In the 1992 independent film Laws of Gravity (set and shot in the gritty Williamsburg of that era), there’s a scene where Jimmy lets his childhood pal Frankie, who’s up from Florida, crash with him in his shabby apartment. As Frankie sees the couch he’s going to sleep on says, “Listen, you got cable?” Jimmy looks at him with a grumbling sigh, “Ay, this is Brooklyn!”
While a lot of Brooklyn may not have had cable in the 1980s and early 90s, other places in NYC and Long Island did, or at least had started to. Back in the early 80s, I can remember the sheer excitement as HBO somehow found its way onto our TV set, probably due to some recurring free preview. Before I was only allowed to watch PBS, but now we had uncensored movies coming right into our living room—and, if you stayed up long enough, you could hear cursing and maybe even see some t & a if you were lucky. As channels like CNN and MTV grew, cable TV became not only a necessity of sorts but it defined the background of what TV was for my generation. Even my aging father—who I lived with in his rent-controlled midtown apartment during college and took care of along with my brother throughout the 1990s—would make a habit of scrolling through the increasing panoply of offerings in the evening, sometimes inexplicably stopping on a Chinese language program for a good while (whereas I would make a point of scrolling through the bizarre and soft-porn channels of Manhattan public access after he retired to bed). Cable TV was part of life—a luxury one took for granted, be it for news, “culture,” entertainment or just to be connected to the zeitgeist.
At least that’s how I used to see it
Last month I cancelled my cable. I crossed the Rubicon, and it seems I should have done it years ago. In my view cable TV has become an overblown, over-priced sea of vacuous and, more importantly, commercial-laden offerings; a boatload of misguided niche channels that suck time away; and a headache-inducing absorption of “American television culture,” the enduring characteristic of which is nothing less than a mind-numbing cacophony.
I’m not saying there isn’t worthwhile fare to be seen. But given what has happened—and happening—to the ways moving images can come into one’s home, cable TV both smacks of anachronism and has attained some complicated and egregious monopoly on information and entertainment. Yes, the truth is that before I got rid of it, I still valued HBO, I watched the Daily Show and sometimes some news programs if I could bear them. But it seemed like long ago when I stopped getting a kick out of how “funny” and “bizarre” some of the things were on so many channels. When I turned on the TV I would immediately go to the “premium” channels just because there are no commercials to suffer through and, more often than not, I would end up getting hooked into some ridiculous movie that I half enjoyed. The truth is that I also gave up: I just didn’t want to explore so many channels and, god forbid, I didn’t want to pay even more for DVR service (though I’m sure it probably would have worked for me).
My decision was also fuelled by anger. I was insulted by the fact that I was required to have and pay for “basic” cable, “standard” cable and digital cable (or something like that) before I was able to have the privilege to pay for commercial-free programming—quality programming more or less—on HBO and the like. The system has become like none other on the “open market”: to buy one product you have to buy a thousand others along with it, even if the ones you have to buy force you to watch innumerable loud commercials. It is a complete insult.
In fact, I often thought I would prefer the old British system: you buy a TV and pay $100 to the TV commission for a “TV License.” The commission then uses that to fund the BBC and a few other channels where you can find uncut movies, quality news and documentaries, high production value dramas, sports, etc.—without any (or at least minimal) commercials. But, alas, that system has been nearly obliterated and morphed due to, yes, commercial cable TV and satellite. Rupert Murdoch initiated a campaign naming that as an “elitist system,” while presenting his cable and satellite channels as true “freedom of choice.”
I’m not alone in my disgust. People are cancelling their cable subscriptions and the companies are noticing. Last year there was an outcry when it was rumored that Time Warner Cable in NYC was going to try and charge for the amount of data downloads in its broadband service, supposedly because people were cancelling cable and watching shows on YouTube or Hulu. In fact, when I called to cancel, I chose the appropriate menu button for requesting cancelation of service. The button must have taken me to the Time Warner NYC “A Team” nestled in the basement of some corporate headquarters, caffeine-hyped and ready to employ a number of tactics to keep you on the cable hook. First the guy played it cool, but then pounced with an immediate reduction of $20, then $30, then $40, then $50. He bottomed out there after I explained that the model was worn out (when I mentioned the inundation of commercials, he mentioned I should get a DVR!). Even though the “Triple Play” (broadband internet, phone and cable TV) option was thereby reduced from nearly $160 to almost $100, I still wasn’t going for it. As a last-ditch effort he said I could get Showtime for one year for free, then Cinemax for six months as well. “Why no HBO offer?” I asked, “They don’t do that,” he said morosely.
The increasing desperation of cable TV operators to keep customers belies that fact that they too know that the system is shifting radically. It’s basically now a crazy mixture of studios, content producers, distributors, internet providers, startups, video on demand companies, DVD delivery companies, and virtual TV companies, most of which are interconnected somehow and all affected—or driven—by websites like YouTube and Hulu where you can watch TV shows (and increasingly, you can just connect the Web to your TV or Blu-Ray player or whatever). Nobody really knows what is going on and I guess that’s exciting and challenging for everyone. But what is clear is that the writing is on the wall to some degree. Just like the current internet-driven crisis of newspapers and magazines, “free” premium content is not going to cut it in the long run. Being able to watch high-quality films, documentaries, and shows is not going to work for free. Personally, I hope that there comes a time when you can pick and choose a few or many channels, all of which have no ads on them but which you pay a relatively premium price for. Maybe that won’t work for channel surfers, but it would be the right system for those of us who know what we want to watch.
The recent debacles between Fox and Time-Warner and Comcast and the Food Network/HGTV are just a couple of examples of the kind of event that is surely going to become more common as content providers (who often have stakes in some distribution) haggle with companies that are the conduits of programming (who often have some stake in content). I don’t want any part of it. I really don’t want to see their full-page apologies in Metro or AM New York or the papers that aren’t free.
Don’t worry. Take it from me. It’s been a month or so and I’m OK. I have some movies and old TV shows on DVD. I rent movies or get them from the public library. I sit on the couch and read. My kid doesn’t end up sitting for hours in front of Noggin (a commercial-free channel until to you realize the cynical ploy of hooking kids into commercial-laden channels like Nickelodeon when they get a little older). We save some money, but that’s not even the point.
You’ll be OK when you take the spike out of your veins.
The other day, I was perusing flat panel TVs at Best Buy and a salesman came up to me and asked me about cable. I said I had cancelled and he looked surprised and asked why. I told him it was an outdated model, that it was absurd that I had to pay for thousands of commercial-drenched channels in order to even get HBO, and that the media environment was irrevocably changed. He said that they had a special with Time Warner where it was $33 a month for all the cable channels up to the premium. “Wow,” I said, “That’s a good price.”
And for a moment I thought how nice it might be to sit on my couch with a new flat panel and journey through all the channels—it would be a trip down memory lane. The first buzz of seeing a teen movie on HBO when I was 12; the first Gulf War coverage on CNN, connecting with information in real time during a crisis (and I don’t mean OJ or JonBenét when I say that); the “Sunday Night Viewing” on HBO; the ability after a long hard day of work to sit and zone.
And for a minute, or maybe two, I was nostalgic.