Why We Watch: Utterly Interruptible
I watch TV because it is there.
This sounds stupid coming from someone who writes about TV, but there you go. I watch TV because it is there. I plop my grade Z butt down on my sofa with nothing to do. I look around the room. And staring at me from across the expanse of toy-strewn carpet is the Box, the Blank Eye. I look down at the cushion next to me and there is the remote. On goes the TV. I begin to wander the channels: VH1, the Food Network, MTV, Comedy Central, E!. Nothing to see here. I expand my search: A&E, MTV2, TV Land, Cartoon Network. Still nothing. Discovery Channel? USA? TBS? TNT? Pfft. Off goes the TV.
And I look around the room again and realize there just isn't anything else to do. And the TV goes on again, and I start my rounds one more time.
If I lived in my own house, instead of in this house with my wife and kids, I might have other things to do besides watch TV. I might paint, for example, or draw or write. I might get some reading done some place other than on a seat with a hole through it.
But I don't live in my own house, so my books are downstairs, and my paints and canvas are away, and my pencils are locked in drawers. It's not as if I have time to do these things anyway -- an interruption could come at any moment. My wife might want to talk to me, or one of the kids might blow out a diaper, or someone might need bathing or immediate first aid for a head wound. Something could catch on fire. I could be yelled at for not taking out the garbage. Any or all of this could happen at any moment, and I need to be ready to jump instantly. Few things turn off as easily as the TV.
Appointment television? That's amusing. The only network show I see with any regularity I tape and watch with my wife after the kids are asleep. At midnight. With the sound turned down low and my wife asleep against my shoulder.
It would be unfair to blame all of this on the wife and kids. Even before the little ones came along, I didn't watch TV on a schedule. I got more viewing done during prime time, perhaps, rather than off in the depths of after-11 programming, but that's about it. I watched more TV, but not better TV, before the kids were born.
Do I do this with movies? It would be easy enough to drop in a laserdisc. But I do not. Because movies are good. I don't want to be interrupted while watching a movie, just like I don't want to be interrupted while reading, or painting, or drawing or writing. But TV? Interrupt me, please.
I watch TV because it's easy to do and easy to stop doing should the need arise. In short, I watch TV because it is there. If it weren't there, I'd stare at the walls.
Of course, there's a circle in this problem: TV is interruptible because TV is interruptible. If there were something on TV capable of affecting me as deeply as, say, seeing Brian Dennehy onstage in "Death of a Salesman," or even just as much as the ending of "Forrest Gump" -- heck, if there were something on TV as interesting as Catch-22 (the book, not the film) or "The Princess Bride" (the book or the film) I might not find it so easy to turn off. But, quite simply, there isn't.
There is nothing inherent in TV to keep it from being a true art form. In fact, TV is pretty much identical to film in everything but its transmission medium: They're both moving pictures with sound. Television is capable of supporting just as much artistry as film, which is as valid an art form as a book or a painting.
But the model on which television programming is built has made escaping the lowbrow very difficult. The idea that TV must be free, supported by commercials, has led to content which must, by its very nature, be interruptible. Have you ever watched an episode of Star Trek or, say, a Christmas special, on videotape without the commercials? You can see where the commercials are supposed to go like a machete gash in the belly of the show's narrative. And you can see the extent to which coherence is gutted.
PBS, of course, doesn't run commercials. But budgetary constraints have kept PBS from achieving true brilliance in all but a handful of cases. Think of what you've gotten from PBS: Sesame Street, Bob Vila, reruns from the BBC, and Ken Burns. In fact, PBS is a lot like the BBC: Mostly unwatchable, always quirky, occasionally brilliant in a way that could never happen on a commercial network. But there's a lot of chaff in that there wheat. PBS is often interruptible simply because it is boring.
Non-broadcast TV -- cable and satellite -- has been slowly dragging itself away from the concept of interruptible television since its inception, but it has been a very labored process. Pay-per-view wrestling events, which net well in the millions of dollars from a per-TV charge usually over $30, still air with commercials, as if paying forty bucks for the privilege of watching Vince McMahon get his ass kicked weren't enough. Sure, the commercials are mostly for upcoming wrestling events, but given the cover charge every bit of filler leaves an ache in viewers' wallets.
Showtime and HBO have been creative hotbeds lately, although they've been cranking out original, commercial-free programming for years. These channels have a problem with consistency, though; time slots wander, the "season" has a way of starting and stopping seemingly at random, and the freedom of being a pay channel has resulted in excesses of nudity and profanity in place of characters and storylines. Also, the number of shows Showtime and HBO can offer is fairly limited, or at least appears to be. They are many leagues from offering a full prime-time schedule; they probably won't do so until nearly everyone is wired for all seven HBOs and five Showtimes so people paying to get movies will get their money's worth while original programming is also airing.
Other pay channels are offering their own programming, but despite all of them costing some amount of money -- even basic cable costs something -- such channels as TNT, TBS, USA, Sci-Fi, Comedy Central, and so on are still running commercials and therefore still running on the concept of interruptible entertainment.
A few channels beyond the premium services are breaking away from that. The Disney Channel often runs movies without commercial breaks, as do Turner Classic Movies and American Movie Classics and some others. Of course, these are movies, so naturally they get better treatment than mere TV shows. Only one network I know runs TV shows without commercials: Nick Jr. Nick Jr. shows childrens' shows like Blue's Clues and Little Bear and Franklin and the rest, only running commercials between the shows. And those are shows that we do not interrupt.
If TV seems to be slowly, very slowly, working its way away from interruptible entertainment, though, the film industry seems to be working its way towards it. After paying almost nine dollars for a ticket, I still find myself sitting through fifteen minutes of commercials -- for Coke, for 777-FILM, for local companies, for upcoming movies -- before each film I see. Perhaps it's because you can now see movies on your TV with your VCR or your DVD player; some of the lowbrow nature of TV has rubbed off on the movies. It's no longer an experience to sit in a theater -- people are treating them more like their living rooms, and treating movies more like TV.
Nevertheless, TV is still the champion of interruptibility. I'm not going to pack up and hie myself off to the nearest multiplex when I find there's nothing else to do. The movies are over there. But the TV -- ah, the TV is here. And that's why I watch it.
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