Saturday, March 15, 2008

Why Do You People Watch TV?

What is the word for someone who doesn't watch any TV regularly, doesn't have cable or access to TV stations at home, and doesn't want any of it? TV-abstainer? Teeveetotaller? Showhibitionist?

Whatever it is, that's me. There never was one moment when I got on the wagon, but gradually in the early '90s I gave it up.

I still know a bit about what's on, because I often edit the "Tune in Tonight" TV column and listings in the local newspaper. Which consists mostly of a string of show names and one-sentence descriptions about the episodes airing: You know, like, "On 'Happy Knuckleheads,' Lance and Lugo argue about Sadie's car. On 'Help, My Pants!' Fran dances the macarena. Billy is sad on 'Billy McTootle.' " Doing this job reinforces my decision.

So do some other realizations. Such as that you people now actually pay to watch this stuff. And pay a lot. Even for what you call "basic." Sure, I hate the '80s, but I have to admit, unless you were getting Skinamax on cable, you could rot your brain for free. In what other case can you imagine a freeborn people getting something gratis for decades, then being told without reason they have to pay for it, and submitting without a peep? Sheeple! Sheeple with remotes!

Maybe that last part accounts for something that's been happening lately. People have been calling the newspaper -- lots and lots of people -- to complain about their service with Comcast cable. Sometimes, gods help them, they get to talk to me.

Now I don't know jack about the cable business, but even I can tell you what the people in this community probably want from their TV sets. It doesn't take an abacus to figure out these folks will like 1. Phillies games; 2. weather; 3. old, safe black-and-white movies; 4. Disney for the kids.

And sure enough, the solons of Comcast, with billions of dollars and the latest technology on their side, manage not to give it to them. They manage to always take away one or the other of those things with every revamped price plan (always higher). And they boast that they are replacing it with another 40 versions of HBO, broadcasts of minor league preseason dog sled racing from Flin Flon, and access to The Lithuanian Naked Clog-Dancing Network.

And they make you get a new cable box. And pay for it. There are two kinds of people around here: old people and just plain folks, and among both types new cable boxes are less popular than colonoscopies. Especially when you have to disconnect and turn in the old one yourself, wait in a long line, pay a deposit, and then go home and figure out how to hook up the new one on your own.

It's kind of charming that they call the newspaper office to complain about this. It's all I can do sometimes to keep from suggesting, "Why don't you throw away the furshlugginer TV and go read a book for a change?" Usually I just listen to them rant, make sympathetic noises like you do when the baby is throwing up, then suggest they write to their state representatives.

Which I understand some of them do, and I understand there is a movement to have cable TV placed under the aegis of the state utilities commission, so that services and rates would be regulated as are those for water or power. Is TV really as important to people as water? I suppose it is.

Sometimes they ask me what I do about the cable company. I tell them I don't watch TV. Typically there's a pause, then they ask if there's someone else they can speak to. They ask to speak to someone, and though they don't say "... from this planet," I can sort of hear it in their tone.

When I'm on vacation, usually there's TVs wherever we stay. I ignore TV, but I'm not allergic to it. I like to turn on a TV when I'm on vacation to see what it is. The result always disappoints me.

On this vacation, for example, Amy and I came back after a long, trying day with the poor little one, who was very sick when the trip began and took a few days to adjust to the new routine and surroundings. She had been uncharacteristically clingy, whining, and crying all that day. And Amy turns on the TV in the room, and some show comes on called "Supernanny" or something, which seems to consist of half an hour of listening to other people's clingy, whining, crying children.

For this you pay $50 a month?

We saw another show; some sort of hard-hitting political show about what voters need to know. It was about governors who screw putas, and then it was about what somebody's preacher said in church. That can't be right, but it was what I thought I saw. This was while sitting in a brewpub, so all I could do was watch it, not listen.

It was one of those wall-filling "high-definition" TV screens. And it was annoying the hell out of me because the picture was jerky and jumpy. But then I realized it was that way on purpose. The producers had lowered the frame rate so it looked like a Youtube video. This was a television show aiming for political junkies who are accustomed to being online and seeing things that way. This restaurant had a TV screen that looked like a slab of the International Space Station and probably cost half that much, yet it was being used to show programs deliberately made to look like an 11-year-old's Webcam.

We do have a DVD player at home, and we've got a few disks of old "classic" "Sesame Street" episodes strewn over the top of it. I confess, we pop one in every other day or so to give the baby something to occupy her attention when she's too tired to play and there's work we have to do. They're sweet old things from the first four years or so of the program, slow-paced, with fun songs and good jokes and subtle sophistications and wacky snippets of late-'60s pop art.

Down here, we clicked on a "Sesame Street" program one morning. A current one. And IT WAS IN-YOUR-FACE SUGAR-BOMB SCREAMING JUMPING OUT THE SCREEN AT YOU ABRASIVE NONSTOP LIKE STEVE IRWIN IN A BARNEY SUIT. I was hyperventilating after two minutes of it. J.F.C., who decided all kids' shows had to be that way? Even "Street?"

I clicked the TV on again later when everyone else was in bed. I had to watch it with the sound down, but it wasn't hard to figure out what I was seeing: Infomercials. I remember those from the '80s. These were mostly about shiny things that look like human-scaled versions of the kind of toys you put in gerbil cages to give the hopeless rodents a way to burn off their existential rage at being trapped in a steel prison all the time. These are said to help people lose a lot of weight in time for their high school reunions.

And the people who have been assimilated into the cult of these machines come on the air, one by one, and praise them. Always the same pattern: Reasonably trim person beams and talks about the machine; footage of reasonably trim person using machine, then folding it up and sliding it under the bed ("So easy!"); cut-away to "before" photo, when reasonably trim person was reasonably plump (and also slouching; badly dressed in tight, brief spandex; unkempt; pimpled; and mopey).

Then the next person comes on. Who is not quite so trim, but then you see the "before" picture of that person, and they were in really bad shape then. Proportionately much worse than the previous one. The next person is a little worse still.

Next they bring on someone who is morbidly obese, mulletted, and even in a stylish and flattering outfit looks like she ate the cast of "High School Musical" for lunch. And then this person is smiling and putting the machine under the bed. At which point I realize this is an "after," and if I don't pound that remote right now I am going to see a "before" picture that will haunt me into the afterlife.

Oh, and I saw a Night Ranger video on VH-1. The one where they get run over by stock footage of an old train. Funniest thing I have seen EVAH! But still not worth $50 a month and a headache. So that's enough TV for this year, I think. Tune in next year!