TV, Then and Now (2015Aug16)


Saturday, August 15, 2015                                       2:38 PM

Technology makes some things ridiculous. Where television programming once seemed an ever-shifting gem flashing first this rainbow facet then that, prisms and beams, swells and clarions of relentlessly changing light and sound, it is now listed on a menu. As of three years ago, iMDB listed over a quarter of a million films—268,000 since 1888. There have been 364 TV programs of 150-300 episodes each, 167 of 300-550 episodes each, 87 of 550-1,000 episodes each, 124 of 1,000-2,500 episodes each, 51 of 2,500-5,000 episodes each, 35 of 5,000-10,000 episodes each and 8 TV programs of over 10,000 episodes each (that’s roughly 101,426 episodes just from the top eight programs). Granted, only the majority of these programs are from the USA and Great Britain—(TV is alive and well the world over and they’re not just streaming the feed from the Great Satan). But that’s still more than a lifetime’s worth of original programming available to the English-speaking audience.

So, proved: there are more TV shows and movies than a single individual could ever watch in a hundred years—why then, in the summer, on the weekend, in the middle of the day, is there absolutely nothing on TV that I haven’t seen a billion times? I would make a federal case out of this—but then I stop and realize that for the younger folks (like our kids) TV is no longer something you let schedule your life—you schedule it. Between On-Demand and Hulu and HBO-Go and who knows what-all else, everything is watchable when you want to watch it—worrying about when something is ‘on the air’ is something only old fogeys like myself are still doing.

Even PBS, which hasn’t the need or the capacity to follow all the latest forms of commercialization, like On Demand, has to make all of its content available on its website—just to make sure it gets seen by anyone under the age of fifty. But then, why shouldn’t they? I myself post whatever my videocamera records, to YouTube, almost daily—doesn’t cost a dime.

In addition to TV programming’s detachment from real-time, there’s the addition of all the ‘unfiltered’ content to be found on YouTube, podcasts, Netflix, Amazon, etc. Commercial interruption is no longer a given. Networks no longer work to give us an overview of our choices—they still push their own stuff during commercial breaks, but now that’s only a fraction of what’s out there. TV Guide, once a weekly magazine found in every household, is online—and even online, TV Guide still harks back to the 90s paradigm of broadcast-plus-cable—it’s impossible to list everything that’s available on every platform. It is easy today to miss out on a great new program, just because there’s no central entity that has an interest in guiding our viewing choices—no one central corporation, or group of corporations, gets a monetary return from driving our preferences or piquing our interest in new shows.

And even if there were such an entity, who would watch their commercials? Between muting them in real time, fast-forwarding past them on ‘On Demand’, and their relative non-existence on digital delivery platforms, commercials have also ceased to be the staple of entertainment they once were. Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’ has been decentralized and demonetized. It’s a free-for-all out there.

I do miss the old ‘water-cooler’ atmosphere of the twentieth century—everybody had something to say about last night’s Carson monologue, or SNL skit, or Seinfeld episode. Everybody saw (and more importantly, discussed amongst themselves) Roots, Ken Burn’s Civil War, and other legendary programs that became cultural events simply by existing in the tiny, communal feed that once was shared by every living room screen, like a village bonfire we all virtually sat around. Stranger still, new offerings with the same potential impact are now being produced rather frequently—but their influence is diluted by the fact that they appear in little corners of our modern media landscape—seen by only a sliver of a demographic—rather than being spotlighted by a major network’s primetime.

Complexity, too, dilutes the impact of today’s ‘exposés’—where once we had an annual Jerry Lewis telethon for Muscular Dystrophy, we now have a panoply of documentaries about MS, ALS, AIDS, HPV, HCV, etc. In recent months I have seen a dozen different programs regarding new cures for cancer—genetically tailored, site-specific, cannabis-based, modified viruses—apparently, there will be no ‘cure’ for cancer, but a whole new industry, a whole new category of science, of cancer cures.

And diseases are only one aspect of public interest—racism has come from pure bigotry to the specifics of police brutality, job openings, educational barriers, the culture of ingrained poverty, drug criminalization, and on and on—and that’s just racism as it pertains to one minority. Sexism ranges from equal pay to electing our first female president. Education issues turn from funding to tenure to technique to classroom size, just to name a few of the countless issues. The Middle East has gone from basically the survival of Israel to a pack of different problems being faced by thirty different countries, several religious sects, and the international implications of each Middle East nation’s ties to developed countries either allied with or opposed to the USA. If that’s not complex enough, just add in the global thirst for Middle East petroleum resources.

TV becomes complex at the same time that the world explodes in complexity. None of the people my age or older would have predicted that the average person would be helpless in their daily activities without typing skills—but a keyboard is a far more consistent part of our daily lives than pen and paper ever were. Even space, which used to be a matter of getting to the Moon and safely back again (and maybe Mars) is now a matter of all nine planets and their many moons, the Kuiper belt, geosynchronous surveillance satellites, radio astronomy, space telescopes, space stations, commercial space flight, the search for habitable worlds in far-off solar systems, and more.

Science Fiction has been hit the hardest—what was once good science fiction is now a matter of everyday life—writing that goes beyond the sci-fi-ness of our present reality can result in ‘hard’ sci-fi novels that are so ‘hard’, many readers will complain that they read like physics textbooks. Today’s emphasis is on near-future sci-fi, since it has long become impossible to imagine what our civilization will look like in fifty or a hundred years—just looking at the changes of our last fifty years of reality is enough to send us reeling. Some of William Gibson’s novels don’t necessarily require any future at all, except for a detail here and there—mostly it’s just extrapolations of our present tech, with just a soupçon of accrued infrastructure.

Now, given that, it is especially upsetting to see a group like the Tea Party, or their present incarnation, Trump supporters, being taken seriously. ‘Childish’ is the only word that comes to my mind. These folks want all the advantages of new media, new science, and new technology—but they want all of that to leave their older memes untouched. By rights, they should be called the ‘cognitive dissonance’ party—they want to uphold the myths, morals, and mores of the mid-twentieth century while living in the twenty-first. It’s like an Amish person wanting to drive a Lamborghini—it’s understandable—everyone wants to drive a Lamborghini —but you can’t have it both ways.

The strangest thing about these overgrown children is that they have enough awareness of their basic wrongness that they speak in euphemisms. They know that their beliefs, plainly expressed, would be roundly condemned by the vast majority—but they don’t see that as any indication of wrong thinking. They continue to search for new ways to ‘teach the controversy’ (doubletalk-speak for ‘supporting the ludicrous’) by reacting against seemingly unassailable progressivism.

Take for instance the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign. Any idiot will understand that this phrase is shorthand for “Black lives should matter as much as anyone else’s”. Their pretense of being blockheaded enough to misunderstand the phrase as ‘black lives matter more’ is so transparent that it becomes one of those things that make it hard to decide whether to laugh or cry. And that is their most popular weapon nowadays—to leave us so breathless at the profound stupidity of their words that we don’t know where to begin with our rebuttals!

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