Baby Steps in a Brave New World
For quite sometime, maybe a year, Ann and I had been kicking around the notion of revisiting our telecom-supplied TV package. We paid for a service that was underutilized, or more frequently, ignored. Last week we pulled the plug, or to be more precise, unscrewed the cable – although you don’t actually even do that anymore.
The household television I remember best whilst a nipper was a black-and-white portable in plastic housing that nestled on a metal stand. Dad got it second-hand but I cannot remember from whom. It replaced a hefty console model that displayed a lingering blue dot when turned off, the star in Star Trek. The pace of technological change was dizzying, vacuum tubes to solid state; next came colour and cable - American channels – local programming from three US border stations.
Our TV was always tucked down in the basement with the furnace and exposed pipes, out of the way amid an array of rummaged furniture. Watching it was not encouraged by my parents, there were always better, more productive things to be done like reading a book, more fun to be had outside. I did enjoy Batman, Rat Patrol and Gunsmoke. I loved watching Mission: Impossible with Dad. Some Sundays the entire family would watch The Ed Sullivan Show together; TV dinners on TV trays! My favourite show was (and still is) Combat! starring Vic Morrow and Rick Jason. My older brother used to get me out of bed and sneak me downstairs to the basement past our parents who were usually sitting in the living room to watch the World War II drama at ten o’clock Saturday nights. Mom sat in the corner blind spot on the left-hand side of the floral-patterned sofa and Dad, on the right, a veteran, always contrived to look the other way.
With apologies to a doughy and curiously smooth-skinned Don Johnson as Nash Bridges, the last network show that engaged me was Homicide: Life on the Street. Around that time the sitcom Friends was inexplicably popular and hell was the office the following morning: “Wasn’t Chandler hysterical!?” “Isn’t Phoebe such a ditz!?” I tried to engage my colleagues: “Wouldn’t you like to beat that whiny Ross to death with a Louisville Slugger?”
Oh! I don’t need TV when I’ve got T.Rex – David Bowie
That TV it just insults me freely – Iggy Pop
Fifty-seven channels and nothing on – Bruce Springsteen
The rules of engagement with the arts, entertainment industry, media and even advertising are based on a tacit covenant: In exchange for your attention and your money you will receive something positive in return, maybe important information, a welcome distraction, a reliable and competively priced product or possibly even transcendental bliss. Noble and ignoble providers alike frequently fail to deliver on their half of the bargain. Potential benefits are neither guaranteed nor covered by warranty; the small print can get awfully tiny – just click AGREE.
What is striking about the decline of traditional television is how a mass medium has been re-imagined as something much more personal, broadcast squeezed to narrowcast. As with any sea change there is no single factor; all I know for certain is that habitual viewers no longer watch the same show on the same channel at the same time anymore. Digital signals changed water cooler conversation forever.
In an effort to boost the quality of the content available in the TV room and reduce expenses, Ann and I purchased a Cupertino, CA device, fittingly about the dimensions of a Rubik’s Cube, for a modest amount. We now subscribe to just two streaming services. They should offer enough viewing options to see us out as television is a relatively unimportant facet of our lives. Meanwhile our monthly “cable” bill will shrink to a quarter of what it was.
Ann worried that I might miss the sports channels. Upon reviewing the past three years of my Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons I can calculate my sports couch time in minutes. Potential sports “app creep” on the Apple box is a non-starter, much like my entire athletic career. I told Ann, “If there’s some massively important game I absolutely must watch, we’ll go to a pub and share the experience with others. It’s more fun doing that, anyways.”
Finally, there is the happy law of unintended bonuses. I haven’t learned how to do this yet, but apparently I can run YouTube through our television now. What this means is that whenever the mood strikes me to re-fight World War II, I can watch as many episodes of Combat! as I want whenever I want. A few of the good old days have returned, future past, in a strange new guise.