The Idiot Box


March 13, 1994|By Dave Barry

As a parent as well as a human being, I am deeply concerned about all this violence and sex and nudity on television. Especially the nudity. Why can't they put it on earlier? A lot of us parents are asleep by 9:30 p.m. Why can't they show nudity when we're watching? They could feature it in programs that children never watch, such as the network news. ("Good evening, I'm Dan Rather." "And I'm Connie Chung." "And I'm Bambi.")

No, seriously, I am deeply concerned about TV sex and violence, and so is the U.S. Senate. Leading the way by courageously holding press conferences is Sen. Paul Simon, who has a special stake in this issue because he receives TV signals directly via his ears, which are like satellite dishes, but bigger. (And before I get an angry letter from the Association of People With Unusually Large Body Parts, let me state that I, personally, find this attractive.)

As a result of this concern on the part of Sen. Simon and myself, I decided to attend this year's National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) convention in Miami Beach. This is a major annual gathering of TV executives, who are wooed intensively by people trying to sell TV programs. The convention is held in a huge hall filled with flashy display booths featuring lavish buffets, costumed characters, models wearing outfits that would look skimpy even on much smaller models, and Personal Appearances by famous stars such as while I was there Wink Martindale, Ivana Trump, Captain Planet, Burt Reynolds and Mr. Food.

The purpose of the glitz is to lure TV executives into the booths; they are then taken into elaborately furnished back-room deal-making areas, where they talk business while sipping complimentary beverages containing a chemical that temporarily renders them so stupid that they will willingly purchase programs such as "The Best of Love Connection."

I'm kidding about the stupidity, of course. The TV programming executives are smart to purchase this type of show. They are making dumpsterloads of money, because we watch these shows. We're the idiots. Not that you'll hear that from Sen. Simon. He's not about to say: "If you don't like what's on, TURN OFF THE TV, YOU MORONS, and let the Senate deal with real issues, such as whether federal health care should cover ear reductions."

No, he's not going to tell us that, and we're not going to stop watching these shows, which is why the TV executives are not going to stop buying them. The NATPE convention was full of purposeful, suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying people, frowning and talking about shows such as "Biker Mice From Mars." This is an actual show. I hung around in the "Biker Mice" booth and eavesdropped as two intense TV executives discussed it while standing right next to two people costumed as enormous mice wearing Hells-Angels-style outfits.

"It's going to depend on the percentage," one of the executives was saying.

"Yes, but it has to be a separate financial entity," the other executive said. As if to emphasize this point, the giant mice bumped butts with each other.

"Biker Mice From Mars" is, needless to say, a children's show. Here are some of the other ones listed in the NATPE program directory (I am not making these up): "Clowns of Justice," "Chicken Minute," "The Yum Yums," "The Whimblies," "The Moo Family," "Goomer's," "Noozles," "Smoggies," "Bumpety Boo," "Scuddlemutt," "Dinky Dog," "Wowser," "Mirthworms on Stage," "Rude Dog and the Dweebs," "Goshu the Cellist," "Basil Hears a Noise," "The Miraculous Mellops," "P.J. Funnybunny" and "Let's Make War."

The highlight of the convention for me was when Mike Donovan, a college professor who also works for NATPE (at least until this column appears), showed me a tape of one of the greatest TV shows of all time: "Winky Dink." This was the first "interactive" TV show. You, the viewer, sent 50 cents to Box 5, New York 19, New York, and you got back a Magic Window, which was a piece of transparent plastic that you put on your TV screen. Then, under the direction of your host, Jack Barry, you used special crayons to draw lines on the plastic. (Or, if you were my sister and I, and you didn't have a Magic Window, you drew right on the TV screen and interacted with your parents later.)

After the lines were drawn, you and Jack Barry said the Magic Word "WINKO!" and the lines became part of, say, a bridge, which Winky Dink would use to get across a river.

("What always bothered me," said Mike, "was that even if you didn't draw the lines, Winky Dink still got across the river.")

As part of a nostalgia display, NATPE had a TV set up on the convention floor, playing old Winky Dink shows. Mike put a piece of plastic on the screen and gave me a marker. I drew the lines where Jack Barry told me to, producing a vaguely round object.

"OK, kids," said Jack Barry. "Let's say the magic word! One, two, three ... "

"WINKO!!" yelled Mike and I, causing startled TV executives to whirl around and stare at us. Inside the circle I had drawn, goldfish appeared. It was a fish bowl! You don't get quality entertainment like that any more. Which is probably just as well, because Sen. Simon, take note the fish were naked.

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