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The West Wing

Last summer Bernie Weinraub wrote an article in The New York Times on ratings problems at The West Wing, the popular television show about a fictional Democratic president and his administration. The article covered all the expected problems with a show late in its run, with characters and ideas getting stale and audiences tuning out in favor of more exciting and novel fare. But, in the discussion of why ratings were suffering, I thought he left out one critical frustration factor that affects my viewing more than any other.

Of course, The West Wing, despite the fact that I watch it regularly — that I, in fact, enjoy it a great deal as entertainment — has always peeved me because of the way it portrays politics and writing a letter about my viewing frustrations also gave me an opportunity to dump on Mr. Weinraub about that.

I sent this letter to Mr. Weinraub himself, not for publication — and I received a pleasant reply indicating that he had not only read it but sympathized (at least with my viewing frustration). Now if only I knew how to get it to someone at NBC…

12 August 2004

As a fan of The West Wing since it’s inception, I read your article with interest. I will admit it is somewhat a guilty pleasure: the whole time I’m watching and enjoying the drama, the philosophical give-and-take, and the snappy dialog, I’m also aware of and upset by the fact that it is also a fully-paid (and unregulated) prime-time advertisement for the Democratic Party.

No, it’s worse: it’s a fully-paid prime-time advertisement for a mythical and wonderful Democratic Party that exists only inside the mind of Aaron Sorkin, the Platonic ideal of a Democratic Party. If the real Democratic Party (or the Republican Party for that matter) could actually offer people of such intelligence and integrity and intellectual honesty; if the real Democratic Party (or the Republican Party) could actually offer people willing to grant their opponents dignity, and to acknowledge that they have both legitimate concerns and valid intellectual arguments; if the real Democratic Party (or the Republican Party) could actually offer people who could see and critique the shortcomings and insanities of their political allies as thoroughly as those of their political adversaries; if the real Democratic Party (or the Republican Party) could offer people capable of reflection, consideration, and a change of mind when presented with reasonable counter-arguments; if the real Democratic Party (or the Republican Party) could offer us people like the Bartlett administration rather than the panderers and ideologues we actually get, then I could finally cast a vote in favor of someone rather then merely against someone else. Comparing this fantasy to real life week after week is an exercise in political frustration; and the thought that the real-life mediocrities of the Democratic Party benefit by their association with this fantasy is galling.

And yet, I’m addicted to it. But, like many others I know, my viewing of it has become a hit-and-miss affair, not because of my political frustration and not for any of the reasons you mentioned in your article, but for a reason far more prosaic: I can never figure out when the new episodes are going to be on.

There was a time when you could plan your viewing habits. The new season always started about when school did and, once it started, there would be a new episode each week (barring collisions with major holidays) until the new episodes had run their course. If you missed one during the first run, you knew that the next quarter would bring them all back again, in sequence, so you knew when to catch the ones you missed. In short, following a series regularly was easy.

But the new scheduling system seems to be the exact opposite — arbitrary and impossible to fathom. Each network, or sometimes each individual show, begins its season at a different time. Once the season begins you get some new episodes, but then they throw in old episodes at seeming random intervals, so unless you research religiously you never know whether you will see a new episode or a re-run when you tune in on any given evening. Further, when you do miss one, there’s no way to predict when it might be re-run so you can catch it later. Trying to follow a series regularly becomes a hassle. After a while it’s just easier to tune-in only when you’ve nothing better to do — or to skip it entirely.

From the sound of it, the new season will suffer from the same scheduling chaos as the old ones. And this family will frequently tune out, not because of a decline in quality or interest but because we want television — whether as merely an excuse to sit still together for an hour or as a narcotic of mindless entertainment or as a catalyst that focuses our attentions together on the same intellectual and emotional tableau — to diminish the chaos of our lives not to augment it.

© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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