Monday, November 29, 2010

Pass the TV and the Cranberry Sauce

Rabbit ears...they're so 20th century!
For the second time since I began this project I left town (see Review of Room 202 post for first instance).

This time my wife, son, and I drove four hours to reach an idyllic country-side setting for the Thanksgiving hoiday. Both of these experiences tempted me to be exposed to all sorts of news, weather, sports and entertainment in the most powerful way. The accommodations offered cable/satellite TV.

Back home we remain an over-the-air, rabbit ear TV-type family. It's almost like being electronically Amish. After all, according to statistics, somewhere between 70-90% of TV watching households have cable these days. Never mind. Being in the minority doesn't bother me most of the time. We are already so little inclined to watch TV that it's hard to imagine how more channels would improve things. Still, whenever I travel and I come across a cable source, I like to channel surf and see what I might be missing.

So I watched some TV...go ahead, sue me!
This time, with the Van Winkle Project hanging in the balance, it was more risky.

First came episodes of Mythbusters. That was okay, I guess, because you can't tell which are new episodes and which not, and none of it told me anything that updated what has come to pass in the world since I became Van Winkled on Sept. 11. The main thing was that the show was enjoyable. How can you not want to know what happens when Jamie and Adam ignite one million matchheads?

A rerun of The Incredibles, was fine, too. An old movie, already saw it. But I have to say that when no one was around I did something a little more dicey.

I got busy with the remote.

Within a few minutes I saw Sarah Palin's now familiar bespectacled, lipsticked image in front of an Alaskan backdrop. My nostalgia for my days living in the 49th State or something must have kicked in and I stopped. I listened to her for thirty seconds.

The former half-term governor said that what made America "great" was "incentives." She said the current administration was "deincentivizing" everyone. Okay, did I learn anything newsworthy from Ms. Palin and violate the terms of the Van Winkle Project? Not so much. I moved on, still feeling almost as pure as the fresh fallen Alaskan snow.

Don't worry. The air force jet is NOT cleared for take-off.
 More danger lay ahead, though. On a Fox channel Bill O'Reilly was interviewing our most recent former president whom I remembered had a memoir scheduled to come out after I went to "sleep."

I listened to O'Reilly's question, something about the Iraq surge being the correct strategy...

I clicked the remote. Safe again!

Surfing, I saw a lot of Nikon ads
starring you know who...
Of course, E! was dangerous, but ten seconds of listening to it and I realized my celebrity IQ is so low I don't even recognize most of the names. I'm still stuck back in time when Demi Moore is the world's most sought after actress, Bruce Willis has hair (and  a wife named "Demi"), and a kid named Ashton Kutcher is wearing diapers.

After I got past those channels I was pretty much a free man. I forwarded myself through a blur of football games without even being able to identify who was on the field.

I did notice from commercials that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and a movie called Love and Other Addictions are coming to a theater near you, but that's all I know about them.

In the end I emerged from my cable spree with my window on the world still fairly tightly shut. I don't even know how the Black Friday sales went other than the first-hand evidence when we went into the nearby town in the afternoon and rubbed elbows with the crowds happily rubbing elbows as they wound through the little gift shops and fingered jam jars and enough Christmas paraphernalia to celebrate the holiday into the next millenium.

My ignorance more or less intact, I felt like an alchoholic that had strolled into a bar and made it out without doing any more than inhale the fumes. I had proved just how resolved I was to remain Van Winkled.

Disincentivized by Cable TV
My holiday cable browsing showed me something else. I was reminded once again why cable and I never got together on permanent basis.

I remember the days when cable was a new product and touted as 1) offering perfect reception and 2) being commercial free. We know how Number 1 turned out. A joke. In fact, in 1996 a movie could be made, The Cable Guy, and everyone immediately knew just from the title that it was a comedy. As for being commercial free, that visual Eden didn't last long before there came the Fall courtesy of Madison Avenue.

Still, cable was a place where initially one could watch movies that had appeared in the theaters. This was good if you missed them when they came out or wanted to see them again. Thus we had HBO and Cinemax as raisons d'etres. Then along came the VCR. Cable lost another advantage.

Ted Turner was one of the saviors of cable. He came up with the idea of around the clock news and CNN was born. The arrival of MTV in the 1980s gave cable another distinctive.

Eventually cable would discover that it could succeed by offering niche programming. Cable, unlike network TV which tried to have something to appeal to most everyone in the room,  would be almost like a place where you could shop for the television equivalent of a magazine devoted to your special interest. Entire channels for people who were into home decor and remodeling, channels about food, channels about history, channels about animals, channels about fashion and celebrities, not to mention channels for kids and sports fans.

They could also spend big bucks and produce original series and movies the same as the networks or Hollywood. Shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Madmen, and others have led some critics to assert that cable have given us a "new golden age of TV." And perhaps they have a point. Such shows take on mature themes, enough money is spent that the production and design are on the level of a major film release, and the series format allows for character development on par with what we find in great novels.

Isn't it about time
I got one of these, i.e., TV on Viagra?
So finally there ought to be enough reason for me to sign up for Dish or Satellite Network and get one of those cool looking devices ornamenting the brow of my roof? Even the commercials ought not to hold me back. Another innovation, called the digital video recorder, takes care of that. I can record shows and fast forward past the commercials.

But I still don't feel compelled to join the majority. The whole subscription thing feels wasteful and time consuming like being forced to buy an entire store's inventory when you actually only want a handful of items. Or it's like having to own the whole library when you're only interested in certain books in certain sections of the library. I think I await the day when all TV content arrives from the Internet and everything is on demand. I want to see what I want to see at a given moment and I don't even want to catch a glimpse of the dross, which for me and Bruce Springsteen ("57 Channels and Nothin' On" 1992) is about 98%.

I'm honest enough to admit, however, that there is a down side.

I will continue to miss serendipitous moments where I press the channel advance and hit the high crest of a video cable surf moment that can tell me so much about the state of American culture such as...

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke may
have a "situation" on his hands...
- Snooki and The Situation and the cast of Jersey Shore preparing to ring the New York Stock Exchange opening bell (here) while great economic minds wonder whether this will send a signal to the global markets to rise, fall, or belch.

- Finding out whether Adam Richman on Man vs. Food can really eat the flame-throwing Bushido's SpicyTuna Roll without smoke coming out his ears or (more likely) going to the emergency room.

You call it "little," I call it "giant"!
 - Watching a guy named Hal Wing on an infomercial for the multi-functional Little Giant stepladder showing me how to set up the ladder to hang a painting over the mantel while simultaneously drawing a blank on the name for a fireplace hearth and, adeptly, last second, like a a true pro, calling it "that elevated area in front of your fireplace." (I have to say the Little Giant looked like a pretty great invention, especially if I were to have go way up high on my roof to fix a shingle and change a light bulb in the living room all on the same day.)

Oh, yes. I don't mind doing this kind of labor intensive watching for an hour at a time, twice a year when I'm on vacation. It's only afterwards that I become troubled. Who is really asleep? Van Winkle? Or is it the version of me reclined on the couch, staring at a screen, making thumb twitches in the direction of the remote every couple of minutes? I'm all the way up to Channel 99 and I'm still trying to decide if this much TV is good or bad. 

I do know one thing, though. A Little Giant could sure make decorating the Christmas tree next week a breeze... - V.W.



  1. Right with you -- we haven't had cable in eight years and don't miss it.

    Netflix rocks, though.

  2. I will continue to miss serendipitous moments where I press the channel advance and hit the high crest of a video cable surf moment that can tell me so much about the state of American culture such as...