Revisited: Why I like TV

I grew up, like most men my age, as a big fan of television. One of my earliest memories is preparing to go to school each morning so I’d have enough time to watch reruns of “The Three Stooges.” I was on the kiddies’ show “Skipper Chuck’s Popeye Playhouse”; I’m told that when the Skipper threw the floor open to an on-air question-and-answer segment, I asked “Can I go to the bathroom?” I was a huge fan of the country-humor genre best represented by the likes of “Green Acres” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” shows I defend to this day for their under-appreciated irony.

As I’ve grown into middle age, I find myself watching TV less and less. I’m not sure why, though I do believe my son’s monopoly of the widescreen we bought a year or so back plays a big part in what I’d otherwise call my maturation. He prefers shows like “Halo” and “Guitar Hero,” the plots of which I’m completely unable to comprehend, except that they require a really strange remote. My wife and I still manage to arrange some family TV time with a few shows we all like – “House”, “The Colbert Report” – but just as the proliferation of specialty cable channels has segmented audiences in general, we too have developed our separate interests.

What seems to differentiate us the most these days though is our TV-viewing styles. Rob has that ability he shares with the rest of his generation for electronic multi-tasking, combining television with the Internet, text messaging, instant messaging, cell phone conversations, homework, petting his cats and annoying his mom. Laura is able to watch long movies in 5- or 10-minute segments while going about more productive activities. How she’s able to remember plot points from one segment to the next, while I can barely remember what show I’m watching during commercial breaks, is beyond me.

Maybe it’s because I’m not paying attention. Or rather, it’s because I’m paying attention on a whole different level than what she and others see. (Kind of like President Bush was paying attention to the nation on what can politely be called “a whole different level”). I suspect I share a trait with many other men who watch television for two distinct reasons. Sometimes I watch because the broadcast is interesting, and other times I prefer just to let the electrons fly and lull me into a state that closely resembles irreversible coma.

Smarter people than I have labeled these two viewing styles as “lean forward” and “lean back.” The lean-forward style is used when you’re intently engaged with the monitor in front of you, whether it’s displaying the final minute of a tight football game or a particularly titillating spreadsheet. The lean-back style represents a more casual interface, like when you’re at work. Sometimes I really want to be paying attention to what’s on, while at other times it’s just the “on-ness” that matters.

And it’s hard for even me to predict which mode is going to seem more appropriate for any given TV-watching opportunity. There are many shows that sound good in theory and yet I find it difficult to get around to them. On my DVR right now, for example, are recent broadcasts I recorded including a documentary on 9/11, a high-definition portrayal of what it’s like to be imprisoned in India, and six episodes of “Mad Men”. I often joke that what I need in order to get caught up on this backlog is a good case of spinal meningitis to put me on the couch for a couple of months. In one sense, though, I’ve got the feeling that recording the programs is basically equivalent to watching the programs, and that actually playing them out is overkill.

I think I could stay awake for most of these shows, assuming the meningitis wasn’t too crippling. If I have some real interest in a subject, if there’s any suspense or excitement or (especially) catastrophe at all, I don’t think I could fall asleep if I tried. Even the Weather Channel, notorious in households across the country for providing little more than background noise mixed with thunderstorm warnings for states you’ve never heard of, can hold my interest if the subject is right. Blending the stupefying musical accompaniment to the hometown weather insert with features like “It Could Happen Tomorrow” – what if New York were struck with a hurricane, volcano and sandstorm at the same time? – is obviously brilliant programming.

But I have what I think is an even better idea, and I’m offering it here to any TV moguls who might’ve stumbled into the blogosphere. If we can have specialty channels devoted to such esoteric subjects as country music and home improvement projects, why not introduce The Sleep Channel to cable? You’d really need very little original programming; just the re-broadcast rights to already-existing shows that could be packaged and marketed as a sort of video Ambien. A typical line-up might include a painting with watercolors show, “Teletubbies,” any cooking show without Rachel Ray, public-access coverage of the city council, a cavalcade of security cameras, and “Larry King Live,” topped off with what you could call “The Black and White Hour,” featuring anything made in the days before color. Then for sweeps week, roll out the broadcast I couldn’t believe my good fortune to encounter one recent lazy Saturday – it wasn’t just golf, it wasn’t just senior golf, it was a rerun of last year’s senior golf shown while this year’s tournament was being rain-delayed (complete with updates on when the weather might be clearing).

As I drifted off, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Or at least that’s what my wife thought.


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3 Responses to “Revisited: Why I like TV”

  1. thirdcoast61 Says:

    Wonderfully funny insight, but you failed to mention other good shows like Johnny Quest, Clutch Cargo (and his faithful dog paddlefoot). I mean Clutch even had real mouths super-impossed on the screen for gawds sake!

    Your sleeping channel idea was great. Some show additions could have been any show on MTV that does have music in it….oh wait….none of them have music in them…..(scratching my head).

  2. Phillip Donnelly Says:

    Yes, the Beverly Hillbillies is very under-rated and is rarely seen for the satirical masterpiece it was.
    I also watch less and less TV, but if you’re idea of a sleep channel takes off, I might start tuning in again. To it’s schedule, I’d include anything that’s billed as ‘a hilarious comedy!’.

  3. planetross Says:

    TV is shit! … unless it’s something I like.

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