Why We Watch: Sweet, Sweet Cable
But we're defining "television" too narrowly. Why focus on the networks? They're dinosaurs. Their job now is to fossilize and turn into oil so they might fuel the new wave in television: cable programming.
Ah, sweet cable programming -- also known as "the reason I watch television."
I like cable because it has two of the things I prize most in a broadcast schedule -- variety and repetition. There are infinite channels (there's your variety) and since each of those channels has a relatively limited repetoire, their offerings get broadcast over and over (there's your repetition). If you're someone whose insomnia strikes at random, cable is comforting because it guarantees that you will not be watching "The Secret Passion of Robert Clayton" on ABC's late-late movie. You will be watching "Forming a Catholic Conscience" on the Eternal Word Television Network and wondering if this is divine confirmation that verily, there is no rest for the wicked.
Returning from the state of one television watcher's soul to the question at hand -- "Why the hell do I watch television?" -- I watch television because there is cable. So far as I can tell, cable's bottomless cornucopia is the closest approximation we have to Marshall McLuhan's global village. Let Wired subscribers carry on about the Internet: the Home Shopping Network was doing thriving business before Amazon.com came along, thereby proving the click-and-mortar model equally functional across mice and remotes. Telemundo and C-SPAN offer the non-contextual flow of data we've come to associate as "free information" on the World Wide Web.
But I don't like cable just because it provides a practical demonstration of one of McLuhan's many contradictory theories. I also like it because it appeals to my love of paradox. Cable stands accused of being exclusive and setting up the expectation that viewers must pay for quality TV: The Sopranos requires a cable subscription while Veronica's Closet is free. Money isn't the only restriction on the flow of quality: access to cable channels still depends on who your cable provider is. The networks, on the other hand, are broadcast far and wide. When television was still believed to be a common cultural denominator -- albeit a low one -- the ubiquitous networks were synonymous with "TV." Cable was a consumer luxury, resticted to a small segment of society.
Rethink that perception. According to the Nielsen People Meter Sample, 78 percent of all U.S. households have cable. Cable is no longer a luxury: it's become the kind of household expense we regard as "necessary," much in the same way our grandparents probably regarded private phone service, or young parents regard Internet access for their children.
Paradoxically, as cable's become more readily available to the masses, the networks have been isolating themselves. It's no secret that most shows are tweaked to meet a specfic demographic. When shows dominate a category that advertisers love -- males 18-25, for example -- the popular perception is that the show has "won" some sort of network competition. The real question should be, who are the nets losing? A lot of people: total network viewership drops, on average, about 6 percent yearly, while cable viewership grows 10 percent yearly.
This tells me that network television doesn't speak to a majority of Americans. I doubt it ever did: there are too many divisive attributes -- age, religion, gender, race, political affiliation, economic status -- that color people's sense of inclusion in any media phenomena; finding one that consistently transcends them all is well-nigh impossible. The one thing television watchers have in common is the act of watching. That's it.
Cable provides greater opportunity to have that one simple thing in common. It's electronic egalitarianism; if I restricted "TV watching" to the networks, I'd soon stop watching. On the other hand, I've cultivated a list of varied viewing options on cable: Farscape on the Sci-Fi channel, G vs. E on the USA Network, Any Day Now on Lifetime, Oz and The Sopranos on HBO. I can watch non-fiction like Emergency Vets on Animal Planet and A&E's Investigative Report series; the made-for-cable movies George Wallace and The Tuskegee Airmen; the animated shows South Park on Cemedy Central, Powerpuff Girls on the Cartoon Network, or Rugrats on Nickelodeon.
My list of cable's best programming is highly subjective. I am in no way representative of the average cable viewer. I just prove a point: cable offers something for anyone. Don't believe me? Then try to justify the existence of the Nashville Network. God knows I don't particularly want a channel devoted to bass fishing, roller derby, and Loretta Lynn.
But someone out there does. And he's out there clicking the remote, scaling the channels and wondering who on earth actually watches Farscape while I pause on TNN and wonder who could possibly be riveted by a line-dancing competition. He and I are divided by any number of differences. But we're both surfing, two citizens of a global village connecting in the broadest and safest of senses. We are entertained and curious, and we keep watching, trying to see what our neighbors in the village are like, always looking for the specific spot on the remote that we can call home.
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