From Friends to Joey: where NBC went wrong

By Patrick Burke

Although NBC’s Friends spin-off (or rather, rip-off) Joey has enjoyed a level of success—attesting to the large-scale cerebral decadence of independent thought within the American public—it still is garnering only 34 percent of its progenitor’s viewers. Under the mistaken impression that anything associated with Friends would immediately inherit its prime-time dominance, NBC executives are distressed and baffled.

The collective NBC cerebrum is seemingly incapable of inductive reasoning. The miserable, titanic failures of other spin-offs or rip-offs such as Watching Ellie (based on the Elaine character from “Seinfeld”) should have taught them a lesson by now. Apparently the only case in which popular prime-time TV shows are successfully able to transfer their success to their posterity is when said TV shows are still reigning. This phenomenon is exemplified by the CSI and Law & Order epidemics. Nevertheless, getting back to the issue at hand, the growing deficiency in the creative department of NBC and its fellow broadcast juggernauts is indicative of non-cable television as the ancien regime, or Old Guard.

The labor of TV watchers everywhere has been estranged for too long. This is to say that American TV viewers have ceased to control the means of their digital stimulation. In this day and age, the “ruling class” that is the non-cable television leviathan tells us which shows we enjoy. To make matters worse, as the success of the broadcasters increases, the estrangement of the TV viewer from their labor increases as well. To better understand this relationship, it is necessary to start from the rise of non-cable TV, more specifically the advent of Cheers.

NBC’s Cheers can be seen as something of a broadcast boom. Considering this show deserved its immense popularity, however, the TV viewer did not expect as he entered “the place where everybody know his name” week after week that he was becoming anonymous all the while. Upon its golden demise, the broadcasters at NBC—through the vehicle of popular Cheers character Frasier Crane—launched the equally successful and equally deserving series Frasier. If Cheers is to be classified as a broadcast boom within our isolated example of the progression of broadcasting, Frasier is accordingly the broadcast heyday. Deceived by the infectious elitist wit of Frasier and Niles Crane, the American viewer was completely oblivious of the extent to which the estrangement of their TV viewing labor had escalated.

The success of Cheers, as with any TV show, must be attributed to the viewing labor of the TV viewers. It is in their viewing of a TV show that the value of a TV show is objectified—that the very existence of the TV show is validated. However, after being willed into existence by the labor of the TV viewers, Cheers was simultaneously betraying its creators by empowering the broadcasters. Vis-à-vis the broadcasters, Cheers is private property, whereas, in regard to the TV viewers, Cheers was a commodity. In the broadcasting system of television that prevails today, these two relationships have remained constant. In any event, by empowering the broadcasters, Cheers commenced to estrange the TV viewer from his viewing labor. Frasier would further empower the broadcasters, its success fueled by the transcendence of the viewing labor invested in its predecessor.

More generally, as the means of the viewing labor is estranged from the viewer (having been entirely subsumed by the broadcasters), the viewer ceases to be an agent of the manifestation of value. Although the initial purpose of the viewer was to objectify value in his viewership, upon the assumption of the means of viewing labor by the broadcaster, the viewer is rendered merely a glaring automaton. The resulting trivialization of value allows for the broadcasting of such shows as NBC’s Joey.

Despair is not the order of the day, though. The success of cable networks such as HBO and Comedy Central demonstrates that the revolution is near. It is a time of decadence for the broadcasters and their non-cable leviathan. TV viewers of the world unite!