TV Habits, Old and New
An Option I Didn't Know We Had a Couple of Months Ago
Unlike a lot of other Minimalists, we still have a tv, and watch it regularly. And yes, it’s a fairly good-sized flat screen Sony Bravia, cost a lot of money at the time, and I’ve never been in any hurry to throw it out the window, even when the programming has been less than stellar. We like to watch movies via Netflix DVDs on a screen that is easy on the eyes. We like getting the news, a few laughs, and watching good movies, and getting a feel for what is going on in American culture and politics–all of which can be had, at least up to a point, by watching television.
But only up to a point. The increasingly annoying commercials and insipid shows have been wearing thin for a long time. The only reason we even had Basic cable was because I need closed-captioning, and captions via antenna reception have always been unstable in this area. Once local channels went from analog to digital, however, the captioning actually got worse! Even PBS stations failed to broadcast many programs that were listed as closed-captioned. And captions on programs have an annoying delay of 5-10 seconds, then all go by in a blur as they catch up to the dialogue. This may be a problem unique to Comcast cable, but I don’t know–hard to compare when there’s a local monopoly. The only way around this is streaming, and since our DVD player was about to bite the dust, it was time to either replace it or to attempt all streamed content–but not both.
Streamed video, however, is notorious for its lack of captioning, whether on a computer, through Netflix or other services, or via YouTube and other online options. In fact, Netflix has been doing such a slow job providing captioned content that they were sued in mid-2011 for not meeting the terms of the ADA, either in the spirit or the letter of the law. They have since stepped up the process in recent months. Hulu, a streaming service that specializes in TV programming, has a pretty good selection of captioned shows, but it’s still only a fraction of their total offerings. Heck, it’s even been hard to get captioned videos of TED talks. And if any of you have put videos on your blogs or courses, chances are I’ve opted out of that part of things.
Nonetheless, we decided to give it a try. Streaming to a TV set requires a “box” such as one from Netflix, a Wii, Playstation or similar gaming device, or dedicated devices such as the Roku, which is what we decided on, as it was the least expensive option. The Roku is a tiny thing, about the size of a small can of tuna. Once it was hooked up, we got online to change our Netflix subscription to Unlimited Streaming, which is $8 per month. The selection of streamed captioned films isn’t bad at all, and seems to be increasing by around thirty titles per day. Hulu Plus is a $8 per month, as well, and is the version that works with the Roku.
We are currently enjoying the series Lost from beginning to end, with minimal commercials, and can finally watch all the episodes of Arrested Development and Dr. Who that we missed when we downgraded the cable service years ago. The Roku also comes with its own Channel Store, with a pretty decent selection of both free and low-price channels, which includes Amazon, many international and foreign-language channels, sports channels, and all sorts of movie and specialized channels. The Roku model we have also came with Angry Birds, and a remote similar to the Wii’s. There are several games available, and the company plans to specialize in $5 games. We are not likely to spend much time on gaming, but it does make a nice occasional change of pace.
Going without network/broadcast TV for the first time in 56 years, however, makes me feel a bit like I’m on another planet–it’s interesting, not all bad, but definitely unfamiliar. It’s certainly a change in my habitual expectations, if not actual habits. Watching what you want when you want it is a very different thing than being familiar with the “TV Lineup,” the TV Guide listings, or the local listings in the newspapers. It’s different than having your viewing patterns shaped by “The New Fall Season” of shows, interrupted by endless reruns of “holiday” programming, sports programming, and Sweeps Week. It’s different than TiVo, too, which still requires an awareness of all of the above.
In fact, this whole change in viewing style has convinced me more than ever that the great machine of consumerism is the problem with TV, not only in the excessive commercials, but in the entire structure of the world of programming: the timing of the shows, the test-marketing, the pandering to focus groups and corporations alike. Anticipation surrounding new shows is built up like Christmas, with advertising and well-placed news articles months in advance, creating a seasonal calendar of “events” that people talk about on Facebook or over the water cooler. When your friends and colleagues are abuzz with talk about Glee, it’s natural to see for yourself what the fuss is all about. And then you’re caught up in it.
Stepping back from the advertising and the viewing calendar makes me feel a little bit like the Clint Eastwood character, The Man With No Name, going off my own way, taking what I want and not taking what I don’t want, and being perfectly aware of the contradictions in my actions without getting overly hung up about it. I mean, I kinda did the same with Christmas–stepped back from the shopping and presents thing and minimalized the time-sucking decorating and forced gaiety. And it was worth it–we had a great holiday season, a mix of relaxed socializing, a family meal, puttering, eating fun food, and watching loads of Lost–all of it on our own terms. Streaming–TV on your own terms–takes the mindlessness out of watching TV without leaving behind the fun, as well.
And I wanna have fun, as much fun as possible