NEW YORK—It was the end of an era in American entertainment Monday, as the 55-year history of television came to a close.
Though the decision to stop transmitting has come as a shock to U.S. viewers, whose reactions have ranged from wild panic to profound grief, television industry insiders say it was an idea whose time had come.
"It's been great producing shows over the years, and we are very grateful for all the hours the fans have spent watching. But we just feel we've taken the medium as far as it can go," NBC president William Schallert said. "Anything more would just become a tired rehash of old ideas. We'd like TV to be remembered as something better than that."
At 9:17 p.m. EST, millions of Americans watched in horror as their favorite programs—including Melrose Place, Murphy Brown and Monday Night Football—were cut off by hissing white noise and static on their TV screens. While many sat in front of their blank screens for hours, staring in slack-jawed disbelief, others took to rioting in the streets, looting stores and overturning cars.
In Los Angeles, a violent mob of 25,000 has been rioting nonstop since Monday night, setting autos aflame and terrorizing electronics repair stores. Marching through the streets with their no-longer-functioning TVs skewered at the ends of long poles, the L.A. rioters have captured many of these electronics stores' employees, angrily demanding they "fix" the defunct sets, savagely beating them when they are inevitably unable to do so.
Despite the public's violent reaction, network executives stand by their decision. "Sure, I suppose we could have kept it up indefinitely, but what would have been the point?" said Tony Dow, director of programming for the WB Network. "Last week, we aired an episode of Moesha where Mo was too embarrassed to wear her glasses on a big date, so she went without them and bumped into lots of things. Do you have any idea how many times a sitcom has used that premise? I mean, give me a break."
"No… tee… VEEEEEE…" droned Knoxville, TN, dry cleaner Dave Benedict, drooling heavily as he repeatedly pointed and clicked his now-obsolete remote control at the blank screen of his Sony Trinitron. "Where… Frasier?… can't see… Frasier…" Benedict has remained in such a state for the last 72 hours, gripping the arms of his recliner, surrounded by empty soda cans and snack-chip bags, and waist deep in his own feces and urine.
In addition to the shut-down of programming by the major broadcasting networks, all cable television companies, as well as the videocassette market, have closed shop as well.
"Now that TV is over, I suppose we could still continue our video-rental business. But if you think about it, it's so much less enjoyable to watch films on the small screen than it is to see them in theaters," Blockbuster Video CEO Wayne Huizenga said. "There's just no substitute for the old-time Hollywood magic of the larger-than-life movie-theater experience. I don't think people would be interested."
"I talked to my wife for four hours last night," said Denver resident Charles Bain. "I got home from work, she started talking. I turned on the TV: Nothing! Nowhere to go, nothing to do but relate to her and the children!"
"AIIIIIEEEEE!!" Bain added, diving headfirst through a plate-glass window to his death.
Companies traditionally heavily reliant on TV advertising, such as Microsoft, Reebok, Chrysler and Gold Bond Medicated Powder, have reacted swiftly to news of the shutdown, transferring their commercials to "Burma Shave"-style sequential roadside signs; hand-held placards; and travelling circus sideshow-based promotions.
Actors left jobless by television's demise have also been forced to make the transition to post-TV America, albeit less smoothly. Though some are doing dinner theater, most television actors have returned to their pre-TV careers as waiters and waitresses. Some, like former TV superstar Candace Bergen—who recently legally changed her name to Murphy Brown in hopes of retaining celebrity status—have launched hastily arranged touring versions of their former shows, performing old episodes live in malls and department-store parking lots throughout the countryside.
"Bring the kids down to see Murphy Brown—Live On Stage, three nights only, at the Omaha Val-U-Sav through Saturday," a tired-looking Brown exhorted a Nebraska crowd. "And be sure not to miss Murphy In Song, a medley of your favorite showtunes, sung by me, Murphy Brown herself, immediately before and after the show! Showtimes are 7:30, 8:15 and 8:45, three shows nightly!"
"I dance too!" she added.
Despite throwing nearly every aspect of American society into chaos with their decision, television executives remain optimistic about the future.
"Television was a nice enough medium, but it always fell flat compared to other means of expression: the power of the written word, the magic of painting and the thrill of community-based quilting bees," Viacom's Eileen Brennan said. "We tried to take it far, but compared to those things, I think it's obvious that TV never stood a chance."
Looking ahead, former NBC president Brandon Tartikoff struck a note of hope. "We feel that with television over, the American people will waste no time returning to the more productive hobbies they have always preferred, such as nature hiking, family piano-parlor sing-a-longs and open mike poetry readings," Tartikoff said. "There's only so much revenue that can be generated spooning pre-adolescent pixilated pablum to the lowest common demographic denominator. In retrospect, we're glad we quit while we were ahead. I think it's pretty obvious the American consumers felt they deserved better."