TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our TV critic David Bianculli is with us with his picks of the best and worst TV shows of the year. We're also going to look back on some of the biggest developments in cable and broadcast this year.
David was the longtime TV critic for the New York Daily News. He now writes the online magazine tvworthwatching.com, teaches TV and film at Rowan University, and is the author of a new book about the Smothers Brothers called "Dangerously Funny."
Well, hi, David. Happy holidays, and happy new year.
DAVID BIANCULLI: Hi, hi, you, too. Happy to be back.
GROSS: So much has happened on TV and behind the scenes of TV this year. So when you look at the landscape, what do you think is the biggest TV story of the year?
BIANCULLI: Well, last year, the biggest story was the strike and the repercussions. This year, the biggest story is Jay Leno. He transformed late night, put all these dominos in play and then showed up in primetime and gobbled up five night of CBS'(ph) TV time, and then didn't do well.
GROSS: Didn't do well in what sense?
BIANCULLI: First of all, he didn't do a good show. It's an almost, to me, unwatchable show, and it's not as entertaining as even "The Tonight Show" was. But in what it had to do, which was to make money because it cost so much less than a drama for NBC to put in the 10 p.m. slot, that it's accomplished only barely. And in giving any sort of a lead-in to the local affiliates for their newscasts, which is very important, it's really failing. So I expect an all-out mutiny next year.
GROSS: What would a mutiny mean?
BIANCULLI: It would mean that local affiliates that are aligned with NBC could say, you know, I can take a syndicated program or put a local program or move something else in there in that last hour and garner a bigger audience for my local news, which is where most of my money comes from. So I'll just delay showing Jay Leno until 11:30, and then I'll move "The Tonight Show" back to 12:30, and I'll move, you know, Jimmy Fallon back to, you know, "The Farm Film Report."
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So can you compare the ratings of the NBC shows that had been on the 10 o'clock spot with what Leno is getting now?
BIANCULLI: It varies night to night, but it's, you know, a 20 percent drop, 30 percent drop, 50 percent drop. It's substantial, and it's also substantial in terms of the young demos that they find so attractive. NBC is trying to put a good face on this, but there's not much of a good face. And now that one of the big stories to end the year is NBC, you know, being sort of absorbed by Comcast with new owners in charge, they're probably not going to be so enamored with the idea of staying with this.
GROSS: So you think they might just pull the show?
BIANCULLI: Well, even Jay Leno has said, you know, I wouldn't mind going back to my old slot at "Tonight."
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: Yeah, isn't that a big...
GROSS: Tell that to Conan O'Brien.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, exactly, exactly. That is such a big whoa. And, you know, if you thought that his leaving "The Tonight Show" and then sort of bringing it to primetime under another name was a little bit disingenuous or not being a team player, what about that admission?
GROSS: So this year, late night changed a lot. You know, Leno moved from "The Tonight Show" to the new 10 o'clock show. Run through the musical chairs that have happened at late night.
BIANCULLI: Well, let's see. Conan moved up to "Tonight." Jimmy Fallon took his place at "Late Night," and at the other networks, things remained stable. You had "Nightline" on ABC. You have Letterman on CBS, and then Craig Ferguson on after him.
But what this new shift meant is that Conan had to sort of temper his act a little bit in order to appeal to a wider audience, and he got a younger demo. The age for "The Tonight Show" has dropped by about 10 years, the average age, but unfortunately, the overall audience has dropped so significantly that Letterman is now winning over "The Tonight Show," and it didn't used to be.
And in the 12:30 slot, Ferguson is beating Fallon, and that didn't even used to be a close race. So there's a shift.
GROSS: There were two major things that I think helped give Letterman a big audience this year. One of them was the feud with Sarah Palin, and the other was his affair, which he handled in such an interesting way, and he was so funny about it. No matter what you think of his affair, I think you have to say he made better jokes about it than anybody else did.
BIANCULLI: Well, he not only made better jokes - and you're absolutely, right. But he not only made better jokes about it, but he confronted it head-on. And you can not like what he did and still like the way that he handled it. It's sort of like Richard Nixon, this is the way you should have handled Watergate.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: Tiger Woods, you know, take note. You know, the - it was just a straight-on, look, I don't want to tell you this, but here's exactly what's going on. And it was out there. There wasn't a second-day story because he'd told it all the first day.
GROSS: We're talking about the year in television with FRESH AIR's TV critic, David Bianculli. David, when we do these year-end wrap-ups, we don't usually talk about soap operas, but we're going to talk about them now because there's a significant change in the world of soap operas. What's left?
BIANCULLI: Very little. And the really, really tenured ones, you know, are going away. "Guiding Light" left, and next year, we're going to get "As The World Turns." I mean, and these are...
GROSS: "As the World Turns" is ending next year?
BIANCULLI: Yes, and these are CBS soaps that were around as long as television was around, and before that on the radio. And it's actually something that's generational. There aren't that many shows left from the salad days of television. There's "Meet the Press," and there really isn't much else except for soaps.
Now, you can look at it and say in the last 10, 20 years, primetime has absorbed the idea of the soap. So you get plenty of soap opera stuff if you're watching "Brothers and Sisters" or even a serialized, you know, story, genre thing like "Lost." But the idea of having something to watch every afternoon and/or every morning and just do it the way it was done for generations, TV is saying well, that's not important, either, right now.
GROSS: So what is on during the day?
BIANCULLI: Oh, who knows?
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: You know, I'm sure - I'm working. I have the sound off. There's people still angry about stuff. There's game shows, and there's lots of talk, and it astounds me. Jerry Springer is still on.
GROSS: And Oprah's leaving broadcast. That's a big story.
BIANCULLI: Yes, that is a big story.
GROSS: Speaking of the afternoons.
BIANCULLI: That's like, is God dead? No, but Oprah's leaving TV. You know, it's a close second. You know, how are we going to find out what books to read? But I think we'll survive, but, you know - and I think that Oprah will not go far. Oprah will not pull a Johnny Carson and leave after 30 years and...
GROSS: Well, she's starting her own cable network.
BIANCULLI: Yes, yes. You know, and if her magazine doesn't work, she'll just start her own - well, she can't start her own newspaper. She's not that stupid. There's no newspapers, you know, but there's something out there that she'll do.
GROSS: The big business story of the year is probably NBC merging with Comcast, which is happening this month. Comcast bought a 51 percent share of NBC. What impact do you think that will have on the network and on us, the viewers of the network?
BIANCULLI: I honestly don't know. There's two ways to look at it. You could think of it as a good thing because the cable arm of NBC Universal is doing better programming than the network broadcast arm.
GROSS: You're talking about MSNBC?
BIANCULLI: No, I'm - no - I'm - oh no, no, no, no. I'm talking about like Universal, like USA Network, some of those programs, some of the things that have come to us on the SyFy Channel and other things that are part of the whole network synergy umbrella, that if they bring some of those programs to network TV, network TV would be better served.
But on the other hand, they don't necessarily - I don't trust executives to do the right thing. The right thing would be to do the cable model and do, instead of 22 episodes a year, maybe do 10 or 12 like cable does - do better shows and cycle them off. But I think we may just get more and more reality shows and trim the profits and, you know, sell their own fare from NBC to their own sister things to keep it in the family. It's - you know, the money for making these shows is getting harder and harder to find.
GROSS: My guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. We'll talk about the best and worst TV shows of the year after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're looking back on the year in television with our TV critic, David Bianculli.
Last year, one of the big TV stories was the political coverage of the election and the really divisive campaign.
GROSS: So this is the first year of President Obama's presidency. How do you think political coverage on television changed this year?
BIANCULLI: It became less dynamic. I think that one of the things that you could see is that almost all of the networks, rather than favor Obama, went to look at him critically fairly early. I don't mean critical in a bad sense, but there wasn't a honeymoon period that lasted too long. Maybe that was just because of current events and everything that was happening so quickly.
When I compare, like, Fox News, for example, and MSNBC, I find them, you know, equally shrill when they engage one another. It's still like children in a sandbox on both sides. But I do think that there's a difference in content.
GROSS: OK, let's look at the best and worst of the year, starting with the worst. What do you think were the worst TV shows of the year?
BIANCULLI: The worst in terms of most important worst?
BIANCULLI: I would say Jay Leno because the failure of that show both in terms of the ratings and creatively are going to have a major impact on TV for the next couple of years.
But I will say I think it would have been worse if it had been a better show, worse for television if it had succeeded.
BIANCULLI: Because then we'd have 10 shows just like that gobbling up all the hours of primetime.
GROSS: OK, what about the best TV shows of 2009?
BIANCULLI: All right. I like the fact that it's really hard to come up with a top 10, not because there aren't 10 but because there are more. So here, first off, are ones that just missed my Top 10: "Rescue Me" on FX, "In Treatment" on HBO, "Glee" on Fox, "House" on Fox, "Modern Family" on ABC, "Battlestar Galactica" on SyFy and "Fringe" on Fox. Those are all wonderful shows.
But now I'm going to tell you more wonderful. My number one show for this year was "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO. I thought the whole "Seinfeld" story was brilliant and brilliantly resolved.
"Mad Men" on AMC, I love that when I watch that show, it seems to be of a different pace than anything on television and operating at a more interesting frequency, and like what I like about Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," even when you know what's coming, it surprises you, and I love that.
BIANCULLI: "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, I think even in a nonpolitical year, managed to be both very important and very funny. I'm amazed at how much energy those guys have. And really, he's the best TV critic working in the United States right now. I know he doesn't want that title and probably wouldn't accept it, but he's doing more about deconstructing the media than anybody else.
GROSS: Is Colbert on your list?
BIANCULLI: Colbert is - would be actually one more rung down. I should have mentioned Colbert, but he'd not on my Top 10, but it's only because Colbert, whom I also love, I think is more of an act. And Jon Stewart, who says he's an act, to me is more serious. I think he's playing with higher stakes. I do like them both.
"Lost" on ABC is going to be ending next year, and it hasn't been around for a while, so you have to have a good memory to put it on a Top 10 list. But I like the idea of looking forward to a TV show and trying to figure it out, but not so hard that it becomes obsessive. I really have liked the whole journey of "Lost." So I still like that.
So now - and then "Friday Night Lights," which used to be on NBC, and it still is, but NBC has sort of shared costs by lending it out. So Direct TV Network, you know, a cable - I mean, a satellite firm, gets to show it first. So I'm watching it on satellite each Wednesday now and loving it, and it'll show up on NBC next year. It's NBC's best show, and NBC doesn't even care enough about it to pay whatever it would take to show it first. That, to me, says where NBC is. "30 Rock," at least NBC shows. I love the humor on that.
Showtime's "Dexter" was so twisted this year, John Lithgow as a villain every bit as watchable as Michael C. Hall as the twisted serial killer-hero. Great show.
"Breaking Bad" is another twisted show. That was on AMC, and it got a lot of attention for its acting, but not necessarily for its writing. But I think the writing on that is brilliant.
And then we've got three more. "True Blood" on HBO, which is my idea of just a bloody summer book. You know, I can't - it's just so much fun.
"Damages" on FX I think is one of the best legal procedurals on TV ever.
And finally - this one will surprise you, I think - "60 Minutes" on CBS. I think it's had another superb year. And you talk about shows that have been around for a long time, "60 Minutes" started in '68. So 41 years later, it's still in the Top 10, still doing better TV journalism than just about - than anything else, I won't qualify it, on broadcast TV.
GROSS: OK. Anything else you want to say about the year in television?
GROSS: It sounds like you're pretty enthusiastic about shows in spite of all the problems that television is having.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, but the trend that I see, and this I'm sad about, is that more of the good shows, more of the really good things are being done on cable rather than on broadcast. And I think it's just one more thing that broadcast TV is abdicating.
They gave up the TV movie. They gave up the miniseries. And now if they're giving up comedies and dramas - you know, if the best ones are on cable rather than on broadcast, then what are you in the business for? It baffles me and saddens me a little bit.
And the other thing is that as broadcast TV, the overall audience dwindles, nothing's going to replace that. We're not going to have another shared, national experience once we lose TV.
GROSS: Yeah, well, I think it's impossible now anyways, because there's so many channels, and you have the Internet. And you have all these other portable devices, from smartphones, iPods. We're done.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: Well, thanks. It was nice being here.
GROSS: In terms of being united by pop culture.
BIANCULLI: Oh, yes.
GROSS: I think things are just so fragmented now, for better and for worse.
BIANCULLI: I know. Thank goodness for "American Idol."
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Which we didn't mention.
BIANCULLI: I know, and it's OK. I mean, it is the last thing that sort of pulls people into the living room as a family the way television used to, and it is the most popular show on TV. The fact that we didn't mention it means - it's hugely popular. It's not hard to defend as a viewing experience, but it's not, to me, meaningful. Meaningful to me is a TV series I want to own on DVD and watch again. It doesn't matter how many people saw it the first time. You know, if I want to go back to "The Wire" - you know, "The Wire" is gone. "Deadwood" is gone. I love watching those shows. I'm never, ever, ever going back to an "American Idol," you know, to see Sanjaya's hair one more time. It's just not going to happen.
GROSS: Well, David, thanks for managing to sneak "The Wire" into our discussion, even though it wasn't even on the air this year.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: No. That's right. But still, you know, you talk about best show of the decade, that's probably it.
GROSS: Yeah. So do you think, in some ways, instead of, like, the big, mass, shared experience of television, what we're having now is sharing experiences? We send clips to friends that we've found on YouTube. We get clips from friends. And so we see these, like, high points of various things that happen in TV and on the world?
BIANCULLI: That's the best way I've ever heard it described: sharing experience instead of shared. I'm very excited. The...
GROSS: Let's credit our producer, Phyllis Myers, who came up with that during our interview and talked to us on the headphones.
BIANCULLI: But it's really what has happened, and it's hard for me to accept it. Let's say, for example, something big happens, but nobody watches it on TV, but it starts getting viral on the Internet. And where maybe it only originally had an audience of one or two million - whether it's something that Jon Stewart did, or it's a musical performance by Susan Boyle or anybody else. And then all of a sudden, it gets 10, 15 million hits over the Internet. But still, what happens right now is it gets then vindicated when one of the morning shows or one of the evening shows comes back and says, oh, look at this popular thing on the Internet, and sort of crowns it.
So right now, it does go back to TV, but I don't know how much longer it's going to. But I don't know if taking two minutes out of a monologue and having that shared because everybody wants to see it is the same thing as watching the entire hour of, like, the Johnny Carson show 10 years ago. I think it's different, somehow.
GROSS: David, it was great to talk with you. Thank you for putting together your list for us. And those lists will be on our Web site, so you can find them there, at freshair.npr.org. David, happy new year, happy holidays. Thank you for being here.
BIANCULLI: Well, thank you.
GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic. He also writes the Web magazine tvworthwatching.com. He teaches TV and film at Rowan University and is the author of a new book about the Smothers Brothers called "Dangerously Funny." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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