Why We Watch: A Christmas Carol
My only answer seemed to be that I had nothing better to do, but that's more a comment on the sad state of affairs that is my life than a ringing endorsement for the boob tube. The dilemma weighed heavily upon my soul -- I no longer deserved the title Vidiot.
But last night that all changed. For like the legendary Ebenezer Scrooge, I was paid a late-night visit -- in my case, by the Ghost of Television Present. It was 3:00 a.m., and with sleep nowhere to be found, I flipped through the channels, expecting only the usual slate of infomercials. Instead I stumbled upon the NASA channel, where a replay of the day's spacewalk to repair the Hubble telescope was being shown.
As a dedicated space junkie, I tossed aside the remote and stared in fascination as a camera mounted in the huge cargo bay captured two astronauts floating around the Hubble while they went through the repair job, step by meticulous step.
Mission Control cut to another camera positioned somewhere on the outside edge of the shuttle and all of a sudden the astronauts were silhouetted against the bright blue Earth. That's when the sheer magnitude of what was happening hit me: These two men were floating 350 miles above the Earth, screaming over the oceans and continents at 17,000 miles per hour, making incredibly delicate adjustments to a piece of machinery that looks back in time.
It's absolutely ridiculous, yet here I was, watching it on late-night television.
TV makes the impossible routine. Whether it's Joe Montana rolling out and heaving a desperation pass to Dwight Clark in the back corner of the end zone or Russian tanks firing on their own parliament building during an attempted coup, there is nothing that can't be done inside a picture tube.
There is no other medium that can bring people events like this with such immediacy and intimacy. If the space shuttle mission were the movies, there'd have to be some way to work in a lot of explosions, be it a meteor storm or aliens attacking.
But on TV, it's just a couple of guys whizzing through space, trying to find the right wrench and wondering if the lug nuts are metric or not. And you're right there with them, listening in as Houston runs through a checklist and one of the astronauts stands on his head to help push the other one down while trying to free a particularly sticky widget.
I wasn't around when Neil Armstrong took those first famous steps on the face of the moon. I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like, the entire world huddled around the TV screen, devouring those grainy black and white images while Walter Cronkite, the granite pillar of American broadcast journalism, wept on camera.
The most staggering achievement in the history of the human species, piped into Joe Sixpack's living room, making him every bit a part of the experience as if he was sitting in Mission Control.
The 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission proved what TV was capable of while bringing a small touch of 1969 to those of us that missed Apollo 11. Flipping thorough the channels that July 4th, you found Oprah repeats, the old People's Court, maybe some Road Runner cartoons and, oh yeah, a six-wheeled, solar-powered skateboard roaming the surface of Mars.
The whole thing looked like something out of a low budget sci-fi movie. Hell, Babylon 5 could have pulled off a much nicer looking Martian landscape and maybe some bug-eyed creature to terrorize the Sojourner Rover, which could then defend itself with some visually stunning laser blasts.
Then you realized that this was for real. No special effects, no commercial tie-ins boasting that "this Mars landing brought to you by Pine-Sol," no Emmy-hungry actors hamming away at simplistic scripts about the glory of man's quest for the stars. Just one goofy little robot struggling over some rocks 45 million miles away while you flip-flopped between bologna or olive loaf for lunch.
Unfortunately, TV's greatest gift is also its curse. By making the impossible routine, it makes it mundane as well. Space shuttle launches, when broadcast at all, are stuck in MSNBC purgatory. The Hubble repair mission was compressed into 30 seconds of video accompanied by the ramblings of vapid local news anchors anxious to move on to the story of the cat who can count to three by tapping its paw.
But every now and then, television gets it right and brings the impossible to the public like nothing else can. It may be like playing the lottery, but that's why I watch television.
At least, until the commercials come on.
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