety -- large, bright, and amusing, perhaps, but with little more substance than a circus balloon.

That's not entirely bad: People need to relax. But the relentless prevalence of fluff should alert us to a telling characteristic of this age. This is the decade that has moved more strongly than any other into the visual culture. It has become an age that hallows the immediate, the ?freeze-dried, the slick. It is a decade that has glorified the pursuit of trivia -- often with tongue in cheek, but sometimes, one feels, to escape the consequences of more thought-provoking information.

It is almost as though there were a conspiracy of surfaces at work -- to keep the mind tinkering with petty concerns, while the vast potential for concentrated thought goes unfulfilled. Facing a future that needs entirely new kinds of commitment, we entrance ourselves with old westerns and sitcoms. Facing a present beset by famine and war, we gorge on the pseudo-battles of wrestlers and boxers. Facing a demand for profundity, we curl up with trivia. All of us -- audience, programmers, advertisers -- can do better.

Rushworth Kidder will be on vacation for the next few weeks. CHART: Most popular series on the top 15 cable channels Channel Type Homes reached Target Most popular series

(millions) audience or

subject ESPN Basic 34.0 General (esp. male) Top Rank Boxing WTBS Superstation 31.0 General The Andy Griffith Show CNN Basic 28.5 Upscale, general Crossfire USA Basic 28.0 Upscale, general All-American Wrestling CBN Basic 25.1 Families Wagon Train MTV Basic 22.6 Ages 12-23 Top 20 Video Countdown Lifetime Basic 20.1 General (esp. female) Good Sex Nickelodeon Basic 20.1 Children, teens You Can't Do That on Television C-SPAN Basic 19.3 Public affairs Morning Viewer Call-in FNN Basic 17.0 Professionals Money Talk HBO Pay 13.5 General Fraggle Rock A & E Basic 12.0 Upscale adults Tenko Showtime Pay 5.4 General Brothers Cinemax Pay 2.7 General Eros International Disney Pay 1.2 Families Welcome to Pooh Corner

Source: Channels of Communication (1985 Field Guide); On Cable (August 1985) 30{et

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