I have a confession to make

I love local television. And I don’t mean good local television – the kind of programming or commercials that actually have some semblance of high production values. I mean BAD local television - the kind that makes most people cringe with embarrassment not only for themselves for having watched it, but for the people involved.

I’m not sure where the fascination comes from or when it truly developed. It’s just something that seems to have infected my TV viewing habits gradually over the last decade. Maybe all those hours of watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 in college awakened a deeper appreciation for bad TV. If nothing else maybe that show just opened my eyes, because the material has always been out there even if I didn’t always take notice.

I remember as a boy visiting my cousin in Ramer, AL back before affordable satellite had penetrated rural areas. All we could pick up were 2 channels, maybe 3 if the weather and stars were in perfect alignment. We’d stay up late watching reruns of Married with Children and Mama’s Family – truly highbrow programming. And you can only imagine how bad the commercials were on a local independent station that late at night. None of the commercials in particular stand out in my memory. But I distinctly remember the enjoyment I got out of being exposed to a different city’s local eccentrics.

And in a way that’s one of the most important, unintentional functions of local television. Good or bad (the latter always seems to stand out more) it’s a great way to experience the local flavor on a broader level. On our recent trip to Montana we stayed with Holly’s cousin who had every possible English-speaking channel available on their deluxe digital cable package. So what did I watch at 1 AM with over 300 channels to choose from - an infomercial from some local furniture manufacturer. For me, the presence of bad local television without a Southern accent is always a particularly compelling draw. It feels so exotic and foreign.

But I still think Southerners (as with BBQ) do bad local TV best. Whenever I visit my brother in Florence, AL I always try to make it a point to soak in some of the truly horrible local TV they seem to have in abundance. However, on my last visit I was a bit disappointed when I caught a local car dealership’s infomercial. It was actually quite well done. Very low key, semi-professional, very informative and not at all obnoxious.

Fortunately Birmingham, despite being a pretty large television market, still does local TV right. Although local car commercial icon Jim Skinner Ford has fallen on tough times in recent years, a new icon is quickly rising to take its place - Suzuki Man from Birmingham. The Suzuki Man has stepped up to the plate with a full arsenal of obnoxious themed commercials. Survivor, Deal or no Deal, The Graduate. All are fair game. The crown jewel though is his 30-minute infomercial that airs on Saturday nights (and as of a couple weeks ago – every weeknight at 1am.) I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I’ve actually Tivo’d it before as I started to fall asleep before it was over. It’s truly great, obnoxious stuff with salesmen dressed up in obnoxious outfits and the Suzuki Man doing his best job of playing up the corn factor as the emcee. They really put a lot of time into making it . And apparently I’m not the only one who appreciates the wackiness either. According to radio reports, Suzuki Man has been winning the 1 AM timeslot in the Birmingham TV market.

But while Suzuki Man might be considered ‘mainstream’ bad TV, you have to step out a bit to the extremes to get to the really REALLY bad local TV. You have to look for something that incorporates a subject that makes for bad TV on a national level – and then takes it that one step further by throwing in the local element. I’m talking about the cream of the crop, Wrestle Birmingham. I’ve never liked wrestling, but this truly is a shining example of something that is so bad, it’s good. It’s “hosted” by 2 guys who have a different theme to their studio segments each week. One week they’re surfers, the next week Mafia wise guys, the next week hippie rock stars, etc . Interspersed between their segments and the wrestling there’s also the plea for businesses to advertise on their show (I’ve yet to see any major takers.) And then of course there’s the wrestling. Words can’t do it justice. But if you think ‘major league’ wrestling is bad, you can’t imagine how funny it is on the local level.

(And on a side note, I always get a kick out of watching the refs in any wrestling match. Talk about being the invisible man.)

It’s certainly not fair to judge an area by what appears on local television. But if you recognize that you’re likely seeing something akin to its lowest common denominator then you can sit back and enjoy the cheesiness of the experience without condemning a whole city for the actions of some of its wackiest residents. In fact, those crazies might even grow on you a little if you give them a chance.


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