“This is television, my friend. The big time. The hoo-rah. You’ve made it. And it’s all because of those videogames.”

Wow, thanks –

“Here’s the deal. You play games. You write. You get paid. You get your name – but not your face, god help me; there’s a shiver down my spine, sorry – up in lights. Sound good?”

What do I write about?

“How freakin’ awesomely great the games are, of course!”

Which games?

“All of them.”

All of them?

“All of them. Let’s roll!”

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I didn’t know what to expect from my brief affair with television, but I knew it wouldn’t all be long walks on the beach and playing kissy-face. For a start, I’ve known television my whole life. I’ve suckled the great glass teat since I was a toddler, and TV has entertained – or at least occupied – many hours since. Climbing into bed with the boob tube sounded a little incestuous.

Videogames in the mix only complicated things. Would everyone get along? Would jealousy, greed and grim evolution make a lasting relationship impossible? On this week’s episode of Colin, we find out. And I tell you this as a preview: Working on a TV show about videogames is like dating your cousin and your aunt and your toaster all at the same time. It’s no country for the innocent. And you get royally, metallically screwed with your pants on.

Let’s roll the tape.

***

Five years ago, in late 2003, the view from the New Zealand TV industry was a good one. Broadcast television, as it always had, attracted more advertising dollars than any other form of entertainment. And why shouldn’t it? After all, television provides hours of quality entertainment, stylish news coverage and glamorous yet down-to-earth people. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

Videogames, on the other hand, were kid’s stuff. X-stations and Playboxes were a mighty fine bunch of toys, great for 10-year-olds or maybe those lousy misanthrope teenagers and man-children. But surely anyone in their right mind would rather watch Survivor or calcium blonde newsreaders.

There had never been a New Zealand TV show dedicated to videogames. We didn’t get TechTV or G4. The UK’s Gamer.tv was only available through a paid subscription. So a smart young producer with a good track record grabbed Gamer.tv clips, made the rounds of the PR companies and pitched a Saturday afternoon half-hour long show. It’d be cheap to produce. Easy to sponsor. The kids would lap it up. We might even get some glamorous yet down-to-earth people to front it. Drag up some poor sucker who can crank out reviews.

The bottom line is that videogames on TV are a profitable proposition.

The money people agreed with him. Green lit it for 10 weekly episodes of Screenshot TV. Found a cute young music presenter as host and a well-known NZ actor to do guest spots.

Yup, TV was sittin’ pretty. And those videogame kids had damn well better be grateful for this Screenshot opportunity …

***

Evolution’s a strange thing. Whether of ideas, people, animals or systems, evolution doesn’t care about aesthetics. It also doesn’t care about last week. Evolution is about going forward. Winning. Crushing your enemies and taking their women.

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It’s no different in mass entertainment.

In 1946, the people of Earth took nearly 5 billion trips to the movies. This pinnacle – not in terms of quality or even box-office gross, but the sheer number of eyeballs on screens – has never been surpassed before or since. 5 billion people. Twice the actual population of the globe at the time. In 1946, movies were king. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

Then television, which had been waiting in the wings until cheap mass-production resumed after World War II, moved in like a wasp-shaped buzz saw. Once you bought your set, TV was effectively free. You didn’t have to leave your house or talk to strangers, just jack into the mainline and let the Milton Berle flow. It took less than 10 years for this entertainment/revenue model to rip the spine out of movies, and they’ve never really recovered.

Countless things have been said about TV’s dominance of the last 50 years, about the low-quality, omnipresent buzz that the Tube mainlines into its addicts. One of my favourites is the speech on public good that Newton Minow, head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, gave to network bosses:

When television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons …

That speech was given in 1961, four months after John F. Kennedy took office. It could have been given yesterday. It could been given in 1991, when I was 12 and Roseanne, Cheers, Murphy Brown and Home Improvement were the top-rated non-news shows on U.S. television.

I might not have paid much attention, though. I wasn’t watching much TV in 1991, mainly because some guy named Sid Meier had created a game called Civilization. Civilization was a full-on brain surge. I played a hundred hours the first year alone.

Complacent, half-assed Home Improvement on the one hand, buzz saw Civilization on the other. Somewhere, the ghost of 1946 was tasting blood and cackling with glee.

***

We started making Screenshot. The videogame/TV relationship became closer and more complicated.

The production crew were professional, efficient and fun. It was a job and they were good at it. They’d tell you great stories on the side like who’s really gay (everyone) and which glamorous yet down-to-earth person likes loading up on NyQuil and seducing sheep. They didn’t really care about videogames; videogames were just that month’s production challenge.

The host was one of the nicest, most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met. She’d played 17 minutes of videogames in her life. She wanted very much to be a good host.

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The guest star was like a cross between Fred Savage and Caligula. They kept him chained and fed him raw meat and praise until camera-time.

The original schedule was to make 10 episodes within four weeks. This made perfect sense on every level except one: Games aren’t released that way, and good previews weren’t often available. By the airing of the 10th episode we’d be six weeks out of date. Imagine GameSpot reviewing Christmas releases in February.

The Public Relations firms smiled a lot. They wanted one thing: the game on the top of their list on the top of our list. If that happened, great. If not .. they were working to highly structured performance bonus targets. Mess with a smiley person’s highly structured performance bonus and you’ll see barracuda teeth. From the inside.

The Network Masters liked us. They understood what we were doing. Just watch out for the timeslot. You’re on Saturday afternoon, that means kids, that means no blood. Or shooting. Or death. Or implied death. Now go do your Counter-Strike review.

Me? I was just trying to play, record and review nearly every single game release of the period. Easy. I cranked it out, didn’t sleep much and when I did, I’d wake up with the word “HACK” auto-scrawled on my bedside mirror like some kind of horror film.

The big day came. The first episode aired. The usual TV feedback process occurred – a few phone calls, a few congratulations from the executives, an early indication of solid ratings for the timeslot.

Then we checked the online forums. Welcome to the full fury of the internet. This relationship just got violent.

Screenshot was a middling, up-and-down TV production, a Home Improvement, if you will. It was created to fill a timeslot, meet payroll and advertise products. This is the entertainment/revenue model that kicked the tar out of movies back in the 1950s and had worked ever since. For the past half century, massive audiences have accepted television passively, with only a small minority providing qualitative feedback of any kind.

Television, meet videogames. Videogames, meet television.

A locust army descended. They screamed. They howled. They acted in all the ways that we now call the internet. The anger, vitriol, hate and above all disappointment was like a bonfire.

“How could you do this to the things we love? You think half-assed is good enough? You think being on TV is some kind of privilege?”

We staggered on through the season run. I hated watching the show, dreaded reading the forums. You just couldn’t hide, which five years ago was still something new. The bad feelings around it all became a black hole. Knowing you’re doing hack work is awful, but far, far worse is seeing negative energy spewing into the world as a result.

We limped across the finish line. Make it all stop. Please.

***

Any evolutionary biologist, town planner, or network engineer knows that when two complex systems integrate, chaos will ensue. There’ll be blood on the floor.

Now take that and multiply it by the internet.

Five years on from Screenshot, videogames are surging in a world where the range and quality of entertainment is broader than at any point in human history. The relatively straightforward process of a few mass entertainment forms biting away at each other has become a vast piranha tank where all 200 fish come equipped with laser beams and a cannibal taste for flesh.

It’s interesting that videogame revenue is so often still compared with the movie industry – like lining up opening weekend grosses for GTA IV against Iron Man, two equally dubious sets of numbers, and proclaiming that videogames are now king. The numbers, like the cake, are a lie. They’re misdirection. There is no king. And in raw eyeball totals, videogaming is far from dominant, given that the current generation of games extorts $60 a pop.

The numbers are also misplaced, because the real threat is to the broadcast TV entertainment/revenue model. TV doesn’t care what you spent on GTA IV, it cares how much time you were sitting on the couch killing Russians rather than watching the programmed gaps between advertising. Here, too, games aren’t yet on top, partly because the games industry spent years ignoring just about everyone including women, people over 30 and very young children.

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It’s coming, though, and 2003 was my own early taste of it. In the end, having videogames on TV was like trying to mate a steam engine with a plowhorse. There’s an evolutionary incompatibility that can’t be resolved. Television is a smooth, sedative medium by nature. When television encounters passion, obsession, fury, frustration and disappointment, it doesn’t know what the fuck to do. It blinks like a little rabbit in evolution’s headlights.

The Screenshot saga was a weird transition period for everyone concerned. Despite its low quality, the show was cheap to produce, easily sponsored and rated well in its Saturday timeslot. This meant it was, by all the definitions that the TV industry cares about, a success. I came away sick to death of games and sick to my stomach of TV. But one part recovered and the other didn’t.

Mass entertainment evolution is only just getting really started. It’s going to produce many more successes – and corpses. Videogame developers should read Newton Minow’s speech, should beware of complacency and their own vast wasteland, should remember that movies and TV were once “uber alles” and getting exactly the same ego-stroke that games now enjoy among savvy observers. It’s not about total dominance anymore, just, well, evolution. And boy is she a cast-iron barracuda-toothed bitch sometimes.

But hell, in the end, it all comes down to entertainment, right? Let’s go mainline some Civilization and play kissy-face on the beach

Colin Rowsell lives in Wellington, New Zealand. He’d love to hear from you (unless you’re a TV presenter) on giantmonkeyvirus@gmail.com.

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