TV 101: Why I wish we only had three channels to choose from
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.
|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%)|