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October 7, 2015

TV 101: Why I wish we only had three channels to choose from

by Jay Black, posted Jul 9th 2007 10:30AM
It's just like my family except no one is drunk.When I was in college I heard my favorite author of all time, Kurt Vonnegut, give a speech that included a quaint (and wrongheaded) defense of snail mail. He went on and on about the wonderfulness of buying a stamp and putting pen to paper -- all that stuff that makes sense when you're dealing with your thirtieth Erectile Dysfunction spam of the day, but which falls apart the second you want to send a picture of your cool new scar to all of your friends at once (or similarly important things).

Well, here I am at thirty about to do what Vonnegut did at my college. A silly and wrongheaded argument for something that I know in my heart we're all better without. I always knew I'd follow in Vonnegut's footsteps as a writer...

I miss the network hegemony. There, I said it.

Before you sharpen your commenting fingers, let me explain myself:

I love TV and I love how it's changed in recent years. I have approximately nine thousand channels that I barely watch (I recently discovered that I have a channel that apparently plays nothing but Westerns all day long; I'm really happy about this fact even though I'll probably never turn back to it). I have a giant HDTV attached to a TIVO that has a few library of congresses worth of space on it. I'm even planning on investing in a Slingbox so that I'll be able to watch my favorite programs in jerkily pixelated spurts anywhere in the country.

On to of all that, as soon as my son is old enough that he doesn't require any more care and feeding from me (which is what, like 4? I don't write for ParentDish so I don't know these things), I'll be building an Apple TV network in my home so I can put all my TV DVDs on a RAID server in my office. That's right, I'm willing to spend forty man hours running CAT5 cable through my home so I don't have to spend nine seconds loading a DVD into the player. That's the kind of dedicated gadget head I am.

For the most part, I've reveled in the changes I've seen to TV in my lifetime. I've embraced every new broadcast innovation like it was an older gentleman with money and I was a stripper with daddy issues. I'm looking forward to see what they're going to come up with next and I can't wait to bore my grandkids with stories about what TV was like when I was a kid.

"You actually had to wait for the networks to decide when a show was going to be aired to watch it. And if you missed it? You had to wait for a (gasp) rerun! Now please, unplug granddad's breathing machine so he can taste the sweet release of death!"

More than anything else, what the new technology has given us is choice.

With the advent of cable, we were given a broader selection of programming. I can still remember the cable box (and I mean an actual box with twenty actual buttons on it that attached to the TV like a giant, wired remote control) being installed for the first time. There was NBC, ABC, CBS... and then there was boobs and the F-Word! I imagine that my first experience with Cinemax was very similar to what religious people refer to when they speak of an "epiphany." It was amazing! Those crazy kids at Stewardess School just couldn't keep their tops on...

But beyond boobs and curses, we were allowed to see some programming that couldn't (or wouldn't) be embraced by the networks. I still rank the first time I saw Robert Klein do an hour of stand-up (an HOUR!) on HBO as one of the seminal moments of my life. Here was a guy being entertaining for an entire hour just by talking into a microphone. I wanted to do that (and if you've seen my complete hour show, you know that I'm almost there).

During the course of my life I've seen cable grow like it was a housewife with a lapsed Curves membership (zing!). And with narrowcasting, I can be assured that if I'm on a channel dedicated to my demographic, my sensibilities will be served to an unprecedented degree. Even the ads will be narrow focused (how did they know I wanted a 7 foot sticky poster of Donovan McNabb to hang on my wall!?)

But I don't have to watch the ads at all thanks to the second major innovation of my lifetime: TiVo. I've written about TiVo before, and my sentiments about the machine are clear: the second they change the silly marriage laws in this country, I'll be making TiVo my bride. Yes I already have a wife and I have a son on the way, but it's worth throwing all of that away because my TiVo understands me. It gets that I don't like advertisements. It feels in its soul that yes, I would like fourteen hours of MythBusters recorded. It knows, sometimes even before I do, that I'd be interested in seeing the 1997 World's Strongest Man competition.

TiVo gives us more choice. With one fell swoop, we're freed from both commercials and the scheduling gurus at the networks. Unless you have a DVR you can't know what a life changing device it can be. (By the way, if you call it "life changing" in front of non TV fanatics, you get a snooty "Surely, you can't mean 'life changing', it's not like it's penicillin or something." At that point, you have permission to stab them with the shrimp fork. Seriously. Just have at it, no one will miss a person like that). The days when you had to rush home to see a show are now on the ash heap of history (like bowler hats or the Hitler-style mustache).

We're currently in a third major revolution: place shifting. It's not quite perfected yet. It's still in that gadgety phase where only people who have the time and tenacity, not to mention a copious collection of ill-fitting science-fiction inspired tee shirts, actually bother to attempt it on any kind of regular basis. Video on iPods and cellphones still isn't quite there yet, either. But I have faith that we're only one or two Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive hash-brownie late night jam session away from solving placeshifting once and for all. Pretty soon, we'll be able to watch what we want where we want to.

So, let's recap:

Instead of 3 shows on any given night, we now have something approaching forty million.

Instead of watching these shows when they're scheduled to air, we can watch them whenever we want to watch them (and without commercials).

Very soon, instead of watching in front of our (increasingly larger) TV sets, we'll be able to watch our shows wherever we feel like it.

All of those are good things. So why the hell am I writing this column?

Because under this avalanche of choice, something special is being buried. It's something that, once gone, will never return and our society will be the worse for it. It's something that's meaningful enough to me that I've decided to write 2000 words about it for a blog paycheck that couldn't cover the co-pay on the carpal tunnel syndrome that I've incurred by writing it in the first place.

I'm talking about this: Shared Experience.

We're losing the one thing, outside of mindless entertainment and shallow education, that TV does best: providing us with a cultural shorthand that binds us together as a country.

Think about it. When shows were popular in the 1950s and 60s, they weren't drawing eight or nine million people (about what a show has to do to qualify as a "summer hit" nowadays), they were drawing 60% of the TVs in America. Like the empty soulless relationship that I have with most of my family, if you had no connection with someone, you at least had TV in common. And because there was no choice about what or when to watch, you had very specific TV to talk about. "Hey, did you catch Lucy last night?"

Talking TV with someone today is kind of like two boxers dancing around each other.

"Do you watch Rescue Me?"

"No, I never got into it. I could never get past the whole 'Denis Leary stole Bill Hicks's persona thing.' What about the Sopranos? Did you see that finale?"

"I don't have HBO."


"Ooh, what about Top Chef? You ever watch that?"

"No, I'm a heterosexual."

"Oh yeah, I keep forgetting. Hm. Maybe we should just stop being friends."

"Yeah, lets just sit here on the couch and sink into a deep existential depression."

The apex of TV's power to bring people together is probably the M*A*S*H finale. M*A*S*H was late enough in the development of TV to evolve the art of the sitcom a bit beyond three cameras and a boss that's coming over unexpectedly to dinner, but early enough in the modern development of entertainment that it didn't have much competition for viewer's attention. Thus, in 1983 every single person in America had something to talk about the next day at work. That's something special. What do we have now? An email forward of a monkey peeing in its own mouth? Call me old-fashioned, but I'll take Alan Alda over a peeing monkey any day of the week (which, incidentally, is the first time in the history of the world, those particular words were laid in that particular order).

We're running out of those communal experiences. I suppose we still have the Super Bowl. American Idol still has a little heat clinging to Simon's too-tight sweaters. But beyond that...? We're becoming a fractured culture of narrowcasted demographics. The great unifier that was the promise of our new technology has instead become a divider hell bent on slicing up society into increasingly specific advertising labels (I'm a Male, 30-32 that enjoys scatological cartoons and bare midriffs).

Silly as it sounds, TV is our cultural touchstone in a way that movies (too much effort and cost to see all the dreck out there) and books (reading! ha!) have ceased to be. With its demise, I don't see anything rising up to take its place. If you have a suggestion, please leave it in the comments, but don't say the internet. The internet, by its very nature, is not about unification. It's about crazy people writing 2000 word manifestos and people copulating in front of a webcam.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to download my TiVo-ed episode of PTI from last Thursday onto my iPod and watch it on a bus so I don't have to make eye contact with anybody.

What do you think?
I agree with Jay (perhaps I shall form a cult around him).119 (57.5%)
As always, Jay is stupid.8 (3.9%)
He has a point, but I don't really care about shared experience.60 (29.0%)
I didn't read the article, but I sure like answering poll questions!20 (9.7%)

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I'm torn - I love having all my TV options. I've got the TiVo with dual tuners and I'm seriously considering buying another unit so I can record four shows simultaneously. But so many options means some great shows slip through without finding their audiences. And, with viewers having so many other choices, networks are too quick with the axe.

Consider your example of M*A*S*H. One of (if not the) greatest shows ever. The network would never have greenlit it today. If it had made it through, it never would have made it past the first season. The show had pretty low ratings out of the gate and didn't find its audience until summer repeats. When viewers had less options - and so did advertisers - networks could afford to give a show time to breathe. Now, some really good shows get canceled immediately because the people who would watch them can't find them immediately (Wonderfalls and Firefly spring to mind as shows that might have been pretty successful if they'd had a greater chance to find their people.)

In the end, I'll keep all my options - I won't give up my horrid Lifetime movies, my Monk or my M*A*S*H reruns, even for the promise of a few great shows. Plus, I already paid for that dual tuner TiVo.

July 11 2007 at 6:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Jay, I'm glad you like Kurt Vonnegut. He hails my alma mater, the University of Iowa. I think he is a great writer.

Two things
* I want to let you know that you could probably do the whole Apple entertainment center without running wires (wireless)
* And to add that in addition to the 9,000 cable channels, as you already know, programming on the Internet is going to become huge. I'm producing a new Interactive Dating Game show that is going straight to the Internet. The fantastic thing about this show is that people can participate in the game from their homes and win dates. I'd like your feed back on the site.
Thanks, Al

July 10 2007 at 6:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'll admit it -- one of the biggest things I look for in new friends is how many shows we have in common. Or if they'd be willing to have me convert them to my shows. Yes, I know, I'm sad.

Being only 16, I wasn't able to experience the age of minimal channels and watercooler TV talks, but I'm liking the way things are now. The Shared Experience is still out there, maybe not in workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools like it was in the old days, but people obsessing over the same shows can flock together on the internet. Forums and blogs are rallying points for discussions, theories, and the fan phenomena known as squee. I may not know anyone at my school that watches Supernatural, for example, but once I get home to my laptop, I know exactly where on the Internet to go to read other's thoughts and share my own. It may be happening on a smaller scale for me, but the Shared Experience is something I revel in: seeing the reactions on the internet the next day, weekly calls to my brother to discuss our shows. The Shared Experience is still there, I just think that it's evolved.

July 10 2007 at 3:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thoroughly entertaining post, and I agree. And I also think that the multitude of choice means that shows that are good get cut -- Veronica Mars, Traveler, Studio 60, Drive, etc. -- while terrible shows are kept on the air, and keep getting created and green-lighted -- ABC and Cavemen, I'm looking at you!!!! It's terrible! But I do think you might be wrong about TV being the only thing that can give a sense of shared experience. Just look at what Harry Potter has done, both the books and the movies! Talk about shared experience!!! But all in all, an excellent post!

July 10 2007 at 2:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Funny, I've got a similar rant about radio. When I was a kid, in the '60s, there were top 40 stations and there were fuddy-duddy stations (my mom listened to Arthur Godfrey on one) and I think there were classical music stations. But all the kids listened to the same Top 40 station in their area. And on that station you'd hear, on any given day, the Beatles, the Monkees, the Doors, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder...you name it. ALL kinds of music. You got a chance to develop your taste in interesting and integrated ways.

Now, radio is completely Balkanized. There's the rap/hip-hop, the pop, the classic rock, the country, the whatever. And if you listen to one station, you never hear a whole wide range of music--music that everyone you knew was also listening to.

I kinda miss that.

July 09 2007 at 6:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Oscar Gordon

Remember Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap. In the old days there were maybe 80 shows on in a week, only 6-10 of which were worth watching. Maybe we had fewer choices and thus less stress, but a "shared culture" discussing "My Mother the Car" is not much of a culture.
There is more good stuff on TV today than there has ever been - you just have to look for it. To me, it's worth it.

July 09 2007 at 5:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Dude, you need to get out more. Seriously. I mean, you need help. I'm talking Intervention help.

I have cable TV today for one reason, and one reason only. I don't want a DSL Internet connection. I would gladly give up the TV and just keep my Internet connection, but, my roommate disagrees.

I read this blog for the same reason I scan headlines on the tabloids in the supermarket. Morbid curiosity. There's way too much crap on TV. I keep waiting for some new, scripted show, to come along and peak my interests. The little time I do spend watching TV now is filled with cartoons and documentaries.

Put the History Channel on Sirius and I won't miss TV one bit as I move back towards radio.

I know I sound like an old fart. I'm only 25, though.

July 09 2007 at 4:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I know I can't say the internet, but the thing about that is it makes it easier for us to communicate with people from anywhere and everywhere who DO share our TV interests/experiences. So even if we don't share it with our next door neighbor so we can't have a conversation with him the next day while picking up your mail, you can still find someone from Alaska who totally saw last night's 4400 and there you go, a connection through shared experience. It's different, but that doesn't make it less good.

Great post though.

July 09 2007 at 3:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Even before TiVo (and I run TiVoLovers.com) I was an 'outsider' with the shared experiences anyway. I haven't been able to stand most network TV for a decade or more. The last pre-TiVo show I made a point of trying to watch was The X-Files, and I gave up on that long before it ended.

I just refused to bend my schedule around the networks. I tried a fancy VCR with cable box control powers, but it was half-baked at best. And most of the shows I watched were 'geek' shows - instead of the network TV everyone else was watching, I'd watch things on The History Channel, Discovery Channel, A&E, TLC, etc. Shows like Modern Marvels, which I still TiVo.

I can't stand American Idol - or, frankly, any 'reality' show. They either bore me or annoy me, or both. The only network programs I really watch are the Law & Order franchise, and some cable shows - I love Rescue Me, and I'm enjoying Burn Notice so far. (Which I TiVo'd originally solely because Bruce Campbell is in it.)

I do get some of the shared experience within my circle of friends - because we all tend to TiVo similar shows, like Mythbusters. I'm also a member of an online community that is into disaster shows - Air Emergency, Seconds from Disaster, Decoding Disaster, etc. And that largely exists *because* of TiVo, and DVRs in general, allowing us to grab these shows when they air.

I will take my TiVo and the ability to watch the programs I enjoy on my schedule over any supposed shared experience any day. Frankly I think the people who have DVRs yet still insist on watching some shows 'live' to get that experience are damned fools.

July 09 2007 at 3:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm just waiting for placeshifting to become more ubiquitous so that I don't feel so foolish being the only person watching Entourage on my PSP on the train.

July 09 2007 at 1:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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