"I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts."
-- Orson Welles
While I was at Value Village a few days ago tracking down some costume pieces to use in a set of Scooby-Doo inspired mannequins photos, I stumbled across an old Gemini KM200 "rabbit-ears" antenna. I haven't watched television regularly for over a decade, due to a combination of factors: lack of decent programming, increasingly schizophrenic advertising, sporadic broadcast availability, a wide variety of optional media outlets (cable, satellite, DVD rentals, bittorrent). What was once the major technological method of information and entertainment acquisition has become increasingly sidelined, almost to the point of obsolescence.
The FCC apparently agrees; in less than a year (specifically, on February 17, 2009) analog television broadcasting will cease to exist. I find myself saddened by the end of this era; even though television and I parted ways over a decade ago, I have to admit that the boob tube has had a significant impact on my cultural identity. I cut my teeth on Star Blazers and Mister Roger's Neighborhood, ran home from elementary school for Pink Panther and Inspector Gadget, woke up early to catch Robotech before middle school, spent my lonesome preteen nights with Doctor Who and Monty Python, clung to The Real Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for support through boarding school, and took solace in Red Dwarf and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine during the madness years following graduation.
I decided to buy the antenna. My desktop has a capture card with a built-in tuner, which usually goes unused. Using a very simple adapter, I could hook the old dipole receiver into the cable-ready port on the back of my box. I would catalog this final year of television, writing down its memoirs before it passes into oblivion, like an old, dying parent in a nursing home.
The antenna is incongruous against the rest of the equipment on my desk: a huge metal sculpture reaching up to the sky like some abstract Rocky statue, praising the heavens and praying for the blessed signal to be bestowed. Behind it and off to the right sits the desktop's wifi-G adapter, whose own antenna, in contrast, is blue, plastic, and only three inches long. Its stubby transceiver, barely visible from the chair, looks like the smart kid in the back of the class raising his hand politely and patiently, while in front of him this drama queen of silver and height is flailing her arms for attention: I'm the Princess! Everyone look over here, I have something important to say! There's a sale at Macy's, half off blouses and skirts.
The first experiment was very rough. Tucson has a number of broadcast stations and television translators (lower-power relay stations which piggyback a larger station's signal onto another channel), but the capture card's auto-tuner could only find six stations with a decent amount of signal:
13 KOLD - CBS
16 KGUN - ABC (translator)
18 KTTU - MyTV
27 KUAS - PBS (translator)
29 KPCE - Daystar
40 KHRR - Telemundo
Nowhere to be found was the old standby NBC, nor any Fox or CW affiliates -- well, unless you count MyTV. I was unfamiliar with this network, so I did some research: when WB and UPN merged in 2006 to form CW, several UPN stations were lost to Fox. Fox turned these stations into a new network called MyNetworkTV (or MyTV for short), following on the coattails of their acquisition of the MySpace internet brand.
The other station I didn't recognize was Daystar, but it only took a single Google search to determine why: it's a Christian network. Easily the loudest and clearest signal of the bunch, Daystar was ironically ignored by my card's auto-tuner. I begrudgingly added it manually, resolving I could not be biased in my historical accounts.
I began flipping around the dial. At 11 AM on a Wednesday, the choices were:
- a paid Christian program
- another Christian program
- a soap opera
- another soap opera, in Spanish
- the news
- Barney and Friends
No reruns of McHale's Navy? No 321 Contact? No Press Your Luck? What sort of mad nightmare mediascape was this?
A couple of hours later, it wasn't any better. I checked the various networks' schedules for the rest of the evening, and then the rest of the week. What I found was a slew of ill-conceived reality shows, a smattering of sitcoms with only slightly more realistic premises, some paranoid doctor and crime dramas, and 'investigative' (read: exploitative) news programs.
I was stunned. I knew television had gotten bad (when that Lost crap is your biggest draw, you're clearly on the down stroke) but I never imagined that the horrors had sunk so miserably low. There were no stories, no narratives, no characters that you could learn to love or learn to hate. All that remained was a diorama of horrible fuckups: pedophiles on hidden cameras, washed-up celebrities forced to degrade themselves like heroin junkies for one more brief glimmer in the spotlight, asshole citizens assaulted by asshole criminals who get booked by asshole cops to be defended by asshole lawyers in front of asshole judges -- and then there's Flavor Flav.
Disgusted, I shut the damn thing off, and returned to watching Xvid rips of old Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes.
I walked home from the Friday graveyard shift listening to Boards of Canada on my Palm Tungsten C. The resonant chords and loping beats, like hip hop produced by Eeyore, complimented the early morning sunrise in the monsoon-soaked humidity.
It was Saturday morning; I entered my home, slung the backpack off, and sat down at the desktop. Saturday mornings had always been a joyous childhood time, even during the harshest points of my life. Adults, worked to exhaustion five days a week, slept in on Saturdays, which meant if you were enterprising and ninja-quiet, you could help yourself to a breakfast of cold pizza and while away the next few hours with the Shirt Tales, the Mighty Orbots and Kidd Video.
I fired up the capture card and ran the auto-tuner again. It deemed KXBA 58, a CW affiliate, was now worthy of signal recognition. It was 7 AM; time to watch cartoons. Surely that old stalwart bastion of childhood had not yet gone the way of the dodo?
What I found in lieu of the Cosby Kids and Pee Wee's Playhouse was a batch of lame garbage: Disney's The Emperor's New School, Beakman's World, a rehashing of the Care Bears, some crap called Will and Dewitt -- and for some reason, they all had an "e/i" logo in the upper right hand corner.
"e/i" stands for "educational and informative", and was created out of the Children's Television Act of 1990. Networks are required to broadcast at least three hours of e/i children's programming per week, and virtually all of this falls in the slot previously used for Saturday morning cartoons. While I applaud the spirit of the initiative, hardly any of these shows could be considered to have even a remote educational value, unless they are intended for retarded children; of the samples I viewed, only Beakman's World seems to take the notion with any seriousness, but, to be blunt, it's really just a poor man's Bill Nye, who in turn is a poor man's Mr. Wizard, who in turn is a poor man's Julius Sumner Miller.
Surely this can't be all kids have to look forward to on the weekend? The whole point of showing cartoons on Saturday is because kids don't have school then -- you know, that place where they're supposed to get an education. I delved deeper into the Saturday programming:
- CBS's lineup has been reduced to a fairyland of unicorns and rainbows, with Strawberry Shortcake, an animated Sabrina the Teenage Witch, an adaptation of the Madeline children's book series, and something called Horseland which is even too god damned Takei for me to explain.
- ABC now relies almost entirely on live-action teen comedies like Hannah Montana, That's So Raven and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. Only Power Rangers: Jungle Fury approaches anything resembling a classic Saturday morning cartoon, and frankly I was surprised that Americanized Super Sentai clones were still being produced.
- MyTV, owned by Fox, leaves the responsibility of programming the e/i block entirely to its affiliates.
- As for the CW, well... give credit where credit is due, I always say. They seem to be the final holdout of the old ways, with treasured friends like Spider-Man, Batman and Tom and Jerry gracing their 7-to-noon block -- ironic, considering they're one of the newest networks.
No wonder teenagers are so intolerable these days! If I'd had this tripe for my weekend breather as a child, I'd probably have turned into an douchebag, too. I remember crying like a baby when I discovered that Galaxy High School had gone off the air. If only I'd known then what I know now: 'tis better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all.
Television is dying, and I believe that it deserves to die. Of course, linear media itself isn't going anywhere; I've followed loads of webcasting, from Ronald Jenkees' haphazardly recorded phat jams to the BBC's Scream of the Shalka production. Storytelling and narrative are both still out there, but the production and distribution models have taken radical turns in the last ten years. In 1998 you could barely get 25 megabytes of free web space for some low-bitrate MP3s of the awful trance music we were squeaking out in ReBirth -- and forget about online video.
Like that old, dying parent I mentioned at the beginning of this post, television has become increasingly dissociative in its old age, as the dozen medications that salve its death pangs -- corporate mergers, advertising slogans, genre overhauls -- create unexpected chemical interactions when taken together, leaving behind a wrecked, frail husk of former dignities... Where's my wife? Who are you people? How did you get into my house?
Yet, before the end, we can still reminisce on the nostalgia of years past, on the good times when things were wholesome and pure -- after all, this whole adventure started when I decided to dress up Tabitha like Velma Dinkley. And who didn't have a crush on Velma, really? Oh sure, Daphne was the hotpants of the outfit, but every kid knew that Velma was where the action was at: while Freddy was tongue-wrestling with Miss Blake in the back of the Mystery Machine, and stoner Shaggy dropped so much acid that he saw ghosts and thought his dog could talk, Velma was out kicking ass and taking names. Not bad for a petite nerd girl who couldn't see shit without her glasses.
That's what I'll do, as the arbiter of culture passes into the electronic netherworld: I'll dress up my mannequins like friends from programs past, downloading their adventures from Pirate Bay or picking their DVDs up from Amazon. That's how I'll remember television, on that fateful day in February, when the on-call doctor arrives to pull the plug.