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Bryson's America: A Magnificent Obsession with torpid TV

I HAVE been watching a movie called Magnificent Obsession lately. Made in 1954 and starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, it is one of those stupefyingly mediocre movies they made in abundance in the early 1950s, when people would still watch almost anything (as opposed to now, when you have to put in lots of fiery explosions and at least one scene involving the hero abseiling down a liftshaft).

Anyway; if I've got it right, Magnificent Obsession involves a handsome young racing-car driver played by Rock, who carelessly causes Ms Wyman to go blind in a car crash. Rock is so consumed with guilt at this that he goes off and studies eye medicine at the "University of Oxford, England", or some place, then comes back to Perfectville under an assumed name and dedicates his life to restoring Jane's sight. Only of course she doesn't know it's him on account of she is blind, as well as apparently a little slow with regard to recognising the voices of people who have left her maimed.

Needless to say, they fall in love and she gets her sight back. The best scene is when Rock removes her bandages and she says, "Why, it's... you!" and slumps into a comely faint, but unfortunately does not strike her head a sharp blow and lose her vision again, which would have improved the story considerably, if you ask me. Also Jane has a 10-year-old daughter played by one of those syrupy, pig-tailed, revoltingly precocious child actors of the Fifties that you just ache to push out of a high window. I expect also Lloyd Nolan is in there somewhere, because Lloyd Nolan is always in 1950s movies with parts for doctors.

I may not have all the details right because I have not been watching this movie in order, or even on purpose. I have been watching it because one of our cable channels has shown it at least 54 times in the last two months, and I keep coming across it while trawling around looking for something I actually want to watch.

You cannot believe - you really cannot believe - the awfulness, the jaw- slackening direness, of American television. Oh, I know that British TV can be pretty appalling itself. I lived in England for 20 years, so I am well acquainted with the dismay that comes when you look at the television listings and discover that the featured highlights for the evening are Carry On Ogling, a nature special on ice maggots of Lake Baikal, and a new Jeremy Beadle series called Ooh, I Think I May Be Sick. But even at its grimmest - even when you find yourself choosing between Prisoner: Cell Block H and Peter Snow being genuinely interested in European farm subsidies - British TV cannot begin to touch American television for the capacity to make you want to go out and lie down on a motorway.

We get about 50 channels in our house - it is possible on some systems now to get up to 200, I believe - so you think at first that you are going to be spoiled for choice, but you gradually realise that the idea of TV here is simply to fill up the air with any old sludge. Programmes that even Sky One would be embarrassed to put on (I know, it hardly seems possible, but it is so) here get lavish airtime. It is as if the programmers just pull down a cassette from the shelves and slap it into the machine.

I have watched "current affairs" investigations that were 10 years old. I have seen Barbara Walters interviewing people who died a dozen years ago, and weren't that interesting to begin with. Seven nights a week you can watch Johnny Carson shows that were witless in 1976 and now are witless and dated. There is almost no concept that TV might, just sometimes, be innovative and good. On this very evening, under the category of "drama", my cable channel magazine lists as its most sublime and compelling offerings Matlock and Little House on the Prairie. Tomorrow it recommends The Waltons and Dallas. The next day it is Dallas again and Murder, She Wrote.

You begin to wonder who watches it all. One of our channels is a 24-hour cartoon network. That there are people out there who wish to watch cartoons through the night is remarkable enough, but what is truly astounding to me is that the channel carries commercials. What could you possibly sell to people who voluntarily watch Deputy Dawg at 2.30am? Bibs?

But perhaps the most mind-numbing feature of American television is that the same programmes are shown over and over at the same times each night. Tonight, at 9.30pm on Channel 20, we can watch The Munsters. Tomorrow night, at 9.30pm on Channel 20, it will be - did you guess correctly? - The Munsters. Each Munsters showing is preceded by an episode of Happy Days and followed by an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It has been like this for years, as far as I can tell, and will stay like this forever.

And it is like this on virtually every channel for every time slot. If you turn on the Discovery channel and find a programme on Hollywood stunts (and you will), you can be certain that the next time you turn to the Discovery channel at the same hour, it will be a programme on Hollywood stunts. Probably it will be the same episode.

With so many channels to choose from, and nearly all of it so hopelessly undiverting, you don't actually watch anything. And that is the scary part of all this. Although American television is totally imbecilic, although it makes you weep and rend your hair and throw soft foods at the screen, it is also strangely irresistible. As a friend once explained to me, you don't watch television here to see what is on, you watch it to see what else is on.

And the one thing to be said for American TV is that there is always something else on. You can trawl infinitely. By the time you have reached the 50th channel you have forgotten what was on the first, so you start the cycle again in the pathetically optimistic hope that you might find something absorbing this time through.

I haven't begun to cover this topic. TV is my life, so we'll be coming back to this a lot in future months. But I must leave you now. I notice that Magnificent Obsession is about to start and I really would like to see Jane Wyman lose her sight. It's the best part. Besides, I keep thinking that if I watch long enough Lloyd Nolan will shove that little girl out of an upstairs window.

Extracted from `Notes from a Big Country', published by Doubleday at pounds 16.99.