BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. It's Christmas weekend -- a time for family reunions, spiritual contemplation, and for a lot of us, watching television. We asked Time magazine media columnist James Poniewozic to ring out the old year with a look back at TV in 2003. James, welcome back to the show.
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. One word or phrase to describe the year of television 2003.
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: Desperate, I'd say. [LAUGHTER] Desperate in the sense of the television business is in tough shape, as has been well-reported through the fall. A lot of the reality shows that we've seen this year were born of a problem TV has, which is how do you get people talking to each other about television, feeling that they really need to see it. This is something that TV sitcoms and dramas used to do. I do think we also saw some examples this year of fiction TV learning from and adapting some of the techniques of "reality television," quote/unquote. The Office, which was a great import sitcom that came over from Britain, was a sitcom shot essentially in a mockumentary style with sort of, you know, confessionals and interviews and a lot of the devices that we're used to seeing in TV reality shows like the Real World and what not. We've also seen a new development in what you would almost call I guess scripted reality television with shows like the Joe Schmoe Show, which on the one hand was a reality show. It was about a guy who believed that he was a contestant on a reality show called Lap of Luxury, but in fact all of his fellow contestants were actually being played by actors -- who were all in on the joke. And this was a show that was, in its way, as scripted as any comedy. It was essentially the first really effective reality series parody of a reality series.
BOB GARFIELD:A reality TV show that works by trading on the total unreality. I refer of course to the Ali G Show, which briefly took cable by storm. What's the future for tricking people into appearing on news-like shows only to be made a fool of?
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: I think that there is a, a booming future in it. I mean that was really another one of the big threats that we saw in television just across the board this year, is the theater of deception -- not just the Ali G Show which was a great, clever and knowing way of applying that to a news type show, but you know, also Punk'd, a lot of reality competition shows like Average Joe and Joe Millionaire and so on and so forth, were essentially about deceptions of one kind or another. You know, I know that with the Ali G Show in Britain, they eventually reached the point where they felt that they just couldn't continue doing this as well as they could before, because people would, you know, ultimately be in on the joke. But there seemed to be just myriad endless ways that you can deceive Americans, and I think that TV is going to keep coming up with new ones.
BOB GARFIELD:And the very fragmentation that's destroying the industry gives Ali G a big advantage in the United States, much bigger country, television much less of a national shared experience -- you can probably keep this going for years.
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: Exactly. I certainly think that that's one of the ways in which fragmentation has sometimes helped the quality of television.
BOB GARFIELD: So in a way, a byproduct of the desperation by the major networks is an opportunity for niche players who don't have to play to the lowest common denominator.
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean I think cable has had a very good year. This was the first year, for instance, in which even during the November sweeps when the networks are, you know, rolling out their most-promoted, biggest shows and specials, more people watched cable than watched the networks. And cable had a much better year than the networks did creatively -- certainly on my end of the year top 10 list, and I think in a lot of television critics you're going to see a lot more cable shows represented than the networks. And I think part of the reason is that the smaller cable networks, although they're owned by the same evil, multinational corporate monoliths as [LAUGHS] the big networks, they're managed differently. Everything that they do is not necessarily focused-grouped to the same extent, and they're allowed to take more risks and just throw more things at the wall and, and see if they stick.
BOB GARFIELD: James, well listen, thank you very much.
JAMES PONIEWOZIC: Sure. Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD:James Poniewozic's wrap up on the year in culture can be found in Time magazine's Person of the Year double issue, and his top 10 list can be found on Time.com.