Saturday, November 24, 2007

Too Many TV Choices? Impossible

In today's Times, Joe Nocera, one of the better business writers around, columnizes about the issue of a la carte cable. As you may know, some economists, politicians, consumer advocates, and TV viewers have been asking for a regulation that would require cable companies to let subscribers pick and choose individual stations rather than buying the usual huge bundle of programming. The idea is also supported by conservative "family" groups that want an easy way to keep children from watching evil stations like MTV, with all those nekkid ladies and (dare I say it?) Black faces.

In his column, Nocera takes apart the economics of the idea, showing why a la carte cable would almost certainly be much more expensive for consumers than bundled service, even as it delivers a much smaller range of programming. (Short explanation: Suppose 25 percent of all cable subscribers opt to purchase a particular service, which would be a very high success rate. It would be necessary for the network to quadruple its per-subscriber charge just to break even. Other, less popular, networks might have to up their per-subscriber rates by eight or ten or twenty times. Multiply it out, and suddenly you are paying more per month for a handful of stations than you currently pay for 200.)

I hate this idea because of how it would affect me personally. Mary-Jo and I have different approaches to TV viewing. She has a collection of preferred stations among which she regularly rotates: the broadcast networks, the big news outlets, several PBS stations, the Food and Travel channels, and a handful of others. She knows the channel numbers for each of her favorites, zips from one to the next, and then either settles down with a show she likes or else switches off the TV and picks up a book.

I, on the other hand, am a classic surfer. I grab the remote and start skipping through all the channels, reading the show titles as they pop up on the screen and sampling programs that sound promising for a few seconds at a time. Sometimes I pick a show and watch it straight through, but more often I watch in five- or ten-minute snatches.

This method has its drawbacks. I am sure I waste more time with the TV than Mary-Jo does. Surfing also works only for one person at a time: It is such a fast-reaction process that it is basically impossible for two people to make the skip-or-stay decisions jointly. ("Wait, what was that?! Go back! No, not that far! That's it! Oh, forget it--it's gone now" etc.)

On the other hand, the beauty of surfing is that it allows for happy discoveries via serendipity. I often find great things that are worth watching--at least for ten minutes!--on channels that Mary-Jo barely knows about. In the past week, for example, I've wasted time pleasantly sampling shows about painting on Gallery, nature and travel programs on National Geographic, offbeat or classic movies on AMC and World Cinema, rock concerts on Rave, old James Bond flicks on Spike . . . you get the idea.

If Mary-Jo and I had to pick channels to subscribe to and pay for them individually, I doubt we would buy any of these. But it's great having them around to stumble across. And I honestly think they have helped increased my store of cultural, historic, and scientific knowledge. I have at least vague, partial information of lots of things from having spent ten minutes learning about them while channel surfing: How the six species of camels differ from one another (Animal Planet), how helicopters do tricky air maneuvers (Discovery Science), what kinds of giant structures LEGO collectors build with their blocks (Treasure), how the Greek isles look from overhead (Equator), what kinds of bathing suits Red Carter was showing at the last Fashion Week in New York (Ultra HD), exactly how ridiculous Robert Vaughn looked in a loincloth in Roger Corman's Teenage Caveman (Film Fest), what goes on backstage at the Purina Dog Show (Bravo), etc. etc.

I could live without any one of these fragments of information, but I would hate to be deprived of all of them. (Hey, you never know when the topic of LEGO collecting might come up at a party!) And of course the a la carte system would practically kill the random fun of channel surfing, reducing my TV fare to the pre-selected and therefore the predictable.

Channel surfing is my 50-ish equivalent of the library browsing I used to do when I was a kid. Many of the most interesting books I ever read were books I discovered by chance (to this day I resent libraries with closed stacks). It's about letting yourself be exposed to the wealth of human experience in all its weird, unpredictable, tawdry, magnificent variety. I think this is why God made the universe--because He likes a world that is crazy, colorful, and almost-but-not-quite chaotic. And if God likes it that way, who am I to argue?

To me there is something fascistic about the idea that we are supposed to know in advance everything we want to experience--and that we should deliberately wall ourselves off from everything else, lest we ever (horrors!) discover something unexpected or new. It's not surprising that Christian fundamentalists are behind this a la carte idea. Hopefully enough people will look closely at it and kill it before it gets passed based on bogus "consumer protection" claims.

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