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I hate evenings when I'm sitting alone with nothing but my own thoughts for company, largely because I want to strangle whoever might be closest to me. Of course, turning on the television is a welcome alternative, because then I can just impotently burn off my frustration without having to face criminal charges.

I dread the five-hundred-channel future for I may finally go bonkers and end up committing some dread felony. However, it looks like I have been granted a form of amnesty -- the Sci-Fi Channel, and their little show titled Cool Stuff From Around The Cosmos or something like that.

This particular show, apparently a staple, is an opportunity for the Sci-Fi Channel to become its own shop-at-home network for the terminally bewildered. Little Mark Lenard statuettes, Resin kit Klingons, collector's plates galore, imitation lightsabers made by the company that made the original imitation lightsabers, and so on. Apart from the federally-mandated gratuitous computer effects, and the generally intense uselessness of the merchandise, Cool Stuff is a dollop of QVC sandwiched between Forever Knight and Battlestar Galactica

The first time I saw the show, I was -- to put it mildly -- annoyed. I already pay 60 bucks a month, plus commercials, now I have to endure a shop-at-home show? Bring on The Flash, dammit! I'm already exposed to commercials when I wake up, when I walk to work, when I get to work, while I'm working, and when I get home. Is it possible to get a little peace of mind without moving to shotgun shack in Montana?

Now, after that initial neo-hippie freak anti-consumerist outrage, I rethought this a little. Fandom is based around consumerism, and television is the High Altar Of The Credit Card. And Sci-Fi fans buy stuff normally intended for febrile 11 year olds.

I've never seen this behavior among fans of cop shows (what would we get, David Caruso action figures with removable pants?), or sitcoms (I can just see it now: the Wings play set with its own little Sandpiper plane, cafeteria, bland guy, other bland guy, and fat guy). No, nature shudders at the thought, and the stones themselves cry out for vengeance.

However, when it comes to Science Fiction shows -- and I'm sure this is largely through the efforts of Uncle George and his Jawa Mafia -- you can't have any Sci-Fi show alive for more than two weeks without a lame promotional tie in. Babylon 5 Shampoo! In Minbari and Narn bottles! Star Trek action figures! Kirk with removable paunch! Picard with real tea-sipping action! The Sci-Fi channel has to generate income with these shop-at-home dollars, because, I think it is safe to say without much fear of contradiction that the majority of Sci-Fi television has been, by and large, unadulterated crap. Giant steaming buckets of horse turdola. Not the inoffensive blandness of Wings, but a mind-numbing litany of will-sapping shows, most of which have "Man" in the title. Mann And Machine. Automan. Manimal. M.A.N.T.I.S.

Even the ones that don't have "Man" in the title are awful, as dramatic abortions like The Starlost, Space Rangers, Earth 2 and The Powers Of Matthew Star attest. I swear, the Matthew Star alone managed to tap into every lame cliche of early '80s dramatic TV, including role-playing games, psychic powers acquired by head injury, and South American dictators, all rolled up in one season. Television with the sales potential of a cyanide martini.

Do we really need a channel devoted to rerunning Battlestar Galactica and Tales From The Darkside? Wait, I'm sorry, Galactica isn't on the moment, they're running that other star in the TV firmament, V: The Series. What were people in the dark pits where Cable TV channels are spawned thinking? That Americans were suffering for a desperate need for their Marc Singer fix, one that almost perpetual reruns of Beastmaster couldn't satisfy? That we were crying out for more shots of Lorne Greene and Richard Hatch wearing their bibs backwards?

I can at least understand this with, say, The Cartoon Network. That happened because Ted Turner has to metastasize a new cable channel every few years, and the only other options would be a 24-hour channel devoted to the Fondas, or another news channel for those who found Headline News too difficult. That's a simple matter of biology and a massive library of grade-Z cartoons in the storage bins.

But the Sci-Fi Channel folks have to poke all across the marketplace, hunting through the garbage bins to find this stuff. Although I'm sure that it wasn't difficult to acquire those Flash reruns, it's still effort that could have been spent on, say, waxing the cat or spackling their cars.

I have only one logical explanation. I believe the executives at the prepubescent Sci-Fi Channel -- like the rest of mankind -- were badly traumatized by the creative output of Brandon Tartikoff. Is there any among us, after all, who can admit, honestly and without fingers crossed, that they don't soil themselves from fear at the thought of another episode of Manimal?

But unlike the rest of us hostages, they suffer from Helsinki Syndrome, and now identify themselves with those entertainment cats-o'-nine-tails which scourged them in the past, whereas the rest of us were able to flee towards the Edenic plains of Whatever The Hell's On Right Now.

I'm somewhat surprised that the other channels on the Cable Box haven't followed suit. There's an awful lot of specialized sales potential in the demographic filtering implied by these mono-purpose channels. Hell, I am not A.C. Neilsen and Co., but I can make the educated guess that BET is watched by black people, Nickelodeon by kids, and The Weather Channel in five minute intervals. These channels could seriously boost their income by selling material tailored to their markets, as opposed to those incessantly played videotape offers that seem to plague A&E and the History Channel.

MTV could sell albums, Animal Planet could sell obscure animals, The Food Network obscure animal parts, the Eternal Word Television Network the two skulls of John The Baptist, and C-SPAN could offer up Al D'amato to the highest bidder. Why, Comedy Central alone could make millions by selling its most interesting shows to other channels!


Now, Comedy Central brings up the real reason, the dark secret that the Sci-Fi channel must inflict nightmares like Cool Stuff on us. In Comedy Central's past lie the dark shadows of The Comedy Channel and HA!. Those two cable channels which had to merge when it was discovered that there were only nine people on the planet that wanted to watch eighteen hours of unfunny standup for days on end.

That merger is the bright promise behind the 500 channel nightmare: there aren't enough consumers alive, and I doubt there's enough money in existence to support that many specialized channels. No, there's going to be a crunch: all the news channels will merge once Ted Turner defeats Rupert Murdoch in a best-of-three falls match, and someday, in the far future, the Sci-Fi Channel will merge with the Eternal Word Television Network, producing an episode of Cool Stuff where they hawk the finger bones of Gene Roddenberry.


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