Thursday, March 12, 2009

Life after TV

It's odd, being without TV. There's a dusty stand for it in the corner of the living room, surrounded by discs and remotes and the Wii and all the other paraphernalia that now seems inert, frozen, waiting for the set to be returned or replaced.

I don't miss the programs. Except in the literal sense, obviously. And I'm not planning to catch up on any of them when we get a set again. The highlight of my televisual week is Pokémon on Sunday morning. I have Buffy and Firefly on DVD; both ended in 2003, and there hasn't really been anything very exciting since...

Really?, my inner commentator challenges me at this point. Because I do seem to watch quite a lot.

It's true. Dr Who, House, various Gordon Ramsay tat, Futurama, random sitcoms, The Daily Show, news... In terms of hours per week, I'm probably up around the national average at least. Although in truth, "watch" is an exaggeration for what I do most of the time. I'll read a book or play a computer game while they're on, looking up from time to time when it sounds like something might happen.

Moving wallpaper, that's all it is.

It's a far cry from my childhood, when watching TV was a family ritual pursued in almost reverential silence. I became very attached to it - still am, in many ways - and apt to get quite upset at the mere thought that I might miss something good.

Back then, TV was a communal experience. With only three or four channels to choose from, I'd watch in the reasonable expectation that my friends would be watching the same programs. Not because they were fans, or the programs were particularly compelling, but simply because that was our common culture. Missing a popular program, in those days, was like being excommunicated for a day: I simply wouldn't be able to talk to people on an equal footing.

In the multi-channel choice of today, that's no longer true. Now, people watch the programs that get talked about - Lost, Heroes, the eternally-downward-spiralling American Idol and its relatives - rather than vice-versa.

Ten years ago I'd probably have watched this garbage too. But now I have a choice. I can, and do, watch DVDs, or music videos, or Al-Jazeera, instead.

Occasionally, there can still be "compelling" television. David Attenborough is past his prime, but still broadcasts an infectious passion for his subject. And there are genuinely exciting intellectuals, like Simon Schama and Adam Curtis, who can catch and hold my attention while they gently rearrange my worldview. But it's no coincidence that all three of these people are British, sponsored by the government-financed BBC; no sane commercial broadcaster would touch them. They're rebroadcast, if at all, in graveyard slots (Schama's last series, here, was on Sunday mornings at 10:30), and I'd be amazed to find anyone else who'd seen any given program.

Maybe TV is a classic example of the Tragedy of the Commons - the more a resource is used, the less valuable it becomes. Or maybe it's simply an obsolescent technology. And I'm not sure whether broadcasters have been reduced to irrelevance by the market, or whether they've done it to themselves on purpose. After all - as our banks have recently demonstrated so dramatically - it's easier to make money when nobody is watching you.


Ruby Apolline said...

I love the description of the TV accessories, lonely, purposeless and waiting. A guy called Mark French wrote a poem on TIBU about an Atari console gathering dust in an attic, which I also loved. Perhaps I overidentify with inanimate objects, particularly electronics.

Ah, the Idiot Box. We were not permitted to watch much television when I was a kid, although I remember Godzilla and the Dalai Lama on the public access channel and Clash of the Titans almost every Sunday, with Larry somebody of future L.A. Law fame. We gathered together to watch BBC's Mystery (also on public TV)and those times were so pleasant and relaxing that my mom is still prone to fall asleep during the first few bars of the Holmes theme.

Tragedy of the commons is an interesting idea. When no one person is charged with the care of a particular resource, it's a race to the bottom--which I consider to be all reality TV except for the PBS series which were cool--lowest common denominator etc.

vet said...

I'm thinking that when there were only a few broadcasters, they each accepted that they had a stake in preserving some kind of respect or integrity for their medium. But with the proliferation of channels, that's been diluted and forgotten in the fight for ratings. That's what I mean by TotC in this context.

The Wii Fit is particularly sad and lonely. Its designers went to some lengths to encourage us to anthropomorphise it - it regularly says things like "You haven't missed a day's training in a whole week! I'm touched!", or "Were you busy yesterday, Vet?" As a result, now I'm thinking how lonely it must be...

Ruby Apolline said...

Oh my god. Your Wii talked to you? I would feel awful. I used to be worried about how much I talked to my computer until my friend said, "oh, hell, it's basically alive anyway."

Your commons theory reminds me of the Jews and Hollywood book I'm sort of reading. Each of the founders of the biggest studios--Fox, Universal, Paramount and MGM--were driven to bring high culture to the masses and were so proud of their film productions of great stage performances (especially anything with Sarah Bernhardt), their epics and their morality tales. They consolidated the production, distribution and occasionally direction of movies to force this vision along. Perhaps something similar occurred in Hollywood with the re-fragmentation of the producer/director/manager roles, increased technological requirements, and the subsequent loss of any real cultural meaning of the term "impresario."

And on a completely unrelated note, I thought of you reading this book because Mr. Thomas Edison might have served as a model for the IP magnates you so abhor. If I recall correctly, he not only charged license fees to build related film projectors, but fees for every American use of a projector and fees for the showing of any American movie that could be shown on his projectors.

vet said...

Seriously? He got paid every time someone showed a film? Good grief. You're right, that's exactly the kind of innovation-encouragement we could very well do without.

Some anti-copyright activists like to use arguments of the form "you don't have to pay an architect whenever you enter a building, you don't have to pay a plumber to go to the toilet..." But it sounds like Edison was literally that bad. I wonder how much he had to do with shaping the idea of "intellectual property" in his day?