When I was a child, we got cable. It was probably 1983, the year my dad died. The Disney Channel was new. There was a display at Disneyland about it, and I’m pretty sure we went that year to keep up traditions (we’d gone every summer while Dad was alive). And Mom said that maybe getting cable was a good idea, and we could get The Disney Channel while we were at it. You know, it wouldn’t be too expensive, and we could use a luxury. And so there we were, sitting in the house, watching the cable guy actually drill a hole into the living room wall so the cord could come through.
I was thinking about that last week as we went TV-shopping. We’d decided that it was time to have two TVs in the household. With online hookup, so we could stream Netflix and YouTube and Amazon Prime in two rooms of the house. And that’s great except for the part where the TV I bought in college is now too old for all this. Roku doesn’t even make a box that doesn’t use HDMI hookup anymore. For the second time in my life, it’s possible for a TV to be pretty much completely obsolete. You can find an adapter, but I don’t know how well it would work, and they’re ridiculously expensive for what they are.
I’m used to computers that become obsolete after a few years. And it’s true that I hadn’t finished replacing my VHS collection when suddenly there was the Blu-Ray question. And don’t even get music-lovers started. Still. Within my lifetime, how we watch television has dramatically changed twice. (For our purposes, we’ll consider certain developments to all be part of the same phenomenon.) I’ve lived through the glory days of cable from beginning to end, I think, and that’s just weird to consider.
When I was very young, it didn’t matter if your TV plugged into anything at all. There were screws on the back that you could hook a fancy antenna onto to get better reception, but that was it. I don’t know what that kind of connector is called, and I don’t know how to describe it any better. But I had TVs that I’m not sure could take a cable connection or a VCR connection, and until I was about nine or ten, that was okay with a lot of people. I’m pretty sure I knew people as a kid who lived and died without cable or a VCR.
Suddenly, though, the TV world had opened up. The idea of a single TV show as a universal phenomenon was in a lot of ways ending. There were a few big deal TV events since 1983—Who Shot JR, the finales of a few shows, and awards shows or big games—but by and large, it’s assumed that a lot of people are watching something else or else watching the thing on their own time. After all, I may still own a blank tape or two, and I definitely still have many things that I’d recorded off TV and just still own the tape somewhere.
In recent years, though, we’ve basically rejected the idea of scheduled programming altogether. I’m not, as readers know, all the way onboard with the rejection of physical media. I own a lot of movies on physical media and am planning to buy more as the budget permits. Some things don’t change, and I’m old enough so that’s one of them. But even I have been known to be too lazy to get up and go all the way to the other room to get movies I own when Netflix or someone has them streaming and suggests them and I think, “Yeah, I could watch that.”
As for cable, the TV we bought actually got endorsed by some group advocating cord-cutting. Okay, so I’d never heard of them. I have, however, heard of cord-cutting a lot. Theoretically, it’s even something I’d think about doing now, since one of the apps the new TV comes with is a Comedy Central one, and for obscure personal reasons, The Daily Show is the last show I watch in its scheduled time slot. What with DVR and apps and websites—and, yes, illegal downloading—hardly anyone I know has the slightest concern about when a show airs.
I think that, had cable ever been willing to do the a la carte option people have wanted for thirty-five years, they’d have a stronger hold of the market now, especially since everyone and their grandma’s dog seems to be considering their own separate streaming platform these days. How much easier it would be to just pay the cable company a lump sum and get the things you want. Heck, I’m paying Amazon to get Showtime right now so I can watch Twin Peaks. (No, I’m not caught up.) It’s cheaper than paying the cable company, and I don’t have to have a chance to watch things on Sunday evenings.
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